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July 19 2011

17:30

Knight Foundation expands into investment with an Enterprise Fund

It’s easy to use the word invest a lot when talking about how the Knight Foundation funds journalism and information-needs-of-communities projects. Less than a month ago, we were talking about how Knight invests in media innovation with the recent round of the Knight News Challenge winners.

Turns out Knight now actually is in the business of investing in media companies — specifically with the Knight Enterprise Fund, a $10-million chunk of the foundation’s endowment set aside for early investment in companies that promise media innovation.

In some ways, the Enterprise Fund seems like a spin-off of the News Challenge, but aimed specifically at supporting for-profit companies that are compatible with Knight’s mission. The Enterprise Fund, which was officially approved in December, will be investing $25,000 to $500,000 in individual companies — roughly the same scale as what most News Challenge winners received. And the News Challenge allowed for-profit companies to apply for grants. But the Enterprise Fund comes with the potential benefit of a return on investment — which, if all goes well, could have the cyclical effect of boosting more Knight projects.

By investing in for-profits, Knight hopes to create a pipeline to new kinds of projects.

“God willing, we get a huge winner here and it would expand. If we’re lucky enough for that to occur, we would expand the endowment, which would allow us to make more contributions,” said Juan Martinez, vice president and chief financial officer for the Knight Foundation.

Knight already supports a large stable of projects — not just News Challenge winners but grants to organizations like NPR, the Online News Association, and journalism programs at universities (including, it should be noted, us here at the Nieman Journalism Lab). By investing in for-profit endeavors, they can create a pipeline to new projects and systems that could be of use to people through Knight’s network, Martinez said. The Enterprise Fund also could mean an injection of fresh blood into the sometimes insular media innovation community.

“This allows the program staff to get a view for what new companies are out there and what new innovations are being created,” Martinez said. “I think in the long run this will help us understand those kind of market drivers better.”

It will also allow them to shepherd News Challenge projects into the next stage of their development. The sale of EveryBlock to MSNBC in 2009 is an example of how News Challenge projects sometimes transition from grant-funded to the for-profit world. With the Enterprise Fund, Knight will be able to continue to support these projects and potentially see a return on the foundation’s long-term investment. “Venture capitalist provide networks and expertise needed for those companies to expand,” Martinez said. “So as they transition out of the Knight News Challenge and into a VC space, this is a platform to help expose that process for them.”

An example is BookBrewer, one of the first companies Knight has invested in, which began life as 2008 News Challenge winner Printcasting. (Knight also is investing in Snag Films, a documentary film platform, and OwnLocal, which creates advertising, deals, and shopping systems for news organizations.) The initial idea of Printcasting was to create a platform for low-cost, on-demand publishing. Remade as BookBrewer, their focus has shifted from print and PDFs to ebooks to try and tap into the growing demand for content on tablets and smartphones.

But entering the investment game is not without some risks for Knight, which is why they are not working alone, said Ben Wirz, Knight’s director of business consulting. “We’re not leading these investments ourselves,” he said. “We look for early-stage companies that are mission-aligned, do due diligence, and the business side is done by angels and venture capitalists.”

Martinez said Knight knows they don’t exist in a vacuum, that there is a world of experimentation and entrepreneurship in media and technology that could be beneficial to the people the foundation is trying to help. If they can act as a conduit, hooking up for-profit and nonprofit to help support and sustain journalism, that’s what matters most, he asid. “Ultimately what Knight cares about is impact, that our dollars go towards promoting informed and engaged communities,” he said.

May 12 2011

14:00

The newsonomics of old dipsy-doo

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

Fifteen years ago, the Chronicle of Higher Education put up its first paywall. Since then, the wall’s developed lots of cracks — most of them intentional ones, as the U.S.’ most trusted voice on university and college coverage evolves its digital offerings, who it charges, and how it charges. For all the change it’s seen in those 15 years, what’s been tried seems like prologue as the company moves into the iPad and mobile age — and as it tries to figure out how best to drive up revenue in the confusing push-pull of the digital world.

“It’s like the ESPN model,” says editor Jeff Selingo. “We connect the content to what people are actually willing to pay for.” Selingo came to the Chronicle 14 years ago, starting as a reporter, and now oversees an editorial staff of 75. He knows the daily newspaper world, having worked at two before moving into the world of education journalism.

The Chronicle’s approach, while distinctive, isn’t unique. Talk to execs at the Financial Times, Consumer Reports, the Economist, the Wall Street Journal, or ESPN, and you hear the fruits of experience. They talk nuance and flexibility, not all-or-nothing paywalls.

How useful is the Chronicle’s experience to daily newspapers? Yes, the privately owned, 45-year-old Chronicle is something quite different, a high-end trade publication. (Though I do like newspaperman Pete Hamill’s description of the news business as “permanent grad school,” in his recent, highly recommended Fresh Air interview).

The trade, of course, is higher education. These are discerning readers, about half administrators and half faculty, who can be hard to please. As a must-read publication, with little direct competition (although seven-year-old online-only Inside Higher Ed is making a play for its audience and ads), the Chronicle has a market position many dailies would envy. Still a must-use for academic recruitment, from which it derives lots of ad revenue, it depends on circulation dollars for only about 20 percent of its overall income.

That said, it faces the same issues as everyone else in the print business. Three years ago, it had a circulation of more than 76,000, with 71,135 print and 5,157 digital subs. Its most recent count shows 66,000 total subscribers, but 16,020 of those are digital subs. (The Chronicle doesn’t do single-copy sales, but has expanded its site license program to colleges — so some of the “lost” subscribers now get delivery through their institution, but are uncounted.)

The Chronicle, too, is struggling with the increasingly familiar economics of transition, and with the irony is front of everyone in the business: It is reaching more readers than ever, courtesy of the web, but its business is struggling to grow.

So while trade publishing can differ from general news, the questions of how to make that digital transition, how to find workable hybrid models, and what kind of content to make free are fairly similar. The Chronicle has faced many of the same questions on pricing and access that newspapers are now knee-high into. Therein lie most of the lessons to be learned and applied in mid-2011.

It’s not a matter simply of to charge or not to charge, of allowing access to all proprietary (usually local) content or none of it. Or of setting the meter, and leaving it at a 20- or 25-article-per month level. Some of the early tests of paid digital access are stuck in a rut, as conservative experiments have retained large audiences but resulted in too little new revenue to be meaningful. The Chronicle’s nuances give publishers some new tools as some move on to Stage 2, and others are about to begin tests.

In talking with Selingo, who served on a recent ASNE panel I moderated on pay plans, I’ve picked out six key lessons from the Chronicle’s experience, collectively suggesting the newsonomics of the old dipsy-doo.

Why dipsy-doo? It’s a delightfully old-fashioned term, taking us back when people did what they could do to sell stuff. A dipsy-doo is a kind of twist, a zigzag take on getting something done. Starbucks doesn’t sell cooked coffee beans and Coke doesn’t sell brown, sugar water. They sell comfort, a piece of the good life, a good place to be.

News companies have always taken their selling too literally. They thought they were selling news, when in fact they’re selling currency, shopping deals, and packaged convenience. So, in this wannabe golden age of new digital content sales, we need to look for lots of examples of how and what newsy companies are selling. It’s not simply a matter of selling the stuff (staff-written local content) that cost you the most to produce; you sell the stuff for which people are most likely to pay you.

So, with that in mind, six learnings, down that road, from the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Do the print/online dipsy-doo

Check out the Chronicle’s subscription page and you see two choices. One’s a print subscription ($82.50/year) and one’s a “digital” subscription ($72.50/year). Ah, the web’s cheaper than print, you say. Well, no. The digital sub is actually a replica e-edition, complete with the same advertising as the weekly print edition. You get online access to the Chronicle’s impressive site, with either sub. You have to take either the e-edition or the paper one to get the access, though.

You can see the same kind of print/digital hybrid thinking/pricing in The New York Times’ recent digital access pay scheme. By telling readers to pay up for digital access, the Times is leading its most loyal online customers back — the old dipsy-doo — to print. Readers have quickly figured out it’s better to order some print edition and get “included” digital access than to just pay for digital access. Lead customers one way — and then do a quick turn on them.

The Chronicle, with less competition than the Times, doesn’t even feel the need to offer “online-only” subs, though it will begin offering iPad-only subs through Apple’s App Store in June, testing that new market; it has already seen 14,000 downloads of its free app.

Make your wall artful

Selingo says that deciding what will premium (paid) and what free is more art than science. “We’re deciding on a day-to-day basis what’s distinctive.” The distinctive — more than mundane work that readers are unlikely to find elsewhere — may include any kind of story, investigative piece, or data. There is a lot of free content — 40 percent of the site, estimates the editor.

In data lies power

The Chronicle’s front-and-center Facts and Figures section offers lots of in-depth databases (“What Professors Make,” “Who Are the Undergraduates”) and these spur lots of readership. “The power is in data,” says Selingo. “The story [often the lead-in, sum-up] is the promotional piece.” That’s a lesson we’ve heard often from Everyblock to the Sacramento Bee to Dallas’ Pegasus News to California Watch (“The newsonomics of a single, investigative story,“), but one too little implemented at dailies.

“The differentiating factor is how we visualize, how we present,” says Selingo, giving credit to Ron Coddington, a veteran of USA Today and Knight Ridder Tribune, who now serves as the Chronicle’s assistant managing editor for visuals.

Play the clock

It’s not just what you put where, but what you make free when. Selingo says the Chronicle will sometimes put up a big data-impressive project, making it free for a week or two, knowing that its utility will entice readers to come back over time and read it. If they come back, and it’s now premium (or paid), then they’re more likely to pay up. Conversely, some content may be paid at the outset and then become free. The bigger notion: Get readers to use — and come to rely — on the site. Usefulness precedes ability to pay. Sampling is key.

One size does not fit all

Even as it has tested, twisted, and turned its techniques, Selingo believes that a lot more nuance should be tried. He talks about pricing “pieces of content” — packages here and there, some data products, maybe niche internationally oriented modules. The challenges there: deciding what to package, how to package it and how to price it — and doing that without a major investment in time or staff. This is the mastery of the medium- and long-tail to come, probably abetted by dynamic technologies. Why not, I wonder, let readers make their own packages, and enable algorithms to price them?

Work the funnel

The Chronicle of Higher Education, courtesy of the Internet, has an impressive funnel to work, like every other good news company. With Google, Facebook, and the rest of the relationship web feeding news sites traffic at an incomprehensible (literally) pace, it’s a matter of learning how to work that funnel on traffic. At the top end: 1.7 million monthly unique and 14.3 million page views that the Chronicle gets, according to Selingo. At the bottom end: those 66,000 subscribers.

On the one hand, that seems like an awfully small number, not quite four percent. On the other, it represents the huge opportunity of free web access, providing a constant stream of would-be customers — all monetizable to some degree by advertising, and a tiny percentage of whom who will become core paying customers.

It’s no coincidence that The New York Times’ math is similar: Get three percent of its monthly uniques to pay for digital access, one way or another, and the Times would get as many as 900,000 new subscribers.

It’s the new new math — more students needed.

May 05 2011

18:40

How Front Porch Forum Connects Neighbors in Real Life

An awful situation for any parent ... my wife suddenly needed to drive four hours to Boston Children's Hospital to shepherd our son through a medical emergency. He was already in Boston, but Valerie couldn't get out of the driveway. A freak blizzard had drifted four feet of snow across it. If she didn't get on the road soon, the childcare lined up for our younger kids would fall apart. I was out of state and no help at all. What to do?

FPF_homepage.jpg

One simple posting to Front Porch Forum and a dozen neighbors materialized. Wielding snow blowers and shovels, they blasted a path so my wife could begin her journey to the hospital. Her arrival sparked our little boy's turnaround, and now, gratefully, he's home and doing well.

So is this one heartwarming tale important? Well, I can tell you that the news of a neighborhood kid being hospitalized and his mother being kept from him by the big blizzard got top billing that day in our area. Not only did neighbors talk about this story (I'm still asked about it months later), most amazingly, about 2 percent of the neighborhood actually dropped what they were doing as soon as they heard, suited up, and headed out the door to pitch in.

Going local

"Local" is hot in the online universe (or "hyper-local," whatever that means!) -- and for good reason. My neighbors-to-the-rescue story is one of hundreds that we've seen on Front Porch Forum. Thousands more emanate from local blogs, mailing lists, neighborhood websites, and other town-specific Internet outposts. Millions more await the arrival of a successful local online platform.

My wife and I launched Front Porch Forum in 2006 across our metro region after running a precursor for just our own Burlington, Vt., neighborhood for six years. Now, as a 2010 Knight News Challenge award winner, we're rebuilding our platform to incorporate lessons learned, and expanding to new regions.

Over the past decade, I've learned from hundreds of local sites. Some, like Craigslist, have taken over a whole sector, while others, like Backfence.com, informed many, but ultimately failed. To make sense of this growing body of experience, I've examined local sites along dozens of dimensions.

Is Walmart local?

Many tech blogs spin themselves dizzy over the likes of GroupOn, FourSquare, LivingSocial, Patch, etc. They focus on the giant well-funded dot-coms that are national or global in reach. But how can something be "local" when it's coming from far away? As Baristanet's Debra Galant said recently to StreetFight, "Patch certainly rubs all of the independents the wrong way. Patch is part of AOL. (It is) like Walmart coming into main street."

Increasingly, major companies like GroupOn and Patch are employing local sales and content staff in each area where they operate. This stands in stark contrast to the all-algorithm/no-people Google-type model. At the same time, it's more efficient than the traditional newspaper model. For example, Front Porch Forum reaches more households in Burlington than the local Gannett daily, and we employ three compared with its 300.

Aggregators vs. originators: What about the audience?

Several recent commentators divide local into two camps: aggregators and originators. Topix and AmericanTowns are two aggregators, while Datasphere is a network of originators. LocalWiki (another Knight News Challenge award winner) and iBrattleboro are examples of originators, too.

However, this view misses a crucial third source of content ... the locals! When you're talking about a story of interest to only several hundred nearby neighbors, then the community's contribution to the story is crucial. Many aggregators and originators have space for user comments, while other successful sites put the community first, ahead of the stories. For example, Front Porch Forum postings from our neighbors are picked up by local journalists and bloggers every week and spun into traditional news stories.

Who's creating the core content on these local sites: professionals, a few amateurs, or the crowd? Newspaper sites use professional journalists, one-off hyper-local bloggers often have one or more regular amateurs, and other sites, such as Front Porch Forum, get the content from the crowd. We found that half of one town subscribed to Front Porch Forum and an amazing three-quarters of them had posted ... the crowd speaks!

What about community conversation?

A growing list of services offer data aggregated by location, e.g., the innovative Everyblock (and fellow Knight News Challenge award winner). Other sites focus on reporting. Increasingly, these services are coming to realize the value of empowering community-level conversations among neighbors. Witness Everyblock's recent major upgrade to bring social into its mix.

Local secret sauce

chef_photo.jpg

So that's a taste of a few of the critical ingredients to consider when perusing the local online menu. In our decade of local online cooking, we've refined our secret sauce to make Front Porch Forum wildly successful in our pilot region. Half of Burlington subscribes to their neighborhood forums. Even more amazing, more than half of those members actively contribute. Most importantly, neighbor-helping-neighbor stories flow through Front Porch Forum daily, just like the one about the shovel-wielding neighbors who sent my wife on her way to the hospital.

These are but a few of the issues with which to grapple. Others include anonymity vs. pseudo-anonymity vs. real identities, scale, mobile, and lots more. We're currently hosting 150 online neighborhood forums, and our team learns something new every day. Local online is heating up! Stay tuned.

18:40

Design Decision for Local Online News: What's the Secret Sauce?

An awful situation for any parent ... my wife suddenly needed to drive four hours to Boston Children's Hospital to shepherd our son through a medical emergency. He was already in Boston, but Valerie couldn't get out of the driveway. A freak blizzard had drifted four feet of snow across it. If she didn't get on the road soon, the childcare lined up for our younger kids would fall apart. I was out of state and no help at all. What to do?

FPF_homepage.jpg

One simple posting to Front Porch Forum and a dozen neighbors materialized. Wielding snow blowers and shovels, they blasted a path so my wife could begin her journey to the hospital. Her arrival sparked our little boy's turnaround, and now, gratefully, he's home and doing well.

So is this one heartwarming tale important? Well, I can tell you that the news of a neighborhood kid being hospitalized and his mother being kept from him by the big blizzard got top billing that day in our area. Not only did neighbors talk about this story (I'm still asked about it months later), most amazingly, about 2 percent of the neighborhood actually dropped what they were doing as soon as they heard, suited up, and headed out the door to pitch in.

Going local

"Local" is hot in the online universe (or "hyper-local," whatever that means!) -- and for good reason. My neighbors-to-the-rescue story is one of hundreds that we've seen on Front Porch Forum. Thousands more emanate from local blogs, mailing lists, neighborhood websites, and other town-specific Internet outposts. Millions more await the arrival of a successful local online platform.

My wife and I launched Front Porch Forum in 2006 across our metro region after running a precursor for just our own Burlington, Vt., neighborhood for six years. Now, as a 2010 Knight News Challenge award winner, we're rebuilding our platform to incorporate lessons learned, and expanding to new regions.

Over the past decade, I've learned from hundreds of local sites. Some, like Craigslist, have taken over a whole sector, while others, like Backfence.com, informed many, but ultimately failed. To make sense of this growing body of experience, I've examined local sites along dozens of dimensions.

Is Walmart local?

Many tech blogs spin themselves dizzy over the likes of GroupOn, FourSquare, LivingSocial, Patch, etc. They focus on the giant well-funded dot-coms that are national or global in reach. But how can something be "local" when it's coming from far away? As Baristanet's Debra Galant said recently to StreetFight, "Patch certainly rubs all of the independents the wrong way. Patch is part of AOL. (It is) like Walmart coming into main street."

Increasingly, major companies like GroupOn and Patch are employing local sales and content staff in each area where they operate. This stands in stark contrast to the all-algorithm/no-people Google-type model. At the same time, it's more efficient than the traditional newspaper model. For example, Front Porch Forum reaches more households in Burlington than the local Gannett daily, and we employ three compared with its 300.

Aggregators vs. originators: What about the audience?

Several recent commentators divide local into two camps: aggregators and originators. Topix and AmericanTowns are two aggregators, while Datasphere is a network of originators. LocalWiki (another Knight News Challenge award winner) and iBrattleboro are examples of originators, too.

However, this view misses a crucial third source of content ... the locals! When you're talking about a story of interest to only several hundred nearby neighbors, then the community's contribution to the story is crucial. Many aggregators and originators have space for user comments, while other successful sites put the community first, ahead of the stories. For example, Front Porch Forum postings from our neighbors are picked up by local journalists and bloggers every week and spun into traditional news stories.

Who's creating the core content on these local sites: professionals, a few amateurs, or the crowd? Newspaper sites use professional journalists, one-off hyper-local bloggers often have one or more regular amateurs, and other sites, such as Front Porch Forum, get the content from the crowd. We found that half of one town subscribed to Front Porch Forum and an amazing three-quarters of them had posted ... the crowd speaks!

What about community conversation?

A growing list of services offer data aggregated by location, e.g., the innovative Everyblock (and fellow Knight News Challenge award winner). Other sites focus on reporting. Increasingly, these services are coming to realize the value of empowering community-level conversations among neighbors. Witness Everyblock's recent major upgrade to bring social into its mix.

Local secret sauce

chef_photo small.jpg

So that's a taste of a few of the critical ingredients to consider when perusing the local online menu. In our decade of local online cooking, we've refined our secret sauce to make Front Porch Forum wildly successful in our pilot region. Half of Burlington subscribes to their neighborhood forums. Even more amazing, more than half of those members actively contribute. Most importantly, neighbor-helping-neighbor stories flow through Front Porch Forum daily, just like the one about the shovel-wielding neighbors who sent my wife on her way to the hospital.

These are but a few of the issues with which to grapple. Others include anonymity vs. pseudo-anonymity vs. real identities, scale, mobile, and lots more. We're currently hosting 150 online neighborhood forums, and our team learns something new every day. Local online is heating up! Stay tuned.

March 25 2011

14:00

This Week in Review: The New York Times’ fees and free-riders, and tying community to local data

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

Debating the Times’ pricing structure: There was really only one big news story in the media world this week: The New York Times’ paid-content plan, which is live in Canada now and coming to everyone else on Monday. I divided the issue into two sections — the first on general commentary on the plan, and the second specifically about efforts to get around the paywall.

We learned a bit more about the Times’ thinking behind the plan, with a story in the Times about the road from its last paid-content system, TimesSelect, to this one, and an All Things Digital interview with Times digital chief Martin Nisenholtz, in which he said, among other things, that the Times didn’t consider print prices when setting their online price levels. Former Times designer Khoi Vinh also looked at the last couple of years, lamenting the lost opportunity for innovation and the legacy of TimesSelect.

There were a couple pieces written supporting the Times’ proposal: Former CBS digital head Larry Kramer said he’d be more likely to pay for the Times than for the tablet publication The Daily, even though it’s far more expensive. The reason? The Times’ content has consistently proven to be valuable over the years. (Tech blogger John Gruber also said the Times’ content is much more valuable than The Daily’s, but wondered if it was really worth more than five times more money.) Nate Silver of Times blog FiveThirtyEight used some data to argue for the Times’ value.

The Times’ own David Carr offered the most full-throated defense of the pay plan, arguing that most of the objection to it is based on the “theology” of open networks and the free flow of information, rather than the practical concerns involved with running a news organization. Reuters’ Felix Salmon countered that the Times has its own theology — that news orgs should charge for content because they can, and that it will ensure their success. Later, though, Salmon ran a few numbers and posited that the paywall could be a success if everything breaks right.

There were more objections voiced, too: Both Mathew Ingram of GigaOM and former newspaper journalist Janet Coats both called it backward-looking, with Ingram saying it “seems fundamentally reactionary, and displays a disappointing lack of imagination.” TechDirt’s Mike Masnick ripped the idea that people might have felt guilty about getting the Times for free online.

One of the biggest complaints revolved around the Times’ pricing system itself, which French media analyst Frederic Filloux described as “expensive, utterly complicated, disconnected from the reality and designed to be bypassed.” Others, including Ken Doctor, venture capitalist Jean-Louis Gassee, and John Gruber, made similar points about the proposal’s complexity, and Michael DeGusta said the prices are just too high. Poynter’s Damon Kiesow disagreed about the plan structure, arguing that it’s well-designed as an attack on Apple’s mobile paid-content dominance.

Are paywall loopholes a bug or feature?: Of course, any barrier online is also a giant, flashing invitation to get around said barrier, and someplace as influential as the Times was not going to be an exception. Several ways to bypass the Times’ pay system popped up in the last week: There was @FreeNYT, the Twitter account that will aggregate Times content shared on Twitter, and NYTClean, a browser bookmarklet that strips the Times’ paywall coding, allowing you to read the Times just like normal. The Lab’s Josh Benton noted how easy the hack was to come up with (four lines of code!) and speculated that the Times might actually want nerds to game their system, “because they (a) are unlikely to pay, (b) generate ad revenue, and (c) are more likely to share your content than most.”

So how has the Times responded to all this? A bit schizophrenically. Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. said the people who would find ways around the system would be “mostly high-school kids and people who are out of work.” And the Times asked Twitter to shut down the aggregating Twitter accounts (for a trademark violation) and extended its limit on daily search-engine referrals beyond Google. But the Times is also widening some pathways of its own, making it so you can’t hit the wall directly from a blog link, and offering 200,000 regular readers free online access for the rest of the year through an advertiser.

Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan mocked the Times’ behavior toward wall-jumpers as an effort to have its paid-content cake and eat it too: “This wall is designed, as best I can tell, only to be a barrier to your most loyal — and most stupid — readers.” Slate’s Jack Shafer made a similar argument to Benton’s, pointing out that online free-riders aren’t keeping paying customers from reading the Times (like, say, someone who steals a paper edition, as Sulzberger analogized) and are actually help the paper continue its influence and reach.

Adding community to local data: EveryBlock, a three-year-old site owned by MSNBC.com that specializes in hyperlocal news data, unveiled its first major redesign this week, which includes a shift in focus toward community and location-based conversation, rather than just data. All place pages now allow users to post messages to those nearby, using what founder Adrian Holovaty called the “geo graph,” rather than the “social graph.” Mashable added a few valuable details (notably, the site will bring in revenue from location-based Groupon displays and Google ads).

Holovaty answered a lot of questions about the redesign in a Poynter chat, saying that the site’s mission has changed from making people informed about their area as an end in itself to facilitating communication between neighbors in order to improve their communities. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram applauded the shift in thinking, arguing that the main value in local news sites is in the people they connect, not in the data they collect. At 10,000 Words, Jessica Roy noted that the change was a signal that hyperlocal sites should focus not just on the online realm, but on fostering offline connections as well.

NPR on the defense: Two weeks on, the hidden-camera attack on NPR continues to keep it in the middle of the news conversation. Following last week’s vote by the House to cut off NPR’s limited federal funding, several media folks made cases to keep NPR’s federal funding alive, including the Washington Post’s Len Downie and Robert Kaiser and Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark. NPR host Steve Inskeep argued that NPR’s most important work has nothing to do with any liberal/conservative bias. “Think again of my colleagues in Libya, going forward to bear witness amid exploding shells. Is that liberal or conservative?” he asked.

Elsewhere, James O’Keefe, the producer of the gotcha video, and Bob Garfield of NPR’s On The Media had it out on the air, and DailyFinance gave a picture of NPR’s financial situation. Howard Kurtz of Newsweek and The Daily Beast wrote that some NPR journalists think that NPR management’s passive, reactionary defense of their organization is damaging it almost as much as the attacks themselves.

Reading roundup: Not too busy of a week in the media world outside of Timesmania. A few things to take note of:

— A quick news item: Journalism Online, Steve Brill’s initiative to help media companies charge for their content online, is being snatched up by the Fortune 500 printer RR Donnelley, reportedly for at least $35 million. PaidContent broke the story, and Ken Doctor wrote about the unexpected difficulties the startup encountered.

— At the New York Review of Books, Steve Coll wrote a thoughtful piece on the competing claims regarding technology’s role in social change.

— For the stat nerds: The Lab’s Josh Benton looked at the latest of the continual stream of depressing graphs flowing from the newspaper industry, and Peter Kafka of All Things Digital analyzed the source of traffic for some major sites across the web, comparing the influence of Facebook and Google.

— For the academic nerds: Here at the Lab, USC Ph.D. candidate Nikki Usher talked to media sociology rock star Herbert Gans about targeted and multiperspectival news, and Michigan Ph.D. candidates William Youmans and Katie Brown shared a fascinating study about Al Jazeera and bias perception.

March 11 2011

15:00

This Week in Review: NPR at a crossroads, hyperlocal’s personal issue, and keeping comments real

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

A bad week for NPR execs named Schiller: For the second time in five months, NPR has found itself in the middle of a controversy that’s forced it to wrestle with issues of objectivity, bias, and its own federal funding. This one started when the conservative prankster James O’Keefe orchestrated a hidden-camera video of a NPR fundraising exec bashing Tea Partiers and generally straying from the NPR party line while meeting with people pretending to represent a Muslim charity. (The “donors” also met with PBS, but their people didn’t take the bait.)

Reaction was mixed: The right, of course, was outraged, though others like Slate’s Jack Shafer and Gawker’s John Cook downplayed the significance of the video. NPR was outraged, too — “appalled,” actually, with 21 journalists condemning the remarks. CEO Vivian Schiller said she was upset and that the two execs had put on administrative leave, but within about 12 hours, however, Schiller herself had been forced out by NPR’s board. The New York Times has good background on the shocking turn of events, and Poynter summarized the six months of controversy that led up to this, stretching back to Juan Williams’ firing (the American Journalism Review’s Rem Rieder called Schiller’s ouster “Williams’ revenge”).

Reaction to NPR’s handling of the situation was decidedly less mixed — and a lot more scathing. In a chat and column, NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard ripped just about all parties involved, and the online response from media-watchers was just as harsh. NYU j-prof Jay Rosen called it “profoundly unjust,” and several others blasted NPR’s leadership.

The Awl’s Choire Sicha called NPR’s management “wusses,” CUNY j-prof Jeff Jarvis called the NPR board “ballless” and said the episode exposes the difference between NPR and the stations who run it, ex-Saloner Scott Rosenberg lamented NPR’s allowing the O’Keefes of the world to take over public discourse, and Rosen and Northeastern j-prof Dan Kennedy told NPR to start fighting back. The Columbia Journalism Review’s Joel Meares put it best, saying the fiasco “exposes them as an organization that is fundamentally weak — too concerned about its image to realize that ‘surrender’ is not always the best option.”

The episode also stoked the fires of the perpetual debate over whether public radio should keep its federal funding. The Atlantic’s Chris Good looked at the political aspects of the issue, and The Christian Science Monitor examined whether public radio stations would survive without federal money. A few calls to defund public radio came from outside the traditional (i.e. conservative) places, with Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan and media analyst Alan Mutter arguing that NPR will be in an untenable situation as a political football as long as they’re getting federal funds. Meanwhile, here at the Lab, USC’s Nikki Usher did give some encouraging information from the whole situation, looking at Schiller’s legacy of digital and local innovation during her NPR tenure.

Making hyperlocal news personal: AOL continued its move into local news late last week, as it bought the hyperlocal news aggregator Outside.in. In an excellent analysis at the Lab, Ken Doctor argued that the purchase is a way for AOL to get bigger quickly, particularly by bulking up Patch’s pageviews through cheap local aggregation tools. ReadWriteWeb’s Marshall Kirkpatrick took the opportunity to ask why hyperlocal news technology services like Outside.in, Everyblock, and Fwix haven’t been as useful as we had hoped.

Mathew Ingram of GigaOM posited an answer: Hyperlocal journalism only works if it’s deeply connected with the community it serves, and those technologies aren’t. Without that level of community, “AOL is pouring money into a bottomless pit,” he wrote. The Knight Digital Media Center’s Amy Gahran said that might be where local news organizations can step in, focusing less on creating news articles and more on using their community trust to make local information useful, relevant and findable.

Elsewhere on the cheap-content front: All Things Digital reported that AOL is laying off hundreds of employees (including the widely expected gutting of several of its news sites), and Business Insider snagged the memo. Wired talked to two Google engineers about its anti-content farm changes, and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales said good content is created either by passionate fans or by proper journalists being paid a fair amount. But, he said, “paying people a very low amount of money to write about stuff they don’t care about — that doesn’t work.” And Dan Conover at Xark warned against turning content — especially hyperlocal — into a franchise formula.

Accountability and authenticity in online comments: TechCrunch was one of the first companies to try out Facebook’s new commenting system, and after about a week, MG Siegler noted that the number of the site’s comments had decreased, and they’d also gone from nasty to warm and fuzzy. Entrepreneur Steve Cheney proposed a reason why the comments were so “sterile and neutered”: Facebook kills online authenticity, because everyone is self-censoring their statements to make sure their grandmas, ex-girlfriends, and entire social network won’t be offended.

Tech guru Robert Scoble disagreed, arguing that TechCrunch’s comments have improved, and people know real change and credibility only comes from using their real identities. Slate’s Farhad Manjoo made a somewhat similar argument, eloquently making the case for the elimination of anonymous commenting. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram weighed in by saying that Facebook can’t make or break comments — it all depends on being involved in an actual conversation with users. He pointed to a brilliant post by NPR’s Matt Thompson, who gave numerous tips on cultivating community in comments; much it went back to the idea that “The very best filter is an empowered, engaged adult.”

Meanwhile, Joy Mayer of the Reynolds Journalism Institute got some advice on cultivating online reader engagement from the Wall Street Journal’s (and formerly the Lab’s) Zach Seward, and the Lab’s Megan Garber reported on the results of some research into which stories are the most liked and shared on Facebook.

More paywall test cases: Newspapers continue to pound the paywall drumbeat, with the CEO of newspaper chain Gannett saying the company is experimenting with various pay models in anticipation of a potential one-time company-wide rollout and the Dallas Morning News rolling out its own paywall this week. Ken Doctor crunched the numbers to try to gauge the initiative’s chances, and media consultant Mike Orren disagreed with the News’ idea of how much a metro newspaper’s operation should cost.

Elsewhere, Reuters’ Felix Salmon made the case that Britain’s Financial Times’ paywall strategy has contributed to its decline, writing, “the FT strategy is exactly the strategy I would choose if I was faced with an industry in terminal decline, and wanted to extract as much money as possible from it before it died.” Meanwhile, The New York Times’ public editor, Arthur Brisbane, chided the Times for not aggressively covering news of its own paywall, and Mathew Ingram of GigaOM called paywalls a futile attempt to hold back the tide of free online content.

Reading roundup: Some things to read in between SXSW Interactive panels:

— New York Times executive editor Bill Keller wrote a rather odd little column taking shots at news and opinion aggregators, especially Arianna Huffington. Everyone then took shots at his column, including Huffington, TechDirt’s Mike Masnick, GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram, and Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan.

— Newsweek published its first redesigned issue under The Daily Beast’s Tina Brown this week. The Society of Publication Designers had a look at the issue, which Slate’s Jack Shafer panned. The New York Times noted the issue’s familiar bylines.

— A few Apple-related notes: At MediaShift, Susan Currie Sivek looked at the impact of Apple’s 30-percent app subscription cut on small magazines, and Poynter’s Damon Kiesow urged Apple-fighting publishers to move to the open web, not Android-powered tablets. GigaOM’s Om Malik joined the chorus of people calling for iPad apps to be reimagined.

— Two great posts at the Lab on search engine optimization: Richard J. Tofel on why the web will be better off with the decline of SEO, and Martin Langeveld on the SEO consequences of including paid links on sites.

— Former Guardian digital chief Emily Bell gave a fantastic interview to CBC Radio about various future-of-news issues, and Mathew Ingram summarized a talk she gave on newspapers and the web.

— Finally, two must-reads: The Atlantic’s James Fallows wrote a thoughtful essay arguing that we should take the contemporary journalism environment on its own terms, rather than unfairly comparing it to earlier eras. And at the Lab, former St. Pete Times journalist and current Nebraska j-prof Matt Waite called news developers to let the old systems go and “hack at the very core of the whole product.”

February 17 2011

18:30

How public is public data? With Public Engines v. ReportSee, new access standards could emerge

A recently settled federal court case out in Utah may affect the way news organizations and citizens get access to crime data.

Public Engines, a company that publishes crime statistics for law enforcement agencies, sued ReportSee, which provides similar services, for misappropriating crime data ReportSee makes available on CrimeReports.com. In the settlement, ReportSee is barred from using data from Public Engines, as well as from asking for data from agencies that work with Public Engines.

At first glance, the companies seem virtually identical, right down to their similar mapping sites CrimeReport.com (Public Engines) and SpotCrime.com (ReportSee). The notable exception is that Public Engines contracts with police and sheriff departments for its data and provides tools to manage information. ReportSee, on the other hand, relies on publicly available feeds.

In the settlement between the two websites, a new question arises: Just what constitutes publicly available data? Is it raw statistics or refined numbers presented by a third party? Governments regularly farm out their data to companies that prepare and package records, but what stands out in this case is that Public Engines effectively laid claimed to the information provided to it by law enforcement. This could be problematic to news organizations, developers, and citizens looking to get their hands on data. While still open and available to the public, the information (and the timing of its release) could potentially be dictated by a private company.

“The value in this kind of crime data is distributing it as quickly as possible so the public can interact with it,” Colin Drane, the founder of SpotCrime, told me.

In its news release on the settlement, Public Engine notes that it works with more than 1,600 law enforcement agencies in the US. Greg Whisenant, CEO of Public Engines, said in the statement that the company is pleased with the outcome of the case, concluding, “The settlement ushers in a new era of transparency and accessibility for the general public. It clearly validates our perspective that law enforcement agencies should retain the right to manage and control the data they decide to share.”

Naturally, Drane sees things differently. “I just don’t think people recognize that the data is being, essentially, privatized,” he said.

That may be a slight exaggeration, evidenced by the fact that SpotCrime is still operating. Instead of signing contracts with law enforcement agencies, SpotCrime requests data that is available for free and runs ads on its map pages. The company also partners with local media to run crime maps on news sites.

Through Drane sought to create a business through data mapping, his methods are largely similar to those of news organizations, relying on open data and free mapping tools. And just like news organizations, Drane finds that the hardest part of the job can be negotiating to get records.

“The technology has been here for years, but the willingness to use it is just starting for many cities,” Drane said.

The open data movement has certainly exploded in recent years, from property and tax records at the municipal level all the way up to Data.gov. As a result, news organizations are not only doing data-backed reporting, but also building online features and news apps. And news organizations are not alone, as developers and entrepreneurs like Drane are mining open datasets to try to create tools and fill information needs within communities.

I asked David Ardia of the Citizen Media Law Project whether this case could hinder development of more data products or have broader ramifications for journalists and citizens. The short answer is no, he said, since no ruling was issued. But Public Engines could be emboldened to take action against competitors, Ardia noted — and, as a result, developers looking to do something similar to what Drane has done may think twice about using public data.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” Ardia said. “There are tremendous amounts of money to be made in government information and data.”

In this case, Public Engines saw crime data as a proprietary product — and Dane’s company as infringing on their contract. It also claimed misappropriation of the hot news doctrine, arguing that it gathers and publishes information in a timely manner as part of its business. (An interesting link Ardia points out: On its FAQ page, CrimeReports.com says it does not make crime data downloadable “to the general public for financial and legal reasons.”)

Ardia said the larger question is twofold: first, whether government agencies will let third parties exert control over public data, and, second, who can access that data. As more local and state departments use outside companies to process records, tax dollars that go towards managing data are essentially paid to limit access to the public. Drane and his company were barred from using or asking to use public crime data in certain cities: If crime data is the property of a third party, the police department could either direct people to CrimeReports.com or, Ardia worries, say that it’s not free to make the information available to others.

“This is a problematic trend as governments adapt to and adopt these technologies that improve their use and analysis of information,” Ardia said.

Obviously all of this runs counter to established practice for public records and data in journalism, and Ardia said that it’s likely the issue won’t be settled until a case similar to Public Engines v. ReportSee makes its way to the courts. (We should have a better view of how the hot news doctrine holds up overall, though, after an appeals court rules on the FlyOnTheWall case.) But a better option could be to adapt current open records laws to reflect changes in how data is stored, processed, and accessed, Ardia said. Businesses and developers should be able to build products on a layer of public data, he said, but not exclusively — or at the expense of greater access for the broader public.

“We don’t have to wait for the courts to resolve this. Part of this can be addressed through changes in open records laws,” Ardia said. “Put the onus on agencies to make this data available when they sign agreements with third parties.”

October 27 2010

14:00

Metrics, impact, and business plans: Things to watch for as the Knight News Challenge enters a new cycle

In recent years, it’s been something of a parlor game in future-of-journalism circles to speculate about the $25 million Knight News Challenge: Who’s going to win this year? What are the judges looking for, exactly? And, whoa, how on earth did that finalist get passed up? (On that last question, see CoPress in 2009; e.g., read the comments on this post.)

The buzz and chatter are mostly just idle guesswork, and of course it’s all to be expected when serious money (think: $5 million for MIT, $1 million for EveryBlock) is on the line. (Indeed, there’s an extra $1 million on the table this year, thanks to Google’s donation to journalism innovation announced yesterday.)

So, that’s why this year, the fifth installment of the Knight News Challenge, already feels a little different. In years past, the Knight Foundation has approached the News Challenge with a “hey, we’re not the experts — you tell us what’s innovative” kind of attitude, purposefully leaving the door open to just about any submission, assuming that it met certain basic requirements of geographic community focus, open-source software, and so on. With the exception of some tweaking along the way, the general focus of the News Challenge remained the same: to stimulate innovation in the name of making communities better informed. Simple enough.

But this year, even though the KNC’s general pitch remains the same, applicants will make their submissions in one of four categories: Mobile, Authenticity, Sustainability, or Community. Only the Community category requires a place-based geographical focus, which marks a significant break from previous cycles where all projects had to be tested in a local community. Overall, the categorization scheme lends some direction — even a certain narrowing — of the contest, and it suggests that Knight has learned a few things over the past four years that it’s going to apply in this final go-round, to get a more focused pool of contenders.

And that’s where this post comes in, on the question of lessons learned. At the risk of contributing more baseless speculation to this parlor game, I’d like to share some insights I gained during the past year as I examined the News Challenge — and the Knight Foundation more generally — for my doctoral dissertation at the University of Texas. (I’m now a journalism professor at the University of Minnesota.)

For starters, you can read the full text of my dissertation (“Journalism Innovation and the Ethic of Participation: A Case Study of the Knight Foundation and its News Challenge“) by going here, or by reading the embedded Scribd file below. If you’re looking for the highlights, skip to page 182 and read the last chapter (Participation and the Professions). Quick tip: This is generally a good way to go when trying to interpret academic articles — look for that “discussion and conclusion” section toward the end.

I described some of my key findings in an earlier Lab post. But with regard to the changes in the KNC for 2011, here are several observations from my time studying the Knight Foundation that might fill in some of the context:

Knight cares intensely about evaluation

This is increasingly true of all nonprofit foundations, really — not just the Knight Foundation. But it was striking to see the extent to which the foundation is working to assess the impact and effectiveness of its funding efforts, through an ongoing “deep review” of its mission and goals. A major part of this review: an examination of the Knight News Challenge after its first three cycles (2007-09). This included a massive content analysis of nearly all proposal documents — resulting in a data set that I analyzed as my part of my project (see Chapter 6 of my dissertation) — and interviews, conducted by outside consultants, with many KNC grantees. At one level, there’s the basic assessment of seeing if grantees’ outcomes matched their goals. At another, there is the big question of reach and influence. For nonprofits funding myriad online sites, as Knight does, at least part of that means reviewing web metrics: traffic, unique visitors, etc. All foundations want metrics to justify their investment — and now more than ever.

So, what does this emphasis on evaluation mean for News Challenge applicants this year? Well, it suggests that in a world where user behaviors are easier to track and analyze than ever before, and thus funders of all stripes (for-profit and nonprofit alike) are hungry for good numbers, having a plan for web metrics — for reaching quantifiable and identifiable targets — is probably going to be more important than in previous cycles.

Is this the News Challenge on SEO steroids? Not exactly, but you get the idea. And this gets to the second point, which is…

Is citizen journalism out? Are business models (and the like) in?

There was an interesting quote in recent coverage of KNC changes that got some attention. It was from Jennifer 8. Lee, a Knight consultant and contest reviewer:

We’re not totally into the citizen journalism thing anymore. It has been given its chance to do its thing and kind of didn’t do its thing that well.

Now, Lee was quick to clarify that she was speaking only for herself, and that the KNC is open to citizen media approaches — just not the kind of generic and repetitive pitches that have populated the pool of applicants recently (think: Flip cams for urban youth):

The contest welcomes content or citizen journalism projects. Innovative content or community reporting models can and do get funded…Since innovation is a core value of the contest, traditional content and citizen journalism projects lacking in innovation were generally not looked upon favorably by contest reviewers.

But, nonetheless, this statement is telling because it gets at a key focus of my dissertation: how Knight has dealt with participation in journalism. In my study of the first three years of the News Challenge, I found that the foundation and its KNC winners championed citizen participation in the news process as something that should happen, not merely something that could happen because of new technologies. Participation was portrayed as an ethic of good journalism in the digital age, a foundational piece of journalism innovation.

So, does that square with the notion of we’re not so into citizen journalism anymore? Perhaps there’s a better way to think about this: Knight has already funded lots of citizen media projects, and the evidence — based on my interviews with KNC winners and overall analysis — suggests that many of these sites struggled to build and maintain a base of users. On the one hand, that’s perfectly understandable: Some of these projects were meant to be short-term in duration; Knight knew many of them would fail, because that’s the nature of innovation; and, hey, in the attention economy, it’s tough for any content provider these days, right? Yet, on the other hand, this struggle to get attention — from citizen contributors and audiences alike — was a formidable challenge for many of the early KNC projects, and, well, it just so happened that many of those early projects happened to be citizen media sites. As a result, citizen journalism comes off looking like a failure, even if the motivation behind it was well intentioned and still well regarded in Knight circles.

The lesson here: Going forward, with this ramped-up emphasis on evaluation and impact, and with apparent concerns about citizen journalism’s sustainability, it would seem that Knight wants to see applicants with a clearer path to success, especially in web metrics. Or, perhaps there’s another way to read this: In a media ecosystem awash in sites pushing content — read our blogs! watch our videos! — with less thought about how that content gets subsidized on a regular basis, Knight wants a better business plan. It wants a sustainable model. After all, there’s a reason it hired a director of business consulting.

David Sasaki, of the 2007 KNC winner Rising Voices, might have captured this problem best in this prescient blog post from 2008:

The Knight Foundation is single-handedly making citizen media both more serious and more respected by giving financial support to some of the field’s most innovative thinkers. But is this a sustainable model for the transformation of media? What happens when the News Challenge’s five-year funding period concludes? All of the News Challenge grantee projects are impressive, innovative, and important, but not a single one is turning a profit, nor do they seem poised to any time soon.

What happens to the “news” in News Challenge?

This is a truly intriguing and as-yet-unanswered question going into this final cycle. The five-year funding period Sasaki described is coming to an end. What comes next?

On the one hand, the News Challenge has proved a successful template for Knight’s growing network of prize-philanthropy challenge contests, and it represents the foundation’s most visible link to its historic roots as a “journalism foundation” with close ties to the industry and its concerns. But, as I pointed out previously, Knight is undergoing a shift in emphasis from “news” to “information” as a way of broadening the boundaries of journalism to accomplish innovation with outside help from other fields and philanthropic funders. The most obvious manifestation of this is the Knight Community Information Challenge, which involves partnering with place-based foundations to meet the “information needs” of local communities.

What becomes, then, of the News Challenge? Is there a renewal of some kind — and if so, does it keep the “journalism” tag? Or does the Community Information Challenge suffice in this space? Only time will tell, but the important thing here is to recognize that Knight has an increasingly nuanced view of journalism — one that sidesteps the “baggage” of professional exclusivity and proactively seeks ideas from other fields (say, the tech sector).

David Cohn, whose Spot.Us is one of the best-known KNC success stories, put it recently, in describing startups like Kommons:

As I’ve said before, we may not call it ‘journalism’ in the future, but if it still meets the news and information needs of a community, more power to it.

That, right there, nicely summarizes the feeling of the Knight Foundation: that it cares much more about the ends (i.e., informed communities) than the means (i.e., journalists and traditional news). How that translates into future challenges (or not) is left to be seen.

September 08 2010

14:30

August 04 2010

12:14

Hyperlocal aggregator Everyblock launches new widget

Hyperlocal news and information aggregator Everyblock has launched a new location-based widget targeted at local newspaper websites and blogs.

The widget allows third party sites to embed Everyblock’s news and information feeds for specific areas on their own sites.

Posting on the Everyblock blog, co-founder Daniel X. O’Neil,, said: “Until today, we’ve had no official way to share content with other sites or to partner with news outlets in the cities we cover.”

The site was created by Adrian Holovaty in 2008 as a hyperlocal news resource for neighbourhoods in Chicago, New York and San Francisco. It has since expanded to 16 US cities and was bought by MSNBC in August 2009.Similar Posts:



March 17 2010

15:53

Crowdsourcing Crime Information In Kenya

Hatari.co.ke is is a website that allows anyone in Nairobi, Kenya, to submit reports about crime and corruption in the city. ("Hatari" means "danger" in Swahili.) It will provide the growing city and its inhabitants with a repository of public information about incidents such as carjacking, corruption, police harassment and others.

This initiative builds on other crime maps such as SpotCrime and MapATL. The idea of crime mapping is not new (see EveryBlock, an Idea Lab success story), but it's unlikely that law enforcement officials and the general public in Kenya previously had a tool to visualize crime information. This is why Hatari has potential.

Using Ushahidi

Screen shot 2010-03-15 at 3.26.09 AM

This website uses the Ushahidi platform, an open source solution for crowdsourcing information. (The New York Times recently wrote about the project.) Ushahidi, which is Swahili for "testimony," was created to map reports of violence in Kenya after elections in early 2008. Since then, the United Nations OCHA/Colombia branch has used Ushahidi for coordinating humanitarian response during the Bogota earthquake simulation. Other notable deployments of the free crowdsourcing platform have seen it used for election monitoring in India, Lebanon, Mexico and Afghanistan, among other projects.

Crowdsourcing crime information is new in Kenya. As a result, some of the potential questions and issues arising from this implementation include: Is it legal for someone to take a picture of a corrupt cop? And what sort of information can the public expect from the law enforcement agencies regarding crime in their neighborhoods? The answers are not immediately apparent, and it will take some time to figure things out.

With implementations like MapATL, and hyper-local sites such as EveryBlock, the availability of public data makes this kind of work much easier to do in the United States. The same cannot be said of Kenya. On the other hand, this shows that there's an opportunity to innovate and find out whether implementations such as Hatari can encourage the government to provide more data to the public, and push closer to something like Data.gov.

Creating a Sustainable Platform

Some of the major challenges for Hatari include inspiring participation among the public, and figuring out how to close the feedback loop. In essence, it's about answering the question, "Why should I report what I see?"

To this end, Hatari includes the option to subscribe to SMS/email alerts so that people can be notified when someone reports an incident near an area they are interested in. This is the first step in providing value to the users of the site. It also leads to another challenge, which Ushahidi is working on: Making the SMS alerts system sustainable. Currently, there is a cost issue, and if the project gains more traction, the costs will rise as more people sign up for alerts. Hatari is currently reaching out to mobile service providers to see if they're willing to donate a short code.

Ushahidi implementations always work best with extensive partnerships with organizations on the ground. Ushahidi has reached out to several organizations and it is in the process of formalizing these partnerships. An announcement will be forthcoming in the near future. For now, though, Hatari looks like it could be the project that best showcases how crowdsourcing data can have a direct impact in the daily lives of Nairobians.

For anyone who's curious, here is how people can submit reports to Hatari:

  1. By sending a text message to +254719457500
  2. By sending an email to tips@hatari.co.ke
  3. By sending a tweet with the hashtag/s #hatari #nairobi
  4. By filling out a form at the website
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