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March 28 2013

13:00

April 25 2012

15:43

Worldcrunch wants to be the Internet’s Rosetta Stone for news

As the translation-based news service Worldcrunch approaches the one-year anniversary of their launch, it’s also tweaking its business approach in three key ways that co-founders Jeff Israely and Irène Toporkoff hope will help it thrive.

Worldcrunch’s central goal is to find news that wouldn’t otherwise appear in English-speaking news sources at a time when U.S. news organizations have slashed their budgets for international coverage. You may recognize Israely, a former Time correspondent, from his regular column for Nieman Lab about the process of launching a news startup. A year in, he’s getting a better sense of what it takes to keep one going.

First, Worldcrunch has plans to increase its output. The most straightforward way to do this, as many news organizations have found, is to aggregate from other sources. But Worldcrunch will do so with a twist: Call it translaggregating — translating what you aggregate.

“That’s going to allow us to really be more dynamic, more reactive, and expand the kind of stories we can produce, and how we can produce them, and when we can produce them,” Israely told me from Paris, where Worldcrunch is based.

One way the site aims to bump up the volume of aggregated material is through a crowdsourced initiative it’s calling “Crunch It.” For now, Worldcrunch is calling on volunteers to nominate articles for translation, “English-ize” them, and vote for the best finished pieces. But Israely said the Worldcrunch team is still figuring out exactly how process will work. He calls the initative “in the neighborhood of crowdsourcing,” but he also wants to put certain quality safeguards in place. Making sure a story is right for Worldcrunch isn’t simply about impeccable multilingual skills — it has to be a story that doesn’t already appear in English.

“They think that content is self-generating, and you just need the tools to filter it, to aggregate it, to monetize it. We don’t agree with that.”

“In addition, the original story itself has to stand up,” Israely said. “It has to be a well written story. It has to be a story that has enough background material that allows it to travel. If Le Monde is writing a story about French schools, and if the story has too many references to things that only French people know, we’d have to transform the story and put in all kinds of context — our partners allow us to adapt the story and add in context when necessary — but if the whole process becomes rewriting and adding in context, it’s probably not a good story for us.”

The second key change Worldcrunch is making: it’s putting up “some kind of metered model” paywall “before summer.”

But even as the paywall goes up, Worldcrunch is shifting away from the idea that its website will be the sole hub for its readers. Arguably the most important development to the Worldcrunch business model is that it’s forging partnerships with English-language publications that will pay for translated content. Worldcrunch is already selling content to the Toronto Star, and is in talks with a U.S. publication about a similar deal.

Here’s how it works: A non-English news organization gives Worldcrunch permission to translate its content. Worldcrunch then posts the translated content to its website, and offers to sell it to English-language news organizations. Those organizations pay Worldcrunch an undisclosed amount, and Worldcrunch gives the original content producer a 40 percent cut.

Israely and Toporkoff see this distribution model as a win-win-win: The original publication gets a much wider audience for its stories (plus some extra revenue); English-language publications provide valuable international news to their readers; Worldcrunch can pay its bills and keep the cycle going.

With the slogan “all news is global,” the site operates with three editors and about a dozen freelance translators. Working with media partners across Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America, Worldcrunch translates about 30 articles per week into English from German, Turkish, French, Italian, Russian, Portuguese, Chinese, Arabic, and Spanish. Worldcrunch aims to do what even the old network of foreign bureaus had trouble doing: providing original, domestically produced coverage for an international audience.

Some examples that stand out for Israely and Torpokoff include diverse viewpoints about the economic situation in Turkey, coverage of tensions in the Middle East, an interview with maligned Italian former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi about his plans to resign, Russian election coverage by and for Russians, and a French-authored article about why French people reacted differently to the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal than residents of other countries. (Israely also points out the benefit of getting original French perspective about more lighthearted topics like perfume and food.)

Press freedom as a moving target

Earlier this month, German-language newspaper Die Welt published a column about a controversial poem penned by Nobel Prize winner and former Nazi Günter Grass (the poem was published in another German newspaper, Süddeutsche Zeitung), and Worldcrunch translated it.

While you could have read about the scandal in The New York Times, that story — published three days after the Worldcrunch piece — didn’t provide the same direct cultural perspective (the Times coverage has a joint byline from Israel- and Berlin-based correspondents). The Times reports that Grass’ views “are relatively common among European intellectuals,” though “strung together” in a way that incited outrage. But Henryk Broder’s column for Die Welt actually articulates those views in the context of the Grass imbroglio.

“The fact that [Grass] is accused of being anti-semitic and here you have the German press — this German writer in the German press — saying he is anti-semitic, and it’s not normal — I think that makes it interesting,” Toporkoff said. “Within Germany, there is debate. We have chosen to publish something that we found very interesting that says a lot about what’s happening in Germany, but also what happened in general.”

Then there is the “meta-example” that Israely gives of an article — from China’s Economic Observer — highlighting the global scarcity of press freedom.

“This was the Beijing paper reporting on this almost over-the-top sort of rabid, gossipy Hong Kong press right before the elections there,” Israely said. “Sort of explaining to Chinese readers how this is what a free press looks like with all its warts, and the beauty of being truly free and going after a candidate and sticking cameras into his backyard.”

Along those same lines, working with a (relatively) independent newspaper out of China can be unpredictable. Though there are certain boundaries he says The Economic Observer won’t cross (they won’t write about Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei, for instance), he has been surprised by how provocative, lively, and sometimes irreverent the paper can be.

“It’s a moving target, because it’s changing before our eyes,” Israely said. “The Economic Observer in Beijing actually does get shut down now and again. The site does get shut down, and our contact there says they’re in the penalty box essentially.”

Israely says that establishing partnerships in the first place is the hardest part. His job is to convince them of a principle that he says was best summed up in a recent TechCrunch article: Whoever creates the best content at the lowest cost possible will create the most value over time.

“It’s a very simple formula, but I think a lot of energy has been spent over the past few years where people — particularly on the tech side, thinking about the news business — they think that content isn’t an issue,” Israely said. “They think that there’s no shortage of content. They think that content is self-generating, and you just need the tools to filter it, to aggregate it, to monetize it. We don’t agree with that. We don’t think that news content just produces itself. It has to be produces and I don’t care about the labels — whether it’s journalists producing it, or in our case translators. But there needs to be a layer of journalism, or layers of journalism, to make it quality content.”

Photo of Earth by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center used under a Creative Commons license.

August 03 2010

14:00

California Watch’s distribution model, by the numbers

In mid-July, California Watch posted the results of an investigation by reporter Louis Freedberg: After surveying the 30 largest K-12 districts across the state, Freedberg found that some were cutting the school calendar to as low as 175 days in an effort to balance their budgets.

It’s an explosive story, one that has resonance for an interest group whose welfare everyone has a stake in: kids. And California Watch wanted it to have as wide a reach — and as big an impact — as possible. To do that, the outlet treated its story’s distribution process as an integral part of the editorial process — to the extent that, if you read editorial director Mark Katches’ detailed description of that process, it’s hard to tell where the one ends and the other begins.

As Katches explained:

As we carve our niche in the California-media landscape, we are finding new ways to reach an audience. If we had one word to describe our distribution model it would be this: flexible. We craft a new distribution strategy for each story we produce, depending on the topic and the intensity of local interest.

I was intrigued, in particular, by the sheer numbers behind the distribution effort. Here’s the breakdown:

Media partners for this story: 20

Media partners California Watch has teamed with since its launch: 70+

Languages the story was distributed in: 5 (Chinese, English, Korean, Spanish, and Vietnamese)

Platforms it was distributed on: 4 (print, web, TV, radio)

Individual shows that discussed the story on KQED, Northern California’s public radio station: 3 (“California Report,” “Forum,” “This Week In Northern California”)

Words in California Watch’s original, full-length story: 1,900

Words in the abridged versions of the story tailored for print publication: 1,100-1,200

Versions of the abridged story: 3 (one for Northern California, one for central, one for Southern)

Words in initial story summary circulated to media partners in advance of publication: 335

Weeks media partners has to edit the story for themselves before its embargo was lifted: 1

And, then, the totals:

Estimated newspaper subscribers reached: 1.15 million

Estimated TV viewers and radio listeners reached: 200,000

Of course, “reached” is a tricky metric; eyeballs are one thing, but attention is another. More interesting to me, though, is how California Watch is doing that reaching in the first place: through a collaboration strategy that could almost be called “aggressive.” In a good way. The outfit is making it as easy as possible for other news organizations to use its content. In the past, that kind of generosity would have been, basically, suicide; now, though, with the influence of the link economy and the journalistic culture coming around to collaboration — and, of course, in California Watch’s case, with a nonprofit model that values social good ahead of financial gain — having content used by other outlets is not just acceptable, but something to be strived for. (Their goal: add at least one new distribution partner for every big new story they publish.) It’s a new model of journalistic impact that reimagines replication as the sincerest form of flattery.

July 30 2010

18:00

WikiLeaks and continuity: What if we had a news outlet exclusively focused on follow-up journalism?

In his assessment of the journalistic implications of the WikiLeaked Afghanistan War Logs earlier this week, Jay Rosen made a provocative prediction:

Reaction will be unbearably lighter than we have a right to expect — not because the story isn’t sensational or troubling enough, but because it’s too troubling, a mess we cannot fix and therefore prefer to forget…. The mental model on which most investigative journalism is based states that explosive revelations lead to public outcry; elites get the message and reform the system. But what if elites believe that reform is impossible because the problems are too big, the sacrifices too great, the public too distractible? What if cognitive dissonance has been insufficiently accounted for in our theories of how great journalism works…and often fails to work?

It’s early still, of course, but it’s all too likely that Rosen’s forecast — the leaked documents, having exploded, dissolving into a system ill-equipped to deal with them — will prove accurate. I hope we’ll be wrong. In the meantime, though, it’s worth adding another layer to Rosen’s analysis: the role of journalists themselves in the leaked documents’ framing and filtering. If, indeed, the massive tree that is WikiLeaks has fallen in an empty forest, that will be so not only because of the dynamic between public opinion and political elites who often evade it; it will also be because of the dynamic between public opinion and those who shape it. It will be because of assumptions (sometimes outdated assumptions) journalists make about their stories’ movement through, and life within, the world. The real challenge we face isn’t an empty forest; it’s a forest so full — so blooming with growth, so booming with noise — that we forget what a toppling tree sounds like in the first place.

Publication, publicity

It used to be that print and broadcast culture, in general, offered journalists a contained — which is to say, automatic — audience for their work. When you have subscribers and regular viewers, their loyalty insured by the narrowness of the media marketplace, you have the luxury of ignoring, essentially, the distribution side of journalism. The corollary being that you also have the luxury of assuming that your journalism, once published, will effect change in the world. Automatically.

And investigative journalism, in particular, whether conducted by Bly or Bernstein or Bogdanich, generally operated under the sunshine-as-Lysol theory of distribution: outrageous discoveries lead to outraged publics lead to chastened power brokers lead to social change. (For more on that, give a listen to the most recent Rebooting the News podcast.) Journalism was a lever of democracy; publication was publicity, and thus, as well, the end of an outlet’s commitment to its coverage. The matter of distribution, of a big story’s movement through the culture, wasn’t generally for journalists to address.

Which was a matter of practicality, sure — as a group, reporters are necessarily obsessed with newness, and have always been stalked by The Next Story — but also one of design. There’s a fine line, the thinking went, between amplification of a story and advocacy of it; the don’t-shoot-the-messenger rhetoric of institutional newsgathering holds up only so long as the messengers in question maintain the appropriate distance from the news they’re delivering. And one way to maintain that distance was a structured separation from stories via a framework of narrative containment. Produce, publish, move on.

The web, though, to repeat its ur-observation, is changing all that. Digital platforms — blogs, most explicitly, but also digital journalism vehicles as a collective — have introduced a more iterative form of storytelling that subtly challenges print and broadcast assumptions of conceptual confinement. For journalists like Josh Marshall and Glenn Greenwald and other modern-day muckrakers, to be a journalist is also, implicitly, to be an advocate. And, so, focusing on the follow-up aspect of journalism — not just starting fires, but keeping them alive — has been foundational to their work. Increasingly, in the digital media economy, good journalists find stories. The better ones keep them going. The best keep them burning.

And yet, to return to the WikiLeaks question, that ethos of continuity hasn’t generally caught on in the culture more broadly — among journalists or their audiences. And one reason for that is the matter of momentum, the editorial challenge of maintaining reader interest in a given subject over a long period of time. Political issues caught in congressional inertias, military campaigns that stretch from months to years, social issues that hide in plain sight — their temporality itself becomes a problem to be solved. There’s a reason why, to take the most infamous example, political campaigns are so often indistinguishable from an episode of “Toddlers and Tiaras“: campaigns being year-long affairs (longer now, actually: Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee are probably digging into Maid-Rite loose-meats as I type), journalists often focus on their trivialities/conflicts/etc. not necessarily because they think that focus leads to good journalism, but because they think, probably correctly, that it sustains their audiences’ attention as election season slogs on.

Which is all to say — and not to put too expansive a point on it, but — time itself poses a challenge to the traditional notion of “the story.” Continuity and containment aren’t logical companions; stories end, but the world they cover goes on. The platform is ill-suited to the project.

Followupstories.org?

While addressing that problem head-on is no easy task — it’s both systemic and cultural, and thus extra-difficult to solve — I’d like to end with a thought experiment (albeit a small, tentative, just-thinking-out-loud one). What if we had an outlet dedicated to continuity journalism — a news organization whose sole purpose was to follow up on stories whose sheer magnitude precludes them from ongoing treatment by our existing media outlets? What if we took the PolitiFact model — a niche outfit dedicated not to a particular topic or region, but to a particular practice — and applied it to following up on facts, rather than checking them? What if we had an outlet dedicated to reporting, aggregating, and analyzing stories that deserve our sustained attention — a team of reporters and researchers and analysts and engagement experts whose entire professional existence is focused on keeping those deserving stories alive in the world?

Sure, you could say, bloggers both professional and amateur already do that kind of follow-up work; legacy news outlets themselves do, too. But: they don’t do it often enough, or systematically enough. (That’s a big reason why it’s so easy to forget that war still rages in Iraq, that 12.6 percent of Americans live below the poverty line, etc.) They often lack incentive to, say, localize a story like the War Logs for their readers. Or to contextualize it. Or to, in general, continue its existence. An independent outlet — and, hey, this being a thought experiment, “independent outlet” could also include a dedicated blog on a legacy outlet’s website — wouldn’t prevent other news shops from doing follow-up work on their own stories or anyone else’s, just as PolitiFact’s presence doesn’t preclude other outlets from engaging in fact-checking. A standalone shop would, however, serve as a kind of social safety net — an insurance policy against apathy.

As Lab contributor C.W. Anderson remarked on Monday: “I wonder what it would take for a story like the ‘War Logs’ bombshell to stick around in the public mind long enough for it to mean something.”

I do, too. I’d love to find out.

Photo of U.S. soldiers in Pana, Afghanistan, by the U.S. Army. Photo of Jay Rosen by Joi Ito. Both used under a Creative Commons license.

April 08 2010

16:00

The future is…fliers? California Watch experiments with a hyper-hyper-hyperlocal distribution model

Last month, California Watch published a big story. “Shaky Ground,” higher ed reporter Erica Perez’s investigation into seismic safety in the state’s public university system, found — among other things — that “nearly 180 public university buildings in California used by tens of thousands of people have been judged dangerous to occupy during a major earthquake.”

The Berkeley-based outfit accompanied the deep-dive investigation with a multimedia package that included maps of various UC campuses and an interactive history of earthquakes in California. They tweeted the story and sent it out on Facebook. They tailored versions of the story for publication in newspapers across the state, including The San Francisco Chronicle, the Orange County Register, The Bakersfield Californian, and The San Diego Union-Tribune. They arranged appearances for Perez on KQED radio in San Francisco and on TV stations in San Francisco and LA.

But they wanted to do more. They wanted to reach members of their immediate, physical community — in particular, the Berkeley students who, every day, attend class in buildings that may be unsafe in an earthquake. (As Perez reported: “No public university in California has more seismically unsafe structures than UC Berkeley.”)

So, as a complement to the story’s web-savvy, multi-platform distribution strategy, the outlet added something decidedly low-tech: fliers. Yep, fliers: the paper-based, interpersonal-interaction-reliant, social-media-before-there-was-social-media method of getting the word out.

Mark S. Luckie — who, in addition to his role as the proprietor of 10,000 Words, is also a multimedia producer at California Watch — designed the fliers, and staffers posted them on kiosks around campus. They also e-mailed PDF versions of the fliers to student groups on campus so they could pass them along to their members.

And then, last week, California Watch editorial director Mark Katches stood outside of the outfit’s offices, on the heavily foot-trafficked stretch of Center Street between the Berkeley mass-transit station and the entrance to campus (it’s “this one concentrated little block,” he says, “where everyone gets off BART, and jams to campus and back”), handing out fliers and spreading the word about the earthquake-safety story and its findings.

“It seemed like a complete no-brainer,” Katches told me. The outlet has made a priority of finding new ways to engage readers (setting up temporary “bureaus” in local coffee shops, rewarding quality comments with iPods, and so on), and sometimes the newest ways are simply tailored spins on the old. As Katches put it in a blog post: “It’s all about getting stories into the hands of people who are impacted by our journalism the most — one at a time, if need be.”

The flier idea was the brainchild of Sarah Terry-Cobo, a freelance reporter at California Watch and a recent Berkeley j-school grad. The outlet’s staff was thinking about how to engage the Berkeley community (“when we published our story on March 18, we hadn’t realized — until it was too late — that our distribution came right at the start of the spring recess,” Katches notes). And, as Terry-Cobo puts it, “I just thought: fliers.”

Fliers on college campuses, she points out, don’t have the in-your-face-and-then-in-the-trash reputation they do in a lot of other places: On campuses, fliers are common. And since colleges tend to be fairly tight-knit communities, there’s a good chance people will want to know the information printed on them. “I just graduated from Cal last year,” Terry-Cobo says, “and I’m the type of person that would take a flier if it were handed to me.”

Which doesn’t mean everyone took the bait when Terry-Cobo did her own flier-ing last week. “I handed out between two and three dozen fliers, in the span of about 45 minutes,” she says. “And for every person that took the flier, there were four or five people who ignored me. And I was expecting that.” Then again, she points out: “Every two or three people you can get to engage makes up for the ten people who blow you off.”

Fliers certainly won’t have impact on the level of, say, a reporter’s appearance on local TV. Still, the core idea here — essentially, that the web is a means for a story, rather than its end point — is, in its way, scalable. Katches points to “Toxic Treats,” a story he oversaw several years ago while he was editor of the Orange County Register. The project, which traced unsafe lead levels in over 100 brands of candy, many of them made in Mexico, was an important piece of investigative journalism by any stretch — it was a 2005 Public Service Pulitzer finalist — but one plagued by a common symptom: The people most directly affected by its findings weren’t necessarily Register, or even newspaper, readers. “So we made a high-gloss, full-color poster, one side in English, the other side in Spanish,” Katches recalls. “And I’ll tell you: That was the enduring legacy of the project.”

For months after the series was published in the paper, Katches notes, “if not years after,” the posters remained hanging in libraries, medical centers, and similar gathering spots around Orange County — a “way to reach people who might not have read it in the paper.”

The flier strategy employs the same kind of logic: get readers, literally, where they are. And it’s also of a piece with the outlet’s fiscal goals. Though California Watch is a foundation-supported nonprofit, its plan for long-term financial stability involves individual reader support. For the outlet, then, “community engagement” isn’t merely a broad, buzzy goal; it’s a specific, and urgent, one. And reaching it will require a willingness to rethink not only editorial models, but distributive ones, as well. “I love the idea of trying to reach an audience in a different way,” Katches says. “And we’re going to try to think of other ways to do that.”

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