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May 22 2013

15:00

Objectivity and the decades-long shift from “just the facts” to “what does it mean?”

1960S ART

If I had only one short sentence to describe it, I’d say that journalism is factual reports of current events. At least, that’s what I used to say, and I think it’s what most people imagine journalism is. But reports of events have been a shrinking part of American journalism for more than 100 years, as stories have shifted from facts to interpretation.

Interpretation: analysis, explanation, context, or “in-depth” reporting. Journalists are increasingly in the business of supplying meaning and narrative. It no longer makes sense to say that the press only publishes facts.

New research shows this change very clearly. In 1955, stories about events outnumbered other types of front page stories nearly 9 to 1. Now, about half of all stories are something else: a report that tries to explain why, not just what.

rise-of-context-over-events-chart

This chart is from a paper by Katharine Fink and Michael Schudson of Columbia University, which calls these types of stories “contextual journalism.” (The paper includes an extensive and readable history of all sorts of changes in journalism in the 20th century; recommended for news nerds.) The authors sampled front-page articles from The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in five different years from 1955 to 2003, and handcoded each of 1,891 stories into one of four categories:

  • conventional: a simple report of an event which happened in the last 24 hours
  • contextual: a story containing significant analysis, interpretation, or explanation
  • investigative: extensive accountability or “watchdog” reporting
  • social empathy: a story about the lives of people unfamiliar to the reader

Investigative journalism picks up after the 1960s but is still only a small percentage of all front-page stories. Meanwhile, contextual journalism increases from under 10 percent to nearly half of all articles. The loser is classic “straight” news: event-centered, inverted-pyramid, who-what-when-how-but-not-so-much-why stories, which have become steadily less popular. All this in the decades before the modern Internet. In fact, previous work showed that the transition away from events began at the dawn of the 20th century.

Investigative journalism may have pride of place within the mythology of American news, but that’s not really what journalists have been up to, by and large. Instead, newspaper journalists have been producing ever more of a kind a work that is so little discussed it doesn’t really have a name. Fink and Schudson write:

…there is no standard terminology for this kind of journalism. It has been called interpretative reporting, depth reporting, long-form journalism, explanatory reporting, and analytical reporting. In his extensive interviewing of Washington journalists in the late 1970s, Stephen Hess called it ‘social science journalism’, a mode of reporting with ‘the accent on greater interpretation’ and a clear intention of focusing on causes, not on events as such. Although this category is, in quantitative terms, easily the most important change in reporting in the past half century, it is a form of journalism with no settled name and no hallowed, or even standardized, place in journalism’s understanding of its own recent past.

From this historical look, fast forward to the web era. The last several years have seen a broad conversation about “context” in news. From Matt Thompson’s key observation that a series of chronological updates don’t really inform, to Studio 20′s Explainer project, to a whole series of experiments and speculations around story form, context has been a hot topic for those trying to rethink Internet-era journalism.

I believe this type of contextual journalism is important, and I hope we will get better at understanding and teaching it. The Internet has solved the basic distribution of event-based facts in a variety of ways; no one needs a news organization to know what the White House is saying when all press briefings are posted on YouTube. What we do need is someone to tell us what it means. In other words, journalism must move up the information food chain — as, in fact, it has steadily been doing for five decades!

Why does this type of journalism not even have a name?

I have a suspicion. I think part of the problem is the professional code of “objectivity.” This a value system for journalism that has many parts: truth seeking, neutrality, ethics, credibility. But all of these things are different when the journalist’s job moves from describing events to creating interpretations.

There are usually multiple plausible ways to interpret any event, so what are our standards for saying which interpretations are right? Journalism has a long, sorry history of professional pundits whose analyses of politics and economics turn out to be no better than guessing. In concrete fields such as election forecasting, it may later be obvious who was right. In other cases, there may not be a “right” answer in the traditional, positivist sense of science. These are the classic problems of framing: Is a 0.3 percent drop in unemployment “small” or is it “better than expected”? True neutrality becomes impossible in such cases, because if something has been politicized, you’re going to piss someone off no matter how you interpret it. (See also: hostile media effect.) There may not be an objectively correct or currently knowable meaning for any particular set of factual events, but that won’t stop the fighting over the narrative.

This seems to be a tricky place for truth in journalism. Much easier to say that there are objective facts, knowably correct facts, and that that is all journalism reports. The messy complexity of providing real narratives in a real world is much less authoritative ground. Nonetheless, we all crave interpretation along with our facts. Explanation and analysis and storytelling have become prevalent in practice. We as audiences continue to demand certain types of experts, even when we can’t tell if what they’re saying is any good. We demand reasons why, even if there can be no singular truth. We demand narrative.

What this latest research says to me is that journalism has added interpretation to its core practice, but we’re not really talking about it. The profession still operates with a “just the facts, ma’am” disclaimer that no longer describes what it actually does. Perhaps this is part of why media credibility has been falling for decades.

Photo of Sol LeWitt’s “Objectivity” (1962) via AP/National Gallery of Art.

July 27 2011

18:30

A superhero can’t fix the debt crisis, but he can explain it

Captain America

Not even Captain America can bust through the debt ceiling. What’s a hero to do while the politicians quarrel?

Employ his superhuman powers of explanation, that’s what. For the last four weeks, National Journal reporter and newly minted columnist Major Garrett has channelled Captain America to explain the intricacies of the crisis. The Star-Spangled Avenger sets his shield aside and fields imaginary calls from citizens who are concerned about the prospect of imminent economic calamity. The transcripts of their “conversations” serve as detailed explainers.

“Because Captain America does care about the country and cares about his future, he has invested himself with a deep knowledge of treasury yields, the flow rate of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid payments, and the intricacies of the Gang of Six,” Garrett told me.

If you’re willing to suspend disbelief and imagine Captain America sporting a headset in a call center, it works. He is calm, authoritative, and hopeful, just as you expect him to be.

Here is an excerpt from the latest conversation, posted today:

Caller: So, this is what the abyss looks like?

CA: Actually, we’ve been in it for a while. The pressure’s just starting to get to you.

Caller: Me and everyone else. Is there a way out?

CA: There’s always a way, if there’s a will.

Caller: Hey, if I wanted a Hallmark card, I’d have gone to the drugstore. I need something tangible, something I can hold onto.

CA: So do markets from Tokyo to London to Wall Street. They’re still searching.

Caller: Can Speaker John Boehner’s bill pass the House?

CA: It doesn’t have the votes now. Grassroots GOP groups are divided, but Boehner’s gaining strength. That makes it a jump ball—with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor doing the toss (bet Boehner).

Caller: How many GOP votes can Boehner afford to lose?

CA: No more than 33. And that assumes he picks up 10 Democrats—a stretch since the stronger medicine, “cut, cap, and balance,” pulled only five Democrats.

Garrett said he has gotten a tremendous response both from Washington power players and ordinary readers — exactly the groups he had hoped to reach. National Journal delivers a print product for a specific, highly informed readership, but the material that makes it online reaches a much broader audience. “Straddling those two is a challenge,” he said.

In addition to explaining a complex story, the über-patriot Captain America stands as kind of a beacon of hope in hopelessly combative Washington. A commenter summed it up best: “It isn’t a mess too big for Cap. If he were real, he would do just what he did to the caller — inspire Americans. Captain America’s TRUE super power lies in his ability to be a symbol — a symbol of what America aspires to be, but perhaps isn’t yet.”

The series — which will continue until the world is saved — solves two problems for Garrett. One, it lets him tell an important but — let’s face it — boring story in a fresh and accessible way. And two, it lets him figure out how to become a columnist. He only got the column, “All Powers,” last month, and he’s searching for his voice. In his 27 years of reporting, Garrett has never had a column.

“The only way I could get over my writer’s block, and the sense of fear of doing it strictly in my voice, was coming up with this mechanism,” Garrett said.

“In one sense he’s a superhero to only one person, me. If he helps me get this column done.”

Photo by Andy Roth used under a Creative Commons license

December 01 2010

12:30

ProPublica and Jay Rosen’s Studio 20 class at NYU team up to build — and share — “a better explainer”

NYU media guru Jay Rosen is announcing a new partnership between his Studio 20 graduate students and ProPublica. Their goal is to research the most effective ways to unravel complex problems for an online audience, and then build new kinds of explainers to illuminate ProPublica’s research into issues like the foreclosure crisis, finance, healthcare, and the BP oil spill.

It’s an ambitious project, and one that fits Rosen’s goal of transforming journalism schools into the R&D labs of the media industry. As part of the project, the students have launched a website, Explainer.net, that will grow into a database of the best and worst “explainer” techniques from within the news business and beyond. (One of their research projects, for example, was to analyze which media outlets explained the WikiLeaks cable story in the most helpful and compelling ways.)

I sat in on a Studio 20 class on Monday and talked with several of the 16 first-semester graduate students involved in the project. The metaphor they all used, drawn from Rosen’s SXSW panel speech on “the future of context,” was that reading daily news articles can often feel like receiving updates to software that you haven’t actually downloaded to your computer. Without some basic understanding of the larger, ongoing story, the “news” doesn’t actually make much sense. As NYU and ProPublica put it in today’s press release:

Bringing clarity to complex systems so that non-specialists can understand them is the “art” of the explainer. For instance, an explainer for the Irish debt crisis would make clear why a weakness in one country’s banks could threaten the European financial system and possibly the global recovery. A different kind of explainer might show how Medicare billing is designed to work and where the opportunities for fraud lie.

Rosen has been calling for a rigorous rethinking of how media outlets provide context since 2008, and, as Megan has noted previously here at the Lab, ProPublica has put itself at the forefront of explanatory, public-interest reporting. This summer, they redesigned their website with the goal of making it easier for users with different amounts of knowledge about a subject area to teach themselves more about a topic. (They’ve also created a broadway song about complex financial instruments.) Rosen, who brought several students to pitch the project to ProPublica in late September, said the investigative outfit was immediately enthusiastic about the partnership, which will run through the rest of this academic year.

The Explainer project will approach the problem of understanding complex systems both from the perspective of users trying to gain context on an issue, and that of journalists who need new mediums for telling background stories and sharing data that might not fit into an article format.

For that, the students will divide into three groups tasked with exploring different elements of explanation. One group is interviewing the members of ProPublica’s news team, from reporters to news app builders to the managing editor, in order to understand the organization’s workflow, what it does with the data it collects, and how its reporters explain what they’re learning to themselves as they report a story.

Journalists “love starting from zero and gaining mastery,” Rosen said. “What they disgorge by way of story is quite inadequate to what they learned. Creating containers, formats, genres, tricks, tools to make that knowledge available is part of the project.”

Another group is building Explainer.net’s WordPress website, which sometimes means teaching themselves and each other skills on an ad hoc basis. (Studio 20 is designed to be a learn-as-you-go program, in which a group of students with different specialties share their skills and pick up new ones.)

A third group  is researching the different “explainer” genres. They’re starting with examples of good and bad explanatory journalism, from maps and timelines to more specific visualizations like The National Post’s chilling illustration of how a stoning is carried out in Iran. But they’ll also be reaching far outside the media world to research techniques used in many different fields. Rosen suggested that they focus on situations where people “can’t afford to fail,” like people fixing combat aircraft, or NFL teams explaining complicated plays. The students are also looking at the “For Dummies” book franchise and the language-learning software Rosetta Stone.

When I spoke with Rachel Slaff, who’s leading the research group, she said they have found many more examples of failed explainers than background reporting that’s actually working well. It’s not just that some videos are boring, or that a timeline is clunky or a graphic too text-heavy. “The overwhelming theme is: This isn’t actually explaining anything to me. I watched this video or I looked at this chart and I left more confused than I came in,” she said. The major exception has been the BBC, which she said produces consistently effective explainers. The other group favorite has been the RSA Animate video series, in which a hand cheekily illustrates a topic as it’s being explained.

Part of the reason the project is going public so early is to connect with journalists interested in explainer or “future of context” issues. The Studio 20 group will be producing a periodic newsletter with updates on their progress, as well as building a Twitter feed — all ways to broaden the reach of the project, as well as give the graduate students practice in using social media tools.

The “build a better explainer” project is just a first step in figuring out how context-focused reporting will evolve online, Rosen said.  Google’s Living Stories and newspaper topic pages are all aimed at a larger, more complicated problem: “Where does the news accumulate as understanding?”

You can think about the accumulation of understanding in terms of a body of text, a URL where different stories are gathered together, or the way that knowledge builds in a single user, Rosen told me. Whatever the potential model, the next question is, “how do we join to the stream-of-updates part of the news system, a second part of the news system, which gives people a sense of mastery over a big story?”

In other words: Once you’ve built a better explainer, the next challenge is building it a place to live.

August 12 2010

21:27

Marketplace brings a Twittery approach to the explainer

When you listen to Marketplace, American Public Media’s finance-focused show, you generally expect to hear expert, and even entertaining, takes on the day’s economic news. On Wednesday’s show, though, the typical quick-and-dirty met…quick-and-funny. Marketplace offered a segment pretty much summarizing the world financial situation…in pretty much three sentences. Listen to the whole thing — all two minutes of it — here; but the gist of it, per the transcript, is this:

Paddy Hirsch: People are worried about the local economy. They think gold is the safest investment, so that’s where they put their money.

I’m Paddy Hirsch for Marketplace.

Liza Tucker: Demand is way down for oil. That’s because some economies are shaky and countries aren’t using as much.

I’m Liza Tucker for Marketplace.

Ethan Lindsey: People are still scared about the economy. So no one wants to blow their savings on a house.

I’m Ethan Lindsey for Marketplace.

And the kicker, from host Kai Rysdall: “Y’know, it’s funny, our news spots are usually a whole lot longer than that. I’m not really sure what happened on those.”

Seriously, if you haven’t already, it’s worth a listen. It’s funny. Also, short. From the future-of-news approach, though: It was also a pithy (“pithy,” in fact, might be too expansive a term for it) explanation of the financial doldrums the nation — and the world — are currently experiencing. Sure, the topics covered are the stuff of dissertations/post-graduate programs/think-tank white papers; but they’re also, more to the point, the stuff of everyday life. People need to understand it. As Celeste Wesson, Marketplace’s senior producer, told me: “We are always trying, as a show, to think of more interesting ways to tell business stories. That comes with the territory of covering business, economics, money, etc.: we want to look at how it affects people’s lives, but we also want to make sure that we’re really clear — and really entertaining.”

A Twitterfied take on the ongoing financial crisis: Clear? Check. Entertaining? Check.

The idea came in Wednesday morning’s editorial meeting, Wesson told me. Marketplace staffers were talking about one of the big financial stories of the day — oil prices — and how best to explain it to listeners, when Liza Tucker, the show’s senior Washington editor and resident sustainability expert, finally said: “It’s easy. Demand is down, and that’s because economies are in trouble, and countries aren’t using as much oil.” And “she said it in the meeting,” Wesson says, “as if to say, ‘This is not a complicated story here.’” But “she did it like this perfect little tiny news spot.”

Everyone laughed — but there was something to the joke, Wesson realized. “There’s something we can play with there”: clarity by way of brevity.

“And then someone said, ‘Yeah, but we can’t do just one. So maybe we can do a mini news report with a number of them.’”

“Yeah — we probably need at least three.”

“Maybe we could do gold.”

“Oh, yeah, that would be good.”

Et cetera. “So we had this little, inchoate idea floating around the morning meeting,” Wesson says — which crystallized throughout the day, as producers refined it, into a segment. They tapped Tucker, who’d come up with the initial, off-the-cuff gem, to participate in the final product; then Paddy Hirsch, an expert in gold markets; then Ethan Lindsey, who came up with that “perfectly deadpan way” of talking about home sales.

“Really, it’s a group process,” Wesson notes. “All of us know that one of the things we need to do is make sure that we’re taking complicated things and making them clear” — and to explode the formula that’s all too familiar among lay consumers of financial journalism: incomprehension leading to boredom (laced, often, with frustration).

One way to do that: go simple. Really simple. In this case, “It just struck us as funny that sometimes these things are simpler than we think they are,” Wesson says. “And wouldn’t it be fun, in the middle of August, to break this up with something that’s fun to listen to, and catches listeners by surprise?”

April 16 2010

13:20

This Week in Review: News talk and tips at ASNE, iPad’s ‘walled garden,’ and news execs look for revenue

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

Schmidt and Huffington’s advice for news execs: This week wasn’t a terribly eventful one in the future-of-journalism world, but a decent amount of the interesting stuff that was said came out of Washington D.C., site of the annual American Society of News Editors conference. The most talked-about session there was Sunday night’s keynote address by Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who told the news execs there that their industry is in trouble because it hasn’t found a way to sustain itself financially, not because its way of producing or delivering news is broken. “We have a business-model problem, we don’t have a news problem,” Schmidt said.

After buttering the crowd up a bit, Schmidt urged them to produce news for an environment that’s driven largely by mobile devices, immediacy, and personalization, and he gave them a glimpse of what those priorities look like at Google. Politico and the Lab’s Megan Garber have summaries of the talk, and paidContent has video.

There were bunches more sessions and panels (American Journalism Review’s Rem Rieder really liked them), but two I want to highlight in particular. One was a panel with New York Times media critic David Carr, new-media titan Ariana Huffington and the Orlando Sentinel’s Mark Russell on the “24/7 news cycle.” The Lab’s report on the session focused on four themes, with one emerging most prominently — the need for context to make sense out of the modern stream of news. St. Petersburg Times media critic Eric Deggans and University of Maryland student Adam Kerlin also zeroed in on the panelists’ call to develop deeper trust and participation among readers.

The second was a presentation by Allbritton’s Steve Buttry that provides a perfect fleshing-out of the mobile-centric vision Schmidt gave in his keynote. Poynter’s Damon Kiesow had a short preview, and Buttry has a longer one that includes a good list of practical suggestions for newsrooms to start a mobile transformation. (He also has slides from his talk, and he posted a comprehensive mobile strategy for news orgs back in November, if you want to dive in deep.)

There was plenty of other food for thought, too: Joel Kramer of the Twin Cities nonprofit news org MinnPost shared his experiences with building community, and one “where do we go from here?” panel seemed to capture news execs’ ambivalence about the future of their industry. Students from local universities also put together a blog on the conference with a Twitter stream and short recaps of just about every session, and it’s worth a look-through. Two panels of particular interest: One on government subsidies for news and another with Kelly McBride of Poynter’s thoughts on the “fifth estate” of citizen journalists, bloggers, nonprofits and others.

Is a closed iPad bad for news?: In the second week after the iPad’s release, much of the commentary centered once again on Apple’s control over the device. In a long, thoughtful post, Media watcher Dan Gillmor focused on Apple’s close relationship with The New York Times, posing a couple of arresting questions for news orgs creating iPad apps: Does Apple have the unilateral right to remove your app for any reason it wants, and why are you OK with that kind of control?

On Thursday he got a perfect example, when the Lab’s Laura McGann reported that Pulitzer-winning cartoonist Mark Fiore’s iPhone app was rejected in December because it “contains content that ridicules public figures.” Several other folks echoed Gillmor’s alarm, with pomo blogger Terry Heaton asserting that the iPad is a move by the status quo to retake what it believes is its rightful place in the culture. O’Reilly Radar’s Jim Stogdill says that if you bought an iPad, you aren’t really getting a computer so much as “a 16GB Walmart store shelf that fits on your lap … and Apple got you to pay for the building.” And blogging/RSS/podcasting pioneer Dave Winer says the iPad doesn’t change much for news because it’s so difficult to create media with.

But in a column for The New York Times, web thinker Steven Johnson adds an important caveat: While he’s long been an advocate of open systems, he notes that the iPhone software platform has been the most innovative in the history in computing, despite being closed. He attributes that to simpler use for its consumers, as well as simpler tasks for developers. While Johnson still has serious misgivings about the Apple’s closed policy from a control standpoint, he concludes that “sometimes, if you get the conditions right, a walled garden can turn into a rain forest.”

In related iPad issues, DigitalBeat’s Subrahmanyam KVJ takes a step back and looks at control issues with Apple, Facebook, Twitter and Google. Florida j-prof Mindy McAdams has a detailed examination of the future of HTML5 and Flash in light of Adobe’s battle with Adobe over the iPad. Oh yeah, and to the surprise of no one, a bunch of companies, including Google, are developing iPad competitors.

News editors’ pessimism: A survey released Monday by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism presented a striking glimpse into the minds of America’s news executives. Perhaps most arresting (and depressing) was the finding that nearly half of the editors surveyed said that without a significant new revenue stream, their news orgs would go under within a decade, and nearly a third gave their org five years or less.

While some editors are looking at putting up paywalls online as that new revenue source, the nation’s news execs aren’t exactly overwhelmed at that prospect: 10 percent are actively working on building paywalls, and 32 percent are considering it. Much higher percentages of execs are working on online advertising, non-news products, local search and niche products as revenue sources.

One form of revenue that most news heads are definitely not crazy about is government subsidy: Three quarters of them, including nearly 90 percent of newspaper editors, had “serious reservations” about that kind of funding (the highest level of concern they could choose). The numbers were lower for tax subsidies, but even then, only 19 percent said they’d be open to it.

The report itself makes for a pretty fascinating read, and The New York Times has a good summary, too. The St. Pete Times’ Eric Deggans wonders how bad things would have to get before execs would be willing to accept government subsidies (pretty bad), and the Knight Digital Media Center’s Amy Gahran highlights the statistics on editors’ thoughts on what went wrong in their industry.

Twitter rolls out paid search: This week was a big one for Twitter: We finally found out some of the key stats about the microblogging service, including how many users it has (105,779,710), and the U.S. Library of Congress announced it’s archiving all of everyone’s tweets, ever.

But the biggest news was Twitter’s announcement that it will implement what it calls Promoted Tweets — its first major step toward its long-anticipated sustainable revenue plan. As The New York Times explains, Promoted Tweets are paid advertisements that will show up first when you search on Twitter and, down the road, as part of your regular stream if they’re contextually relevant. Or, in Search Engine Land’s words, it’s paid search, at least initially.

Search blogger John Battelle has some initial thoughts on the move: He thinks Twitter seems to be going about things the right way, but the key shift is that this “will mark the first time, ever, that users of the service will see a tweet from someone they have not explicitly decided to follow.Alex Wilhelm of The Next Web gives us a helpful roadmap of where Twitter’s heading with all of its developments.

Anonymity and comments: A quick addendum to last month’s discussion about anonymous comments on news sites (which really has been ongoing since then, just very slowly): The New York Times’ Richard Perez-Pena wrote about many news organizations’ debates over whether to allow anonymous comments, and The Guardian’s Nigel Willmott explained why his paper’s site will still include anonymous commenting.

Meanwhile, former Salon-er Scott Rosenberg told media companies that they’d better treat it like a valuable conversation if they want it to be one (that means managing and directing it), rather than wondering what the heck’s the problem with those crazy commenters. And here at The Lab, Joshua Benton found that when the blogging empire Gawker made its comments a tiered system, their quality and quantity improved.

Reading roundup: This week I have three handy resources, three ideas worth pondering, and one final thought.

Three resources: If you’re looking for a zoomed-out perspective on the last year or two in journalism in transition, Daniel Bachhuber’s “canonical” reading list is a fine place to start. PaidContent has a nifty list of local newspapers that charge for news online, and Twitter went public with Twitter Media, a new blog to help media folks use Twitter to its fullest.

Three ideas worth pondering: Scott Lewis of the nonprofit news org Voice of San Diego talks to the Lab about how “explainers” for concepts and big news stories could be part of their business model, analysts Frederic Filloux and Alan Mutter take a close look at online news audiences and advertising, and Journal Register Co. head John Paton details his company’s plan to have one newspaper produce one day’s paper with only free web tools. (Jeff Jarvis, an adviser, shows how it might work and why he’s excited.)

One final thought: British j-prof Paul Bradshaw decries the “zero-sum game” attitude by professional journalists toward user-generated content that views any gain for UGC as a loss for the pros. He concludes with a wonderful piece of advice: “If you think the web is useless, make it useful. … Along the way, you might just find that there are hundreds of thousands of people doing exactly the same thing.”

April 13 2010

14:30

Can explainers be the basis for a revenue stream? Voice of San Diego’s Scott Lewis thinks so

You may have seen Megan’s post a couple weeks ago about how lauded news nonprofit Voice of San Diego is trying to hire an “engagement editor” to help push its stories into social media and public consciousness. That piece references VOSD’s two-part mission:

To consistently deliver ground-breaking investigative journalism for the San Diego region.

To increase civic participation by giving residents the knowledge and in-depth analysis necessary to become advocates for good government and social progress.

It’s that second part that’s the subject of this video interview with Scott Lewis, VOSD’s CEO (whew, lots of initials there). Telling stories is one thing, but providing the analysis needed for public action is another. Led by Matt Thompson, the quest for context and explanation has been a hot topic for some time in future-of-journalism circles. But Scott explains here that he thinks explainers might be part of a business model, too: the kind of added value that convinces people to become a member of VOSD or otherwise contribute financially.

…if our mission is to help educate people about these issues so that they can become the advocates that the community needs to progress, then, perhaps, educating them means more than simply putting news up on the site. And that, perhaps, education means providing these explainers. Maybe it means providing a graphic novel on the top 10 stories of San Diego. Or maybe, it’s a book or a curriculum that they receive…We can have a rolling system of clinics from our reporters where they literally just say, “This is how the education system’s working right now.” And, maybe, for a fee or for a membership benefit, that’s something that you can participate in.

This interview is actually a few months old — our former staffer Zach Seward recorded it in October, back before he (and Megan! and Matt!) became “next generation digital visionaries.” I emailed Scott to see if anything he talked about in the interview needed an update; I’ve added those updates — including how VOSD has moved ahead with explainers on a big local platform — below the transcript.

Zach Seward: All right, I’m with Scott Lewis, CEO of Voice of San Diego. I was interested in what you were talking about explainers and context and a recent story sort of involved with that?

Scott Lewis: Yeah. Our mission is in two parts. One is to deliver ground-breaking investigative journalism. And by investigative, we mean stories that help people understand why things are the way they are, rather than just simply passing along information. And the second part of our mission, though, is broader. It actually says, “providing residents the information they need to become advocates for good government and social progress.” Well, I’ve embraced that latter part of the mission a lot more. And that means more than just simply putting out news and letting, you know, people make their own conclusions and figuring things out from what is available on the latest news.

What it might mean, we think, is also helping them understand San Diego better, understand how the government works better, understand how the education system works better. And we think that there’s a tool to do that in stories that are not just news and not just traditional investigative-type stories, but actually explainers, ways for people to understand these situations better. So, if we’re covering a complex topic, a story can go through the process of — even the first person, sometimes — of saying, “I don’t know how this works. Let’s go through this together and try to figure it out together. And I called this person, and he added this perspective. I called this person, they added this perspective. And this is a full presentation of everything I know about this topic.”

Because reporters have that, they have that experience and they have that. And a lot of times they’ll come up to me and they’ll say, “You know, we need, I want the inside scoop.” But what they really want when they say that, it seems like, is for you to break it down in plain English and help them understand, you know, the issue, the way that you might tell your girlfriend about or your friend about, in just words that help you paint a picture for them. So we think there’s incredible value in that that might actually transfer to a membership model, too.

Zach: Now, you just had a reporter go out and do that with a particular story?

Scott: Yeah. Liam Dillon covers government for us and politics. And there’s a big issue in San Diego about whether to expand the Convention Center. And the editor, Andrew Donohue, told him to, well, go find out about that and literally just explain what you find out. And he did it, and he did it in a first-person account, and he did it in a way that was really engaging as far as just explaining the entire situation, so that if you weren’t following it — you may have heard the debate. You may have heard updates about costs and about anger and conflict about the issue, but finding that story, it gave you everything that everyone had about where we were at with it, in a way that you could digest, and that was written in a conversational, easy-to-digest way.

And we received tons of comments and emails from people saying, “Wow, that was really. That was the best story yet about it.” They took it as a news story, and they took it really well. They said, “Wow, you really helped. This is the best, most comprehensive news story about this.” And in — I don’t know that in the past, a journalist would have thought of that as a news story, in particular, in the sense that it was really just an explanation. And I think there’s incredible power in that.

Zach: Did it pay off in terms of traffic?

Scott: Yeah, it was our most-read story for that week. It was a — and again, the engagement, the discussion level rose after that. We got letters and comments, and it was a powerful piece.

Zach: And you said also you’re having reporters be in charge of individual pages around subjects that they cover?

Scott: Oh, no.

Zach: No, okay.

Scott: No, that was Salon’s doing that. I took some. It seems cool.

Zach: Maybe, it’s a possibility in the future? Fair enough.

Scott: I’m trying to figure out. It seems like that issue, and you’ve been talking about it at Nieman, and Matt Thompson, and others have talked about it, about re-forming the news story around topic pages and that. I think there’s a design problem I’d love to help solve with that. And if we could figure out what that page looks like and why you would want to continue going to it and how you represent it on a front page or a home page. If we could help be part of what that looks like, I think there’s definite power in it, for sure.

Zach: So, the thing you mentioned earlier, understanding of course it’s entirely speculative, is the possibility that a membership model could include, you know, paying members of Voice of San Diego have special access to some of these kind of explainers? Is that the thought or…

Scott: Yeah, we’re thinking about if — and there’s a lot of things to work out — but if our mission is to help educate people about these issues so that they can become the advocates that the community needs to progress, then, perhaps, educating them means more than simply putting news up on the site. And that, perhaps, education means providing these explainers. Maybe it means providing a graphic novel on the top 10 stories of San Diego. Or maybe, it’s a book or a curriculum that they receive.

Zach: A one-hour, in-person class.

Scott: Exactly, exactly. We can have a rolling system of clinics from our reporters where they literally just say, “This is how the education system’s working right now.” And, maybe, for a fee or for a membership benefit, that’s something that you can participate in.

You know, what we want to do is learn from how these other organizations that have started to build their own membership programs, how some of them crossed the line that a lot of people felt was, you know, unethical with like what The Washington Post was thinking of doing as far as special events. But I think that if it’s just reporters talking and simply sharing, that this kind of explainer — it could be pretty powerful. Again, it’s just something to think about and work on. But the idea of membership having more benefit than simply a bumper sticker and then, maybe, even having some benefit as far as helping, you know, more clearly understand San Diego, that’d be really cool.

Right now, we do a thing somewhat like this. Every month we host a members’ coffee. So if you’ve given us money or if you’ve renewed your membership that month, then you’re invited to come to this thing. And, you know, between five and a dozen people usually show up, and they and tell us about what they’re interested in. We usually end up talking about city politics or city education issues or new media issues, mostly. And it’s fun for them. They enjoy getting that sort of in-plain-English explainer of both what we think is happening to the newspaper world and what we think’s happening to City Hall.

Zach: Sure. At this point, what are your current revenue streams?

Scott: Five. We have major donors, minor donors. And those are separate for a very good reason. I mean, they’re just completely different animals. Foundation grants and then corporate sponsors. And by corporate sponsors, we mean any organization that hosts an ad or a sponsorship message on the site. And so that can be a union or a nonprofit or whatever. We get a lot of that.

And then the fifth is a syndication revenue we’re trying to develop more and more. And this is — we realize we’re not just a website. We’re a source of information. So, if others want to package and distribute it better than we can, all the power to them.

Zach: You say that you’re ahead of revenue projections this year?

Scott: Yeah.

Zach: Is the largest chunks of those five sources still foundation support?

Scott: No, the largest chunk, I think, would be our two main major donors, which amount to about 35 percent of our budget right now. And that would be the two big donors. Then foundations are about that same level. And it’s all going to fall into place, I think, interestingly. And then the rest is split between the small donors and the corporate sponsors.

Zach: And, obviously, one goal is to grow the whole pie, but within the pie, is the goal to even that out? Like you’d like to have 20 percent from each, or is that too facile?

Scott: No, no, no — that’s exactly it. I don’t know what sustainability is. But to me, it means diversification to the point where, if one source falls or something, that it’s not crippling. And in that sense, then, I have two obsessions: One is to diversify the revenue inside those sources and then pursue other sources to diversify the sources. Do you know what I mean?

Zach: Sure, sure.

Scott: So, it’s a two-part obsession. And, yeah, I won’t be happy until we’ve gotten to the point where no single person has, or entity or grant has more than, you know, say, 10 or 15 percent of the budget responsibility. So that’s the goal. Ideally, it would be one percent over, you know, a thousand different types of sources. No, that wouldn’t —

Zach: Oh, yeah, well, that would be pretty good, in any event. [Laughter] That would be the future of news.

Scott: You know, ideally, it would get to — and it’s diversity, I think, that has the power. That if you have a lot of different sources of revenue, it provides for credibility and it provides for sustainability. And that’s why it’s such an obsession. And I think MinnPost and us and others are equally obsessed with that holy grail.

Zach: Sure. Well, thanks, Scott.

Scott: Yeah, thank you.

Updates and followups from Scott Lewis:

— Comments weren’t actually allowed on VOSD at the time Liam’s story ran, so by “comments” he meant direct feedback and what they called “letters” to the editor.

— Efforts to diversify VOSD’s revenue streams are ongoing. Scott: “We have begun to collect revenue from our content services or syndication effort, especially in regard to our new San Diego Explained series with the local NBC affiliate.”

So explainers might be a revenue source after all. But when it comes to a membership model, Scott typed this from his iPhone: “Finally, yes I believe that context explainers etc can serve as a basis for membership engagement but it’s a lot easier said than done and we’re still trying to figure it out. But haven’t abandoned it.”

March 12 2010

15:00

This Week in Review: Plagiarism and the link, location and context at SXSW, and advice for newspapers

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

The Times, plagiarism and the link: A few weeks ago, the resignations of two journalists from The Daily Beast and The New York Times accused of plagiarism had us talking about how the culture of the web affects that age-old journalistic sin. That discussion was revived this week by the Times’ public editor, Clark Hoyt, whose postmortem on the Zachery Kouwe scandal appeared Sunday. Hoyt concluded that the Times “owes readers a full accounting” of how Kouwe’s plagiarism occurred, and he also called out DealBook, the Times’ business blog for which Kouwe wrote, questioning its hyper-competitive nature and saying it needs more oversight. (In an accompanying blog post, Hoyt also said the Times needs to look closer at implementing plagiarism prevention software.)

Reuters’ Felix Salmon challenged Hoyt’s assertion, saying that the Times’ problem was not that its ethics were too steeped in the ethos of the blogosphere, but that they aren’t bloggy enough. Channeling CUNY prof Jeff Jarvis’ catchphrase “Do what you do best and link to the rest,” Salmon chastised Kouwe and other Times bloggers for rewriting stories that other online news organizations beat them to, rather than simply linking to them. “The problem, here, is that the bloggers at places like the NYT and the WSJ are print reporters, and aren’t really bloggers at heart,” Salmon wrote.

Michael Roston made a similar argument at True/Slant the first time this came up, and ex-newspaperman Mathew Ingram strode to Salmon’s defense this time with an eloquent defense of the link. It’s not just a practice for geeky insiders, he argues; it’s “a fundamental aspect of writing for the web.” (Also at True/Slant, Paul Smalera made a similar Jarvis-esque argument.) In a lengthy Twitter exchange with Salmon, Times editor Patrick LaForge countered that the Times does link more than most newspapers, and Kouwe was an exception.

Jason Fry, a former blogger for the Wall Street Journal, agreed with Ingram and Smalera, but theorizes that the Times’ linking problem is not so much a refusal to play by the web’s rules as “an unthinking perpetuation of print values that are past their sell-by date.” Those values, he says, are scoops, which, as he argued further in a more sports-centric column, readers on the web just don’t care about as much as they used to.

Location prepares for liftoff: The massive music/tech gathering South By Southwest (or, in webspeak, SXSW) starts today in Austin, Texas, so I’m sure you’ll see a lot of ideas making their way from Austin to next week’s review. If early predictions are any indication, one of the ideas we’ll be talking about is geolocation — services like Foursquare and Gowalla that use your mobile device to give and broadcast location-specific information to and about you. In anticipation of this geolocation hype, CNET has given us a pre-SXSW primer on location-based services.

Facebook jump-started the location buzz by apparently leaking word to The New York Times that it’s going to unveil a new location-based feature next month. Silicon Alley Insider does a quick pro-and-con rundown of the major location platforms, and ReadWriteWeb wonders whether Facebook’s typically privacy-guarding users will go for this.

The major implication of this development for news organizations, I think, is the fact that Facebook’s jump onto the location train is going to send it hurtling forward far, far faster than it’s been going. Within as little as a year, location could go from the domain of early-adopting smartphone addicts to being a mainstream staple of social media, similar to the boom that Facebook itself saw once it was opened beyond college campuses. That means news organizations have to be there, too, developing location-based methods of delivering news and information. We’ve known for a while that this was coming; now we know it’s close.

The future of context: South By Southwest also includes bunches of fascinating tech/media/journalism panels, and one of them that’s given us a sneak preview is Monday’s panel called “The Future of Context.” Two of the panelists, former web reporter and editor Matt Thompson and NYU professor Jay Rosen, have published versions of their opening statements online, and both pieces are great food for thought. Thompson’s is a must-read: He describes the difference between day-to-day headline- and development-oriented information about news stories that he calls “episodic” and the “systemic knowledge” that forms our fundamental framework for understanding an issue. Thompson notes how broken the traditional news system’s way of intertwining those two forms of knowledge are, and he asks us how we can do it better online.

Rosen’s post is in less of a finished format, but it has a number of interesting thoughts, including a quick rundown of reasons that newsrooms don’t do explanatory journalism better. Cluetrain Manifesto co-author Doc Searls ties together both Rosen’s and Thompson’s thoughts and talks a bit more about the centrality of stories in pulling all that information together.

Tech execs’ advice for newspapers: Traditional news organizations got a couple of pieces of advice this week from two relatively big-time folks in the tech world. First, Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen gave an interview with TechCrunch’s Erick Schonfeld in which he told newspaper execs to “burn the boats” and commit wholeheartedly to the web, rather than finding way to prop up modified print models. He used the iPad as a litmus test for this philosophy, noting that “All the new [web] companies are not spending a nanosecond on the iPad or thinking of ways to charge for content. The older companies, that is all they are thinking about.”

Not everyone agreed: Newspaper Death Watch’s Paul Gillin said publishers’ current strategy, which includes keeping the print model around, is an intelligent one: They’re milking the print-based profits they have while trying to manage their business down to a level where they can transfer it over to a web-based model. News business expert Alan Mutter offered a more pointed counterargument: “It doesn’t take a certifiable Silicon Valley genius to see that no business can walk away from some 90% of its revenue base without imploding.”

Second, Google chief economist Hal Varian spoke at a Federal Trade Commission hearing about the economics of newspapers, advising newspapers that rather than charging for online content, they should be experimenting like crazy. (Varian’s summary and audio are at Google’s Public Policy Blog, and the full text, slides and Martin Langeveld’s summary are here at the Lab. Sync ‘em up and you can pretty much recreate the presentation yourself.) After briefly outlining the status of newspaper circulation and its print and online advertising, Varian also suggests that newspapers make better use of the demographic information they have of their online readers. Over at GigaOM, Mathew Ingram seconds Varian’s comments on engagement, imploring newspapers to actually use the interactive tools that they already have at their sites.

Reading roundup: We’ll start with our now-weekly summary of iPad stuff: Apple announced last week that you can preorder iPads as of today, and they’ll be released April 3. That could be only the beginning — an exec with the semiconductor IP company ARM told ComputerWorld we could see 50 similar tablet devices out this year. Multimedia journalist Mark Luckie urged media outlets to develop iPad apps, and Mac and iPhone developer Matt Gemmell delved into the finer points of iPad app design. (It’s not “like an iPhone, only bigger,” he says.)

I have two long, thought-provoking pieces on journalism, both courtesy of the Columbia Journalism Review. First, Megan Garber (now with the Lab) has a sharp essay on the public’s growing fixation on authorship that’s led to so much mistrust in journalism — and how journalists helped bring that fixation on. It’s a long, deep-thinking piece, but it’s well worth reading all the way through Garber’s cogent argument. Her concluding suggestions for news orgs regarding authority and identity are particularly interesting, with nuggets like “Transparency may be the new objectivity; but we need to shift our definition of ‘transparency’: from ‘the revelation of potential biases,’ and toward ‘the revelation of the journalistic process.’”

Second, CJR has the text of Illinois professor Robert McChesney’s speech this week to the FTC, in which he makes the case for a government subsidy of news organizations. McChesney and The Nation’s John Nichols have made this case in several places with a new book, “The Death and Life of American Journalism,” on the shelves, but it’s helpful to have a comprehensive version of it in one spot online.

Finally, the Online Journalism Review’s Robert Niles has a simple tip for newspaper publishers looking to stave off their organizations’ decline: Learn to understand technology from the consumer’s perspective. That means, well, consuming technology. Niles provides a to-do list you can hand to your bosses to help get them started.

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