Tumblelog by Soup.io
Newer posts are loading.
You are at the newest post.
Click here to check if anything new just came in.

August 17 2012

16:07

Metrics, metrics everywhere: How do we measure the impact of journalism?

If democracy would be poorer without journalism, then journalism must have some effect. Can we measure those effects in some way? While most news organizations already watch the numbers that translate into money (such as audience size and pageviews), the profession is just beginning to consider metrics for the real value of its work.

That’s why the recent announcement of a Knight-Mozilla Fellowship at The New York Times on “finding the right metric for news” is an exciting moment. A major newsroom is publicly asking the question: How do we measure the impact of our work? Not the economic value, but the democratic value. The Times’ Aaron Pilhofer writes:

The metrics newsrooms have traditionally used tended to be fairly imprecise: Did a law change? Did the bad guy go to jail? Were dangers revealed? Were lives saved? Or least significant of all, did it win an award?

But the math changes in the digital environment. We are awash in metrics, and we have the ability to engage with readers at scale in ways that would have been impossible (or impossibly expensive) in an analog world.

The problem now is figuring out which data to pay attention to and which to ignore.

Evaluating the impact of journalism is a maddeningly difficult task. To begin with, there’s no single definition of what journalism is. It’s also very hard to track what happens to a story once it is released into the wild, and even harder to know for sure if any particular change was really caused by that story. It may not even be possible to find a quantifiable something to count, because each story might be its own special case. But it’s almost certainly possible to do better than nothing.

The idea of tracking the effects of journalism is old, beginning in discussions of the newly professionalized press in the early 20th century and flowering in the “agenda-setting” research of the 1970s. What is new is the possibility of cheap, widespread, data-driven analysis down to the level of the individual user and story, and the idea of using this data for managing a newsroom. The challenge, as Pilhofer put it so well, is figuring out which data, and how a newsroom could use that data in a meaningful way.

What are we trying to measure and why?

Metrics are powerful tools for insight and decision-making. But they are not ends in themselves because they will never exactly represent what is important. That’s why the first step in choosing metrics is to articulate what you want to measure, regardless of whether or not there’s an easy way to measure it. Choosing metrics poorly, or misunderstanding their limitations, can make things worse. Metrics are just proxies for our real goals — sometimes quite poor proxies.

An analytics product such as Chartbeat produces reams of data: pageviews, unique users, and more. News organizations reliant on advertising or user subscriptions must pay attention to these numbers because they’re tied to revenue — but it’s less clear how they might be relevant editorially.

Consider pageviews. That single number is a combination of many causes and effects: promotional success, headline clickability, viral spread, audience demand for the information, and finally, the number of people who might be slightly better informed after viewing a story. Each of these components might be used to make better editorial choices — such as increasing promotion of an important story, choosing what to report on next, or evaluating whether a story really changed anything. But it can be hard to disentangle the factors. The number of times a story is viewed is a complex, mixed signal.

It’s also possible to try to get at impact through “engagement” metrics, perhaps derived from social media data such as the number of times a story is shared. Josh Stearns has a good summary of recent reports on measuring engagement. But though it’s certainly related, engagement isn’t the same as impact. Again, the question comes down to: Why would we want to see this number increase? What would it say about the ultimate effects of your journalism on the world?

As a profession, journalism rarely considers its impact directly. There’s a good recent exception: a series of public media “impact summits” held in 2010, which identified five key needs for journalistic impact measurement. The last of these needs nails the problem with almost all existing analytics tools:

While many Summit attendees are using commercial tools and services to track reach, engagement and relevance, the usefulness of these tools in this arena is limited by their focus on delivering audiences to advertisers. Public interest media makers want to know how users are applying news and information in their personal and civic lives, not just whether they’re purchasing something as a result of exposure to a product.

Or as Ethan Zuckerman puts it in his own smart post on metrics and civic impact, ”measuring how many people read a story is something any web administrator should be able to do. Audience doesn’t necessarily equal impact.” Not only that, but it might not always be the case that a larger audience is better. For some stories, getting them in front of particular people at particular times might be more important.

Measuring audience knowledge

Pre-Internet, there was usually no way to know what happened to a story after it was published, and the question seems to have been mostly ignored for a very long time. Asking about impact gets us to the idea that the journalistic task might not be complete until a story changes something in the thoughts or actions of the user.

If journalism is supposed to inform, then one simple impact metric would ask: Does the audience know the things that are in this story? This is an answerable question. A survey during the 2010 U.S. mid-term elections showed that a large fraction of voters were misinformed about basic issues, such as expert consensus on climate change or the predicted costs of the recently passed healthcare bill. Though coverage of the study focused on the fact that Fox News viewers scored worse than others, that missed the point: No news source came out particularly well.

In one of the most limited, narrow senses of what journalism is supposed to do — inform voters about key election issues — American journalism failed in 2010. Or perhaps it actually did better than in 2008 — without comparable metrics, we’ll never know.

While newsrooms typically see themselves in the business of story creation, an organization committed to informing, not just publishing, would have to operate somewhat differently. Having an audience means having the ability to direct attention, and an editor might choose to continue to direct attention to something important even it’s “old news”; if someone doesn’t know it, it’s still new news to them. Journalists will also have to understand how and when people change their beliefs, because information doesn’t necessarily change minds.

I’m not arguing that every news organization should get into the business of monitoring the state of public knowledge. This is only one of many possible ways to define impact; it might only make sense for certain stories, and to do it routinely we’d need good and cheap substitutes for large public surveys. But I find it instructive to work through what would be required. The point is to define journalistic success based on what the user does, not the publisher.

Other fields have impact metrics too

Measuring impact is hard. The ultimate effects on belief and action will mostly be invisible to the newsroom, and so tangled in the web of society that it will be impossible to say for sure that it was journalism that caused any particular effect. But neither is the situation hopeless, because we really can learn things from the numbers we can get. Several other fields have been grappling with the tricky problems of diverse, indirect, not-necessarily-quantifiable impact for quite some time.

Academics wish to know the effect of their publications, just as journalists do, and the academic publishing field has long had metrics such citation count and journal impact factor. But the Internet has upset the traditional scheme of things, leading to attempts to formulate wider ranging, web-inclusive measures of impact such as Altmetrics or the article-level metrics of the Public Library of Science. Both combine a variety of data, including social media.

Social science researchers are interested not only in the academic influence of their work, but its effects on policy and practice. They face many of the same difficulties as journalists do in evaluating their work: unobservable effects, long timelines, complicated causality. Helpfully, lots of smart people have been working on the problem of understanding when social research changes social reality. Recent work includes the payback framework which looks at benefits from every stage in the lifecycle of research, from intangibles such as increasing the human store of knowledge, to concrete changes in what users do after they’ve been informed.

NGOs and philanthropic organizations of all types also use effectiveness metrics, from soup kitchens to international aid. A research project at Stanford University is looking at the use and diversity of metrics in this sector. We are also seeing new types of ventures designed to produce both social change and financial return, such as social impact bonds. The payout on a social impact bond is contractually tied to an impact metric, sometimes measured as a “social return on investment.”

Data beyond numbers

Counting the countable because the countable can be easily counted renders impact illegitimate.

- John Brewer, “The impact of impact

Numbers are helpful because they allow standard comparisons and comparative experiments. (Did writing that explainer increase the demand for the spot stories? Did investigating how the zoning issue is tied to developer profits spark a social media conversation?) Numbers can be also compared at different times, which gives us a way to tell if we’re doing better or worse than before, and by how much. Dividing impact by cost gives measures of efficiency, which can lead to better use of journalistic resources.

But not everything can be counted. Some events are just too rare to provide reliable comparisons — how many times last month did your newsroom get a corrupt official fired? Some effects are maddeningly hard to pin down, such as “increased awareness” or “political pressure.” And very often, attributing cause is hopeless. Did a company change its tune because of an informed and vocal public, or did an internal report influence key decision makers?

Fortunately, not all data is numbers. Do you think that story contributed to better legislation? Write a note explaining why! Did you get a flood of positive comments on a particular article? Save them! Not every effect needs to be expressed in numbers, and a variety of fields are coming to the conclusion that narrative descriptions are equally valuable. This is still data, but it’s qualitative (stories) instead of quantitative (numbers). It includes comments, reactions, repercussions, later developments on the story, unique events, related interviews, and many other things that are potentially significant but not easily categorizable. The important thing is to collect this information reliably and systematically, or you won’t be able to make comparisons in the future. (My fellow geeks may here be interested in the various flavors of qualitative data analysis.)

Qualitative data is particularly important when you’re not quite sure what you should be looking for. With the right kind, you can start to look for the patterns that might tell you what you should be counting,

Metrics for better journalism

Can the use of metrics make journalism better? If we can find metrics that show us when “better” happens, then yes, almost by definition. But in truth we know almost nothing about how to do this.

The first challenge may be a shift in thinking, as measuring the effect of journalism is a radical idea. The dominant professional ethos has often been uncomfortable with the idea of having any effect at all, fearing “advocacy” or “activism.” While it’s sometimes relevant to ask about the political choices in an act of journalism, the idea of complete neutrality is a blatant contradiction if journalism is important to democracy. Then there is the assumption, long invisible, that news organizations have done their job when a story is published. That stops far short of the user, and confuses output with effect.

The practical challenges are equally daunting. Some data, like web analytics, is easy to collect but doesn’t necessarily coincide with what a news organization ultimately values. And some things can’t really be counted. But they can still be considered. Ideally, a newsroom would have an integrated database connecting each story to both quantitative and qualitative indicators of impact: notes on what happened after the story was published, plus automatically collected analytics, comments, inbound links, social media discussion, and other reactions. With that sort of extensive data set, we stand a chance of figuring out not only what the journalism did, but how best to evaluate it in the future. But nothing so elaborate is necessary to get started. Every newsroom has some sort of content analytics, and qualitative effects can be tracked with nothing more than notes in a spreadsheet.

Most importantly, we need to keep asking: Why are we doing this? Sometimes, as I pass someone on the street, I ask myself if the work I am doing will ever have any effect on their life — and if so, what? It’s impossible to evaluate impact if you don’t know what you want to accomplish.

July 25 2012

15:12

Who should see what when? Three principles for personalized news

I really don’t know how a news editor should choose what stories to put in front of people, because I don’t think it’s possible to cram the entire world into headlines. The publisher of a major international newspaper once told me that he delivers “the five or six things I absolutely have to know this morning.” But there was always a fundamental problem with that idea, which the Internet has made starkly obvious: There is far more that matters than any one of us can follow. In most cases, the limiting factor in journalism is not what was reported but the attention we can pay to it.

Yet we still need news. Something’s got to give. So what if we abandon the idea that everyone sees the same stories? That was a pre-Internet technological limitation, and maybe we’ve let what was possible become what is right. I want to recognize that each person not only has unique interests, but is uniquely affected by larger events, and has a unique capacity to act.

If not every person sees the same news at the same time, then the question becomes: Who should see what when? It’s a hard question. It’s a question of editorial choice, of filter design, of what kind of civic discussion we will have. It’s the basic question we face as we embrace the network’s ability to deliver individually tailored information. I propose three simple answers. You should see a story if:

  1. You specifically go looking for it.
  2. It affects you or any of your communities.
  3. There is something you might be able to do about it.

Interest, effects, agency. These are three ways that a story might intersect with you, and they are reasons you might need to see it.

But turn them around and they say: if a story doesn’t interest me, doesn’t affect me, and there’s nothing I could do anyway, then I don’t need to see it. What about broadening our horizons? What about a shared view of unfolding history? The idea that we will each have an individualized view on the world can be somewhat unsettling, but insisting on a single news agenda has its own disadvantages. Before getting into detailed design principles for personalized news, I want to look at how bad the information overload problem actually is, and how we came to believe in mass media.

Too much that matters

A solid daily newspaper might run a couple hundred items per day, just barely readable from cover to cover. Meanwhile, The Associated Press produces about 15,000 original text stories every day (and syndicates many times that number) — far more than one person can consume. But the giants of journalism are dwarfed by the collaborative authorship of the Internet. There are currently 72 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute, which now houses more video than was produced during the entire 20th century. There are 400 million tweets per day, meaning that if only one tweet in a million was worthwhile you could still spend your entire day on Twitter. There are several times more web pages than people in the world.

All of this available information is a tiny fraction of everything that could be reported. It’s impossible to estimate what fraction of stories go “unreported,” because there is no way to count stories before they’re written; stories do not exist in nature. Yet from the point of view of the consumer, there is still far, far too much available. Ethan Zuckerman has argued that the limiting factor in foreign reporting is not journalistic resources, but the attention of the consumer. I suspect this applies to most other kinds of journalism as well; raise your hand if you’ve been carefully following what your city council is up to.

Compared to the news, there is simply very little attention available.

For the single-issue activist, the goal is attention at any cost. But editors have a different mission: They must choose from all issues. There is a huge number of potentially important stories, but only a tiny fraction can be “headlines.” Most stories must languish in obscurity, because you or I cannot hope to read a thousandth of the journalism produced each day. But even the flood of global journalism is a tragically narrow view on the world, compared to everything on the Internet.

How, then, should an editor choose what tiny part of the world to show us? Sometimes there is an event so massive, so universal, it demands attention. Natural disasters and revolutions come to mind. For all other stories, I don’t think there is an answer. We can’t even agree on what problems are important. No single set of headlines can faithfully represent all that matters in the world.

There is more than one public

The Internet is not like broadcast technology — print, radio, TV. But the routines and assumptions of journalism were formed under the technical constraints of the mass media era. I wonder if we have mistaken what was possible for what is desirable.

The first technical limitation I want to consider was this: Everyone had to see the same thing. This surely reinforced the seductive idea that there is only one “public.” It’s an especially seductive idea for those who have the ability to choose the message. But there’s something here for the rest of us too. There’s the idea that if you pay attention to the broadcast or read the daily paper, you’re informed. You know all there is to know — or at least everything that’s important, and everything everyone else knows. Whatever else it may be, this is a comforting idea.

Media theorists also love the idea of a unified public. Marshall McLuhan was enamored with the idea of the global village where the tribal drums of mass media informed all of us at the same time. Jürgen Habermas articulated the idea of the public sphere as the place where people could collectively discuss what mattered to them, but he doesn’t like the Internet, calling it “millions of fragmented chat rooms.”

But the idea of a unified public never really made sense. Who is “us”? A town? A political party? The “business community”? The whole world? It depends on the publication and the story, and a few 20th-century figures recognized this. In The Public and Its Problems, written in 1927, John Dewey provided an amazing definition of “a public”: a group of people united by an issue that affects them. In fact, for Dewey a public doesn’t really exist until something affects the group interest, such as a proposed law that might seriously affect the residents of a town.

We can update this definition a little bit and say that each person can belong to many different publics simultaneously. You can simultaneously be a student, Moroccan, gay, a mother, conservative, and an astronomer. These many identities won’t necessarily align with political boundaries, but each can be activated if threatened by external events. Such affiliations are fluid and overlapping, and in many cases, we can actually visualize the communities built around them.

The news isn’t just what’s new

There was another serious technical limitation of 20th-century media: There was no way to go back to what was reported before. You could look at yesterday’s paper if you hadn’t thrown it out, or even go to the library and look up last year on microfilm. Similarly, there were radio and television archives. But it was so hard to rewind that most people never did.

Each story was meant to be viewed only once, on the day of its publication or broadcast. The news media were not, and could not be, reference media. The emphasis was therefore on what was new, and journalists still speak of “advancing the story” and the “top” versus “context” or “background” material. This makes sense for a story you can never go back to, about a topic that you can’t look up. But somehow this limitation of the medium became enshrined, and journalism came to believe that only new events deserved attention, and that consuming small, daily, incremental updates is the best way to stay informed about the world.

It’s not. Piecemeal updates don’t work for complex stories. Wikipedia rapidly filled the explanatory gap, and the journalism profession is now rediscovering the explainer and figuring out how to give people the context they need to understand the news.

I want to go one step further and ask what happens if journalism frees itself from (only) giving people stories about “what just happened.” Whole worlds open up: We can talk about long-term issues, or keep something on the front page as long as it is still relevant, or decide not to deliver that hot story until the user is at a point where they might want to know. Journalism could be a reference guide to the present, not just a stream of real-time events.

Design principles for personalized news

If we let go of the idea of single set of headlines for everyone based around current events, we get personalized news feeds which can address timescales longer than the breaking news cycle. Not everyone can afford to hire a personal editor, so we’ll need a combination of human curators, social media, and sophisticated filtering algorithms to make personalized feeds possible for everyone.

Yet the people working on news personalization systems have mostly been technologists who have viewed story selection as a sort of clickthrough-optimization problem. If we believe that news has a civic role — that it is something at least somewhat distinct from entertainment and has purposes other than making money — then we need more principled answers to the question of who should see what when. Here again are my three:

Interest. Anyone who wants to know should be able to know. From a product point of view, this translates into good search and subscription features. Search is particularly important because it makes it easy to satisfy your curiosity, closing the gap between wondering and knowing. But search has proven difficult for news organizations because it inverts the editorial process of story selection and timing, putting control entirely in the hands of users — who may not be looking for the latest breaking tidbit. Journalism is still about the present, but we can’t assume that every reader has been following every story, or that the “present” means “what just happened” as opposed to “what has been happening for the last decade.” But for users who do decide they want to keep up to date on a particular topic, the ability to “follow” a single story would be very helpful.

Effects. I should know about things that will affect me. Local news organizations always did this, by covering what was of interest to their particular geographic community. But each of us is a member of many different communities now, mostly defined by identity or interest and not geography. Each way of seeing communities gives us a different way of understanding who might be affected by something happening in the world. Making sure that the affected people know is also a prerequisite for creating “publics,” in Dewey’s sense of a group of people who act together in their common interest. Journalism could use the targeting techniques pioneered by marketers to find these publics, and determine who might care about each story.

Agency. Ultimately, I believe journalism must facilitate change. Otherwise, what’s the point? This translates to the idea of agency, the idea that someone can be empowered by knowing. But not every person can affect every thing, because people differ in position, capability, and authority. So my third principle is this: Anyone who might be able to act on a story should see it. This applies regardless of whether or not that person is directly affected, which makes it the most social and empathetic of these principles. For example, a politician needs to know about the effects of a factory being built in a city they do not live in, and if disaster recovery efforts can benefit from random donations then everyone has agency and everyone should know. Further, the right time for me to see a story is not necessarily when the story happens, but when I might be able to act.

These are not the only reasons anyone should ever see a story. Beyond these principles, there is a whole world of cultural awareness and expanded horizons, the vast other. There are ways to bring more diversity into our filters, but the criteria are much less clear because this is fundamentally an aesthetic choice; there is no right path through culture. At least we can say that a personalized news feed designed according to the above principles will keep each of us informed about the parts of the world that might affect us, or where we might have a chance to affect others.

Photo of zebras in Tanzania by Angela Sevin used under a Creative Commons license.

April 20 2011

16:00

Chasing pageviews with values: How the Christian Science Monitor has adjusted to a web-first, SEO’d world

Editor’s note: At the International Symposium on Online Journalism earlier this month, one of my favorite papers presented was by Drury’s Jonathan Groves and Carrie Brown-Smith of the University of Memphis. They’ve been spending a lot of time in the newsroom of the Christian Science Monitor to observe its transition from a daily print newspaper to a web-first newsroom with a weekly print edition. That transition required shifts in operations, in culture, and in the kind of journalism the Monitor produces.

Their full paper (pdf) is worth a read for its analysis of how those changes were made and what was gained and lost. But I’ve asked them to write a summary of their findings for the Lab. As they write, it’s up to you to judge how much this counts as a tragedy or a success for journalism.

We’ve seen a flood of innovations over the past few years in journalism on the web: from technology and the delivery of news to new forms of storytelling and reporting. But making those innovations happen has been neither fast nor easy. How do you manage meaningful change that sticks? That question drives our research.

Since October 2009, we have immersed ourselves in the Christian Science Monitor as it took the “web-first” mantra beyond platitudes and abandoned its daily print edition.

It was a difficult, wrenching process for many journalists used to the rhythm of the daily newspaper and concerned about the fate of the Monitor’s serious take on the news of the day. But the lessons learned along the way are valuable for any legacy news organization.

Like many newspapers, the Monitor faced a critical moment in 2008. Its national circulation had plummeted from 220,000 in 1970 to 52,000. Revenue was dwindling. And its owner, the First Church of Christ, Scientist, told newsroom managers the paper’s $12 million annual subsidy would be slashed to $4 million in five years. Such moments are fear-inducing and disruptive. They are also opportunities for meaningful change.

Monitor editor John Yemma and publisher Jonathan Wells developed a plan: Remove the shackles of the daily print edition, increase pageviews, and aggressively pursue online advertising. The paper also maintained a weekly print edition that allowed it to continue doing some longer-form journalism.

They set a clear five-year newsroom target: Drive pageviews from 3 million per month to 25 million. And they reached it.

Key to the Monitor’s transformation was having strong change agents who were able to challenge deeply embedded cultural assumptions and push the newsroom toward thinking about things differently — even if it sometimes meant ruffling some feathers. Leading the way were Yemma, managing editor Marshall Ingwerson, and particularly online editor Jimmy Orr, whose non-traditional background in the worlds of politics and blogging gave him a fresh perspective on the news ecosystem.

In news organizations we and others have examined, journalists are often skeptical of change efforts, especially when it alters the way news is gathered and disseminated. As one staffer we interviewed in December 2009 said of the web: “Hopefully, we can be in it, but not of it.” Monitor employees had strong ideas about the paper’s values. Here are excerpts from our interviews with three staffers:

The Monitor story before was a very particular kind of story. You always looked for a larger analytical story on any given news point. You just didn’t do the news story, you know. You always did something larger than that, and you always looked for, to be, you know, to be more analytical about it…

We talk about being solution-based journalism. We don’t go into the fray; we try to push the discussion in a new way that is productive…

…seeking solutions to problems, staying away from sensationalism, analysis and thoughtful kind of assessment of what’s going on rather than jumping to snap conclusions and going for, not so much a focus on breaking news, but more on understanding the reasons, the causes behind the news of the day — I mean, that’s what we aspire to…

Over the course of our study, Orr challenged staffers’ ideas about Monitor journalism, and many recoiled. He pushed for more blogs on the site. He encouraged pursuing items about Tiger Woods and other topics that many staffers felt didn’t fit with the original Monitor mission: “To injure no man, but to bless all mankind.”

The newsroom incorporated a four-pronged strategy:

  1. Increase the frequency of updating, writing several posts on a subject rather than one long story.
  2. Use search engine optimization to find key phrases that would improve a post’s ranking in Google.
  3. Monitor Google Trends for hot topics and sometimes assign stories on that basis, allowing the paper to “ride the Google wave,” as one editor put it.
  4. Use social media including Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr to reach new audiences.

In this process, the organization embraced emergent strategy, an idea some referred to at the recent International Conference on Online Journalism as “failing fast.” The Monitor took an iterative approach to innovation, trying new ideas, and dropping those that didn’t work. Over the course of the study period, the newsroom tried many forms of web content, including blogs, live webcasts, and podcasts. And managers weren’t afraid to halt those items that weren’t garnering traffic. Podcasts, a weekly Yemma webcast, and video didn’t generate the return they’d hoped for, so each was stopped or scaled back.

The strategy helped push web numbers to new heights. By July 2010, the site had reached its 25 million pageview goal. And though many staffers expressed concerns about the changes, success reduced tension. Several noted the greater traffic infused the newsroom with a new sense of relevance. “This revival has been a real morale booster for yours truly,” said one staffer who had been with the paper for more than 20 years. “For a long time, I felt like I was on a losing team. Not losing in the sense of — we had a strong product. But it didn’t have much reach.”

A key factor in the success was a new content management system designed for web publishing. It democratized the process of web production and made it easier for anyone to develop and post new content.

But work remains to be done. Though pageviews have climbed, ad revenues have not grown in corresponding fashion, and the church subsidy will continue to diminish. And the hard work continues, as one editor noted in January:

So I have to do it six, seven times (a day), you know — to think of stories that bring what I would consider our Monitor values to a topic that is not where we normally would have been, and we’re doing it because the public is interested in this topic. So, what do we have to say about it that’s interesting, or clearer, or sheds some new perspective on what’s going on here? And it’s hard. You know, we weren’t accustomed to having to be that instantaneously responsive, and we don’t have the luxury of saying, “Well, you know that story is really not for us.” And when we’ve got pageview targets that we’re all assessed to hit every month, you’ve gotta come up with something on what people want to read about.

Whether the Monitor’s transition can be categorized as a tragedy or a success for journalism remains difficult to gauge. “Riding the Google wave” is difficult for the serious, in-depth international news the Monitor has long been known for. But even the greatest journalism has little impact on the world when its readership is small and diminishing. And today, the Monitor is increasingly injecting itself into the national conversation.

September 11 2010

07:14

Big picture galleries gaining acceptance at newspapers

Newspaper websites historically have never been photo friendly. In the first five years of the active Internet, most photos were compressed to a postage-stamped size of around 15k -30k. They had to  in those promising days of 28K modems, where one oversized graphic element would bring a homepage to a screeching halt.

I think many photojournalists gave the early Web a big thumbs down as a place to display their work. At my newspaper, us photojournalists’ collectively shrugged our shoulders when the “web guy” would say that he posted one of our photos online.  Later requests on my part, to up the size on our online pictures, was met by one photo manager’s insistence that the images would be downloaded (stolen) or mass-produced across the internet. At that moment I gave up trying and, instead, embraced video as my online medium of choice.

Then, several years ago, Boston.com’s The Big Picture blog rocked my world when it launched.  Here, finally, was a large format online gallery that showcased photojournalism the way it should be. The images were displayed in a format that also didn’t frustrate the viewer with slow page loads. The minute I saw it, I knew we had to have something like it for Spokesman.com. Unfortunately our web team was in middle of developing a ground-up overhaul of our CMS, and it never made the priority list.

While I waited, other newspapers around the country embraced the idea of increasing the format size of their photo galleries. The New York Times Lens Blog, Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and many others started big picture galleries.

A few months ago, Ryan Pitts, Spokesman.com’s online director, who was damned tired of my whining, came to me with a surprise. “ I built you a big picture gallery,” he said. After picking my jaw up off the floor, I took a look at what he built.

I was nothin’ but smiles the rest of the day. He gave me the keys, so to speak, to a beautiful Corvette. Behind the scenes, the gallery is really nothing more than a tool that I can access through our web-based Django admin page. I just upload my photos, paste in the captions, add some intro text and a headline, hit save and, drum roll please, instant big picture gallery. The nice thing is, because it is a web-based tool, I can create a gallery from anywhere in the field.

What I like best about our gallery is its clean design. For a long time I pushed the idea of a black background for photos, but our gallery is white and I am fine with that. In fact, I think it is easier on the eyes. I also like how I can pop in drop quotes in between the photos. I am pushing to have commenting on the gallery, which I hope will be enabled soon.

July 23 2010

13:19

#cnnfrontline Mobile and journalism: Part two – some answers to questions

This is part 2 of a couple of posts that develop some of the areas covered and not covered by the CNN mobile journalism panel I sat on at the Frontline.

In a previous post I clarified some of the points I made. I didn’t want to sideline them it was just going to be a long post. So I my touch back on some of that in this post.

To try and keep some shape to the post I thought I would go back and look at the suggested areas given to me for the panel. They are broadly the same as the topic areas on the eventbrite page.

How important are eyewitness reports in news today? In the future.

Of course it’s really important. We can’t be everywhere as journalists so being able to get input from the scene is invaluable, however we get it. Given the subject area of the panel I suppose the context for this is the use of mobile as the tool that gets eyewitness accounts to ‘us’, the mainstram media. The fact that the CNNi app comes with ireport built in illustrates the importance of mobile as a possible platform.

Of course this is where the vexed question of CitJ rears its’ head. I was amused to read in the pre-amble to the event “Citizen journalists and ordinary people are, increasingly, beating TV crews to the scene of breaking news stories.”. Yes people are racing to events but they are also there already. We used to call them victims or bystanders.

What motivates people to submit content to news orgnaisations? What type of people do it?

All kinds of people. All kinds of motives. Some people will do it out of a passion for the story and at the other end of the spectrum, some will do it out of spite. What’s clear is that that they send in to an organization because they have some affinity to it. They send to the BBC because they respect it and want to be part of it. They will take time to post a video to CNN because they may get a chance to be associated with it. That’s where we let them down sometimes. We don’t recognize that and engage. Sometimes we don’t even say thank you. How hurt would you be when someone something you respect let’s you down or treats you badly.

Is it important for practicing journalists to understand and use mobile technology in their work? What does it bring to their craft that’s new, or better.

In a nutshell, yes. If you don’t use mobile in what you do how can you possibly know how to serve and interact with your audience who do.

CNNi’s Louis Gump made a great point when he said that mobile is not just one thing. It’s mobile phone apps, its tablets and ipad stuff and its the mobile web (browsing the web on a phone). I think thats really important in this context. But we also need to add that in a journalistic context it’s also a tool to gather content. Alex Woods had it so right when he said we have to think of a mobile in its individual parts. It’s a camera, a video camera, a web browser and a phone.

That brings loads of opportunities but it also challenges.

It challenges the working practice and professional definitions. Take the mobile web. Louis rightly pointed out the stylistic differences for content online (images and bullet point text). But many journalists balk at that as a change from their ‘normal style’. The mobile phone as a tool is great but what about the feeling of inadequacy when using a mobile phone to shoot video rather than a big broadcast camera (subjugating your ego to small devices as @benhammersly summarized it!)? What about the problem that most journalists pay their own phone bills and don’t want to subsidize their org by paying the data tariff so they can stream their own video?

All of those questions, and the related by-ways of debate they create are, I think, one of the reasons the debate was a bit stale for some. You see, we haven’t really answered those questions. As journalists we haven’t come to terms with those changes. When people in the room are asking if it’s a good idea to specialise or learn a range of these ‘new skills’ then you realise that perhaps the debate isn’t so stale.

Tips on creating great stories using a mobile device?

I’d say consume some content on your own phone. Think about the limitations and your experience. It’s no different from the consumer so put yourself in their shoes then act on your own experience. I would also go back to Alex’s point about thinking about the individual functions- the camera, video, apps etc. The rest is then a case of what you are doing. If you are taking a picture then think about what makes a good editorial picture. That doesn’t change because you are using a mobile. Likewise with video. Yes, some of the tropes of TV can be subverted but the basics work.

What’s the impact of new technology on the business of news?
Obviously there is a huge impact. As I was drafting this post the BBC have just announced that they have  had the go ahead for BBC apps. That’ll put the cat amongst the pigeons. But that aside I think it’s important to look at the different sectors of ‘mobile’ to gauge the impact but in general I think the impact is in capacity. You have to spend money to get the capacity to do mobile – the technology part of it. But there is also your the capacity of the people within your organsiation – the understanding and skills.

Of course you could throw a lot of money at the problem but skills and understanding are often resilient to that. Hearts and minds don’t often change with cash. But time and money are well spent when building capacity and the smart people are seeing it as a medium term thing.

Take the ipad for example. In a quick straw poll of the audience only 3 out of 40’ish people admitted to having an ipad. So why the big fuss about it? Well, one part is the apps which are a big area of development. But for the smart set the ipad is a transitional platform. It’s a place to experiment with HTML 5 for example. Get you offering right on the ipad and chances are you will be a step further down the line when browsers catch up.

The danger is that some orgs will try and bypass the necessary investment by seeing mobile as just another platform to aggregate and dump content on to. Thats a mistake. Shovelware on any platform doesn’t work. Aggregation is something that is better left to your audience to do and not your organization.

How is technology changing the way people consume news?
Whenever new technology comes along it will change peoples habits. Mobile is no exception. But the killer combination is mobile and the rise of social media online. Any stats on mobile app use for example shows the importance of Facebook and social sites Facebook. Look at the fluster around Flipboard and you get an idea of the issues as the relate to journalism.

So if you are a large media organisation looking to develop for a mobile platform then ask yourself what social media elements you are adding? What social media habits are you tapping in to? Do your journalists have the capacity to work in a social media environment.

Perhaps the answer to a business model lies in the fact that if you are not up to capacity on understanding and working with communities then decide what content you can give for free in an app wrapper to get you on the platform. But don’t give it much thought beyond that. You just aren’t ready to make the best of it.

A quick bluster through I know. But it’s a start. I’d love more questions.

June 05 2010

15:47

Hello world!

What happens when you let kids loose with good lighting - they went crazy taking photos of everyone and everything!

It seems we climb forever, striving to reach goals we set and reset and then…

…hmmm

What exactly are we aiming at or for? Are we aiming at a goal to make ourselves better people? More money? More prestige? Are we doing this for ourselves? Others?

Twice I’ve aimed – and now, twice I’ve
Stopped.

The last day of this month marks my last day of employment by Lodi Unified School District. The actual last day of work with students was Friday, May 28.

Somehow I can’t write as I did in my Goodbye to News posting. This move is more of a Hello World – What Next? article. A new beginning with no boundaries…no rules…a world of freedom and unknown choices.

I can finally dig my garden boxes and fence and shape it the way I’ve always wanted to. There are stories to be shot (what would life be WITHOUT a camera in hand? Unbearable). Trips with Newell and trips with Ron. Volunteering (oh year – don’t worry kids – I will be back on campus to hold your hands and guide you). Endless work on the property (fences, gopher patrol to name a few). Try my hand at writing for magazines. Maybe go back into education – this time as a student and aim for the next degree. Watch the sunset from the Drunken Hippo (aptly named because she is so slow and bulky that steering her is just like trying to motivate an inebriated water beast – which she is. Our tiny floating home on the Delta). Oh – and for those of you patiently waiting – finish that blasted book now that I have TIME.

All of that time that seemed too compressed now stretches out in front of me with no horizon in sight in any direction.

I know there will eventually be an end. As I tell my students, we all die. It’s what we do in that brief interlude between life and death that makes a difference.

The difference I make – as a videojournalist, parent, teacher, human being – will not be marked in history books, but in tiny pieces of myself that have touched others through teaching and stories. And in a life I can remember with peaceful content.

…see ya on the road…


May 07 2010

08:42

GOOD NEWS FROM BERGEN, NORWAY

4583175983_1c1f0d8bec

I spoke yesterday at the Bergen Media Festival.

More than 200 people in a full and crowed room with dozens of people standing in the corridors and in the back of the auditorium.

That was good news because next door and at the same time Elizabeth Murdoch was speaking about creativity.

4583177267_b2c27079ee

My 60 minute presentation kay-messages to the Norwegian newspaper editors:

-This is time to invest, change and innovate.

-Just “saving and cutting” will not solve your problems.

-You need courage to lead the digital media transition.

-Full newsroom integration is a must if you don’t want to end with a ghetto company.

-News young generations are not buying your paper because they don’t see compelling content in your print editions.

-Your papers are full of irrelevant content: too much of noting.

-The iPad will not solve your problems if what you do is what you did with the news websites.

-The adoption of new digital narratives are the biggest challenge facing your newsrooms.

-Invest in your newsrooms but only if they change.

Jeff Jarvis spoke later to the same audience live from New York with his standard negative and pessimistic messages and nothing new to say.

A media blogger asked him to be more practical and less generic with his ideas.

My feeling was that Norwegian editors want real change and they don’t buy negative outlooks.

This is the best European market for newspapers and they don’t accept that newspapers will die.

Good journalism is alive, and these editors are ready to change and innovate.

Vikings are tough fighters!

March 10 2010

20:28

I do have the coolest job ever!

Slaps upside the head always come when you least expect it.

“You have the coolest job ever,” said a hockey fan standing behind me admiring one of my photos at the Spokane Arena last night.  I was on deadline preparing to transmit my pictures of a blowout Spokane Chiefs hockey game back to the paper when those six words stopped me cold.

“You have the coolest job ever.”

Up until that utterance, I’d beg to differ.  It had been a long 14-hour day and I was tired. I started in the morning shooting a freelance job. I take extra work now whenever I can.  It helps make up for the furlough days and pay cuts I have endured over the past year.

The economic trauma and turmoil facing my and every other newspaper in the country weighs down on my shoulders at times. When someone asks me why I entered the newspaper biz, I tell them it’s because I have a passion for telling stories.  Like any good photojournalist, I see the world a bit differently then most people. There is a creative energy that burns inside me.  When I put a camera up to my eye, life becomes my palette.  I felt it when I bought my first professional camera in high school and I still feel it today…well most days.

“You have the coolest job ever.”

As I sat there hunched over my laptop, awareness washed over me. Here I was at a hockey game that I didn’t have to pay to get in, surrounded by the best cameras, lenses and laptop that I didn’t have to buy. The only thing missing was a cold beer by my side.

Looking back over the past seven days at some of what I have produced for the readers of my newspaper and viewers of our website, I realize that I can’t let the uncertainty of the future kill my creativity. Today, I put a sticky note on my computer monitor that simply says, “Try Harder.” It is my little reminder  that  (slap upside the head)  I do have the coolest job ever!

These are some of the highlights of my past week– a mix of multimedia and stills.

Several dozen great blue herons were perched on pilings in the Pend Oreille River at Usk, Washington Tuesday, March 2, 2010. Area birding enthusiasts said this is the time of year large groups of the giant birds can be seen migrating and resting in certain areas, such as the Pack River Delta along Lake Pend Oreille. Soon they will disperse in smaller groups to nesting rookeries in cottonwoods or other woodlands near water.COLIN MULVANY colinm@spokesman.com

Tim Michaels, who lost part of his leg in a grain elevator accident holds a wooden foot carving a relative brought him during his stay at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane, Wash.

Videos:

The king of Cat Tales Zoological Training Center gets a root canal.

In the Kalispel Tribal Language Program, new Salish speakers immerse themselves in daily conversation with elders and then teach what they have learned in nearby public schools.

February 22 2010

08:14

Photojournalism in the age of the Internet


I’ve been working on a presentation I will give next month called “Photojournalism in the age of the Internet.” In the process, I’ve been thinking a lot about how much photojournalism has changed for newspaper photojournalists.

With the rise of the  Internet, traditional photojournalists have been faced with a dilemma. Stay a purist to the craft by clinging to their still cameras or embrace the change by venturing out into the online world by adding video and audio to their storytelling toolboxes.

Back in 2006, I was invited to speak about newspaper multimedia at The Southern Short Course in News Photography conference. During some free time, I dropped in on a panel discussion about the future of photojournalism. The panel was made up of a stellar group of veteran, but mostly old-school photojournalists.  The room was packed, so I stood in the side-shadows taking in the conversation.

An audience member asked whether video was something she needed to learn. After a pause, one panel member said, “I don’t know, why don’t you ask Colin? He’s standing over there.”  All 200 heads turned and looked at me.

My answer made many people squirm in their seats. “Yes,” I said. “You need to learn video. You need to add audio to your pictures and yes you’ll need to embrace change.”

I felt a little uneasy as the questions kept coming at me and not the panel. I could sense that many people thought I was crazy. I started to see the panic in some people’s eyes. One woman volunteered that her editor at a small newspaper was requiring her on a single story to write it, take the photographs and produce a video. An uneasy murmur rose in the room. I could tell, my belief that video was important to the future of online journalism, was  a tough sell in this room of die-hard  photojournalists.

Flash-forward some four years. Whereas, in 2006 I was an anomaly, now most newspaper photojournalists produce some sort of multimedia, be it an audio slideshows or video. J-school programs have finally stopped wallowing in the past and are junking old curriculums for new ones that are multimedia focused.

Looking at the troubling position newspapers are in, one must wonder if all this talk of multimedia storytelling really matters. After all the rounds of layoffs, who has time to shoot video?

There are some days I wonder myself, but I quickly shake off the feeling. I have to remind myself that newspapers are awash in transition. As we near rock bottom, the economy is starting to show some life. I can only hope for some stability to return to the newspaper industry.

Today, if I faced a similar crowd like the one in 2006, I would say the same thing. Learn video storytelling, master audio gathering and editing. Embrace change. The future, I would tell them, is not in the printed-paper, but in the digital delivery that will eventually replace it.

Photojournalists are a curious lot. They are independent, visual thinkers. Most take photographs because they love to shoot and share their work. They know they’ll never get rich on this career choice, but instead find happiness in the people they meet and photograph along the way.

The disruption that online journalism has placed on the photojournalist, whose career choice was based solely on taking still photos for newspapers, has been gut wrenching. “That’s not what I signed up for,” is what I often see posted in forums dealing with the changes facing photojournalists today.

The technology being deployed is slowly changing the definition of what photojournalism is. Newspaper photojournalists are becoming multifaceted visual journalists who can now use a variety of formats to tell a story.

As lean as newspapers are running these days, I think we’re about to get a dose of “oh shit” real soon. Circulation is not coming back. Just look at the downward trend of the last forty years as proof of that. Our readership is dying off and screenagers are just not interested in buying the dead trees we’re selling. I think the last transition will be the messiest. More talented journalists will leave the profession. More photojournalists will become freelance wedding photographers.

What awaits those few who make it across the proverbial burning bridge is anyone’s guess. If I could flash forward four years, I can visualize in my crystal ball a world where newspapers have transitioned most of their subscriber base to the touch screen tablet platform that has suddenly gone white-hot with advertisers.  I predict these multimedia centric devices will need a steady stream of visual content.  And guess what?  Visual journalists, who honed their multimedia skills during newspapers darkest hours, will be there to gladly step up and help feed the daily digital beast.

January 20 2010

14:16

“WHY I LEFT THE TELEGRAPH”, A DISTURBING MESSAGE FOR ANY MONOLITHICAL MEDIA GROUP

Greg-Hadfield-Tom-Hadfiel-001

Greg Hadfield, Telegraph Media Group’s head of digital development, is leaving the company.

He explains here the reasons in The Guardian.

A good reading for any “Monolithic Media” gang.

He ends with a great message: the time for innovation and change is running out.

A serious call.

To survive, newspapers need to rethink radically not only their business models, but also how they manage their businesses; they need to overhaul outdated organisational structures; they need to consider how they relate to all their employees, to third-party providers of content and services, and to individuals with whom they may have no contractual arrangement whatsoever.

Most crucially, they need to rethink how they relate to their communities of readers, subscribers, and users, when they know next to nothing about members of their digital audience. They need to identify their most loyal users and then work harder to meet their individual needs.

No longer can newspapers survive by publishing at their readers, by talking down to them, by controlling what can and can’t be written or said. In future, they will have to provide – and share, not “own” – the online environment in which they can meet the needs of individual members of their community. They have to be part of social media, not monolithic media.

But for those newspapers that survive, it is going to be a long journey. Who knows how long? I suggested radical innovation may take five years … because the future always seems to be five years away.

At 53, however, I don’t have as much time as many to wait for the future. I want to help make it happen now.

(Picture by Graham Turner)

December 07 2009

18:55

Why Young Journalists in Big Newsrooms Are Risk Averse

I'm going to tell you a secret about my newsroom.

The 20-somethings there are indeed fast to pick up new technology such as social networking, RSS and the use of Flip cameras. They are also wonderful colleagues, as well as dedicated and intensely engaged journalists. Of course, that's not the secret. What is surprising is that our youngest colleagues are by no means revolutionaries. They're not the ones looking to adopt or push disruptive innovations or invent new formats. That's largely done by people who are well into their 30s or older.

Opportunity Cost

This has puzzled and, I admit, occasionally irritated me. Fortunately, I gained some insight into this issue a few weeks ago while attending the Metanomics show in Second Life. It is hosted by professor Robert Bloomfield and he interviewed blogger, author and economics Professor Tyler Cowen.

Both men are media innovators. At the end of the show, Bloomfield talked about exploration, and he outlined the concept of "opportunity cost," which refers to the cost of the alternatives you aren't pursuing. Here's a bit of what he said:

Rough economic times like these are excellent for exploration. Some of you are unemployed. More of you are probably underemployed. It may sound counter-intuitive, but now is a time for exploration, because your opportunity costs are low.

There is a second meaning to the age of exploration. The very young -- by which I mean the 20-somethings -- are filled with energy, ambition and creativity. But exploration is very expensive for them, because they get so much value from the pursuit of traditional credentials, like degrees from George Mason or Cornell. But if you are listening to this, you are probably in the 35 to 60 range. Many of you could be devoting far more of your time exploring new opportunities -- again, the opportunity costs are lower for you.

I think the concept of opportunity cost can help explain why the young journalists in our newsroom seem to be more risk adverse. Contrast this reality with the persona of the young Internet entrepreneur today. They are celebrated for upending convention. Either they succeed and are applauded, or they fail, which is considered normal in the world of entrepreneurs and startups.

But the 20-somethings entering the newsroom of established media organizations seem to be a different breed. They are also entering a very different workplace environment than the one faced by young entrepreneurs. Within a large newsroom, the expectation and requirement is that young journalists work to acquire the skills and emulate the behaviors displayed by the older leaders within that environment. They are required to integrate, rather than upend convention.

If young journalists choose to revolt against convention, they will likely be rejected by the group. This means isolation within the workplace, or outright dismissal. Pushing the limits of the organization can result in a very real cost for younger journalists. It's high risk, with potentially few rewards.

Common Good

Professor Bloomfield also spoke of another concept that relates to this issue: social good. Here's what he said:

Finally, let me emphasize that exploration is a delight and a privilege that not everyone can pursue...but it is also your duty. Exploration is a social good. Explore to the extent your opportunity costs allow. We're counting on you to help pull us out of troubled times, and give us new ways when we get to the other side.

This means that older generations in the newsroom -- those of us who have been professional journalists for quite some time and have less to lose -- have a special responsibility. We have to explore, to innovate, to take risks. This is beneficial for society, and also for the 20-somethings who want to join us in exploration, but can be hamstrung by existing conventions.

*****

What about your experience? Does the "opportunity cost" theory make sense when it comes to your newsroom or media company? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Roland Legrand is in charge of Internet and new media at Mediafin, the publisher of leading Belgian business newspapers De Tijd and L'Echo. He studied applied economics and philosophy. After a brief teaching experience, he became a financial journalist working for the Belgian wire service Belga and subsequently for Mediafin. He works in Brussels, and lives in Antwerp with his wife Liesbeth.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

Older posts are this way If this message doesn't go away, click anywhere on the page to continue loading posts.
Could not load more posts
Maybe Soup is currently being updated? I'll try again automatically in a few seconds...
Just a second, loading more posts...
You've reached the end.

Don't be the product, buy the product!

Schweinderl