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March 31 2010

14:00

Collaboration’s power: ProPublica’s healthcare bill viewer

That very cool, side-by-side comparison of the Senate and House health care bills ProPublica launched before the health care reconciliation vote? It came about over coffee.

Jeff Larson, the outfit’s news applications developer, and Olga Pierce, its health reporter, were taking a break from the proceedings at this year’s NICAR conference earlier this month in Phoenix. They began chatting about what ProPublica might do to help people make sense of the House reconciliation version of the Senate bill passed late last year.

“I had this Platonic idea in my head for diffed versions of the documents,” Larson says; and he and Pierce, over their coffee, realized that the reconciliation — which was, at the time, imminent — created the need for a tool that would both leverage and enable textual comparison. They ran the idea for a side-by-side bill viewer by Scott Klein, ProPublica’s news applications editor, and Klein green-lighted the tool. Building the tool in time for Sunday’s vote would require a less-than-two-day turnaround — a challenge made more acute by the fact that the reconciliation version released by the House wasn’t a new version at all, but rather “a 150-page list of amendments to the Senate bill (’strike paragraph 4,’ ‘insert this new sentence in paragraph B…’).” So “it was one of those moments when it was like, ‘Okay, it’s go time,’” Pierce says.

They returned to ProPublica offices on Thursday and set to work: Larson, coding the infrastructure that would enable side-by-side document viewing; Pierce, entering the changes in the reconciliation markup — one by one, manually, via cut-and-paste. She worked until 6 a.m. on Friday (“it was an exercise in Zen, basically,” she says); later that morning, the team added reinforcements to help her wrap up the job. By Friday afternoon, the comparison tool was live, and being linked, and raking in kudos from around the web:

Which would simply be a nice little vignette — an Engine That Could story, with a startuppy twist — except that it also offers a nice little lesson. Because it wasn’t just ingenuity and industry that led to the quick creation of a very useful tool; it was also, even more importantly, interactivity. Pierce and Larson, who sit just feet away from each other in the ProPublica newsroom, regularly converse about new applications that will make the most of the data Pierce gathers and employs in her work. “I can just stroll over and be like, ‘Okay, I have this idea…’” she says. (“And then Jeff goes like this,” she adds, putting her head in her hands.)

They laugh, but they also see the value in that kind of casual conversation — particularly now, as reporting and coding become increasingly mutualized. “In other places, I would be on an entirely different floor than Olga, or maybe even in a different building,” Larson says. “And we just never would interface and come up with these ideas.” ProPublica’s newsroom, though — a large spread on the 23rd floor of a lower-Manhattan high-rise, with everyone save for the top editors and a few business-side staffers sharing cube space in an open layout — encourages interaction and idea-sharing. Among all staff, but in particular between the tech side and the editorial: two groups that are all too often separated in newsrooms, not just rhetorically, but geographically. Too often, Larson says, “there’s kind of a Chinese wall.” But a good layout can make all the difference; and that’s just as true for newsrooms as it is for the news itself.

March 26 2010

14:00

This Week in Review: Anonymous news comments, two big media law cases, and a health coverage critique

[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]

Anonymity, community and commenting: We saw an unusually lively conversation over the weekend on an issue that virtually every news organization has dealt with over the past few years: anonymous comments. It started with the news that Peer News, a new Hawaii-based news organization edited by former Rocky Mountain News chief John Temple, would not allow comments. His rationale was that commenting anonymity fosters a lack of responsibility, which leads to “racism, hate and ugliness.”

That touched off a spirited Twitter debate between two former newspaper guys, Mathew Ingram (Globe and Mail, now with GigaOm) and Howard Owens (GateHouse, now runs The Batavian). Afterward, Ingram wrote a fair summary of the discussion — he was pro-anonymous comments, Owens was opposed — and elaborated on his position.

Essentially, Owens argued that it’s unethical for news sites (particularly community-based ones) to allow anonymous comments because “readers and participants have a fundamental right to know who is posting what.” And Ingram makes two main points in his blog post: That many online communities have anonymous comments and very healthy community, and that it’s virtually impossible to pin down someone’s real identity online, so pretty much all commenting online is anonymous anyway.

Several other folks chimed in with various ideas for news commenting. Steve Buttry, who’s working on a fledgling as-yet-unnamed Washington news site wondered whether news orgs could find ways to create two tiers of commenting — one for ID’d, the other for anonymous. Steve Yelvington, who dipped into Ingram and Owens’ debate, extolled the values of leadership, as opposed to management, in fostering great commenting community. The Cincinnati Enquirer’s Mandy Jenkins offered similar thoughts, saying that anonymity doesn’t matter nearly as much as an active, personable moderator.

J-prof and news futurist Jeff Jarvis and French journalist Bruno Boutot zoom out on the issue a bit, with Jarvis arguing that commenting is an insulting, inferior form of communication for news organizations to offer, and they should instead initiate more interactive, empowering communication earlier in the journalistic process. Boutot builds on that to say that newspapers need to invite readers into the process to build trust and survive, and outlines a limited place for anonymity in that goal. Finally, if you’re interested in going deeper down the rabbit hole of anonymous commenting, Jack Lail has an amazingly comprehensive list of links on the subject.

The iPad and magazines: The iPad will be officially released next Saturday, so expect to see the steady stream of articles and posts about it will or won’t save publishers and journalism to swell over the next couple of weeks. This week, a comScore survey found that 34 percent of their respondents would be likely to read newspapers or magazines if they owned an iPad — not nearly the percentage of people who said they’d browse the internet or check email with it, but actually more than I had expected. PaidContent takes a look at 15 magazines’ plans for adapting to tablets like the iPad, and The Wall Street Journal examines the tacks they’re taking with tablet advertising.

At least two people aren’t impressed with some of those proposals. Blogger and media critic Jason Fry says he expects many publishers to embrace a closed, controlled iPad format, which he argues is wearing thin because it doesn’t mesh well with the web. “With Web content, publishers aren’t going to be able to exercise the control that print gave them and they hope iPad will return to them,” he writes. And British j-prof Paul Bradshaw calls last week’s VIV Mag demo “lovely but pointless.” Meanwhile, Wired’s Steven Levy looks at whether the iPad or Google’s Chrome OS will be instrumental in shaping the future of computing.

Aggregation and media ownership in the courts: In the past week or so, we’ve seen developments in two relatively outside-the-spotlight court cases, both of which were good news for larger, traditional media outlets. First, a New York judge ruled that a web-based financial news site can’t report on the stock recommendations of analysts from major Wall Street firms until after each day’s opening bell. The Citizen Media Law Project’s Sam Bayard has a fantastic analysis of the case, explaining why the ruling is a blow to online news aggregators: It’s an affirmation of the “hot news” principle, which gives the reporting of certain facts similar protections to intellectual property, despite the fact that facts are in the public domain.

Meanwhile, the Lab’s C.W. Anderson analyzed the statements of several news orgs’ counsel at an FTC hearing earlier this month, finding in them a blueprint for how they plan to protect (or control) their content online. Some of those arguments include the hot news doctrine, as well as a concept of aggregation as an opt-in system. Both Anderson’s and Bayard’s pieces are lucid explanations of what’s sure to be a critical area of media law over the next couple of years.

And in another case, a federal appeals judge at least temporarily lifted the FCC’s cross-ownership ban that prevents media companies from owning a newspaper and TV station in the same outlet. Here’s the AP story on the ruling, and just in time, we got a great summary by Molly Kaplan of the New America Foundation of the “what” and “so what” of media concentration based on a Columbia University panel earlier this month.

Health care coverage taken to task: Health care reform, arguably the American news media’s biggest story of the past year, culminated this week with the passage of a reform bill. Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz was among the first to take a crack at a postmortem on the media’s performance on the story, chiding the press in a generally critical column for focusing too much (as usual) on the political and procedural aspects of health care reform, rather than the substance of the proposals. The news media produced enough data and analysis to satisfy policy junkies, Kurtz said, but “in the end, the subject may simply have been too dense for the media to fully digest…For a busy electrician who plugs in and out of the news, the jousting and the jargon may have seemed bewildering.”

Kurtz was sympathetic, though, to what he saw as the reasons for that failure: The story was complicated, long, bewildering, and at times tedious, and the press was driven by the constant need to produce new copy and fill airtime. Those excuses didn’t fly with C.W. Anderson, who contended that Kurtz “is basically admitting the press has no meaningful role in our democracy.” If the press can’t handle meaningful stuff like health care reform, he asked, what good is it? And Rex Hammock used Kurtz’s critique as an example of why we need another form of context-oriented journalism to complement the day-to-day grind of information.

Google pulls an end-around on China: This isn’t particularly journalism-related, so I won’t dwell on it much, but it’s huge news for the global web, so it deserves a quick summary. Google announced this week that it’s stopping its censorship of Chinese search by using its servers in nearby Hong Kong, and two days later, a Google exec also told Congress that the United States needs to take online censorship seriously elsewhere in the world, too.

The New York Times‘ and the Guardian’s interviews with Sergey Brin and James Fallows’ interview with David Drummond give us more insight into the details of the decision and Google’s rationale, and Mathew Ingram has a good backgrounder on Google-China relations. Not surprisingly, not everyone’s wowed by Google’s move: Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan says it’s curiously late for Google to start caring about Chinese censorship. Finally, China- and media-watcher Rebecca MacKinnon explains why the ball is now in China’s court.

Reading roundup: I’ve got a bunch of cool bits and pieces for you this week. We’ll try to run through them quickly.

— Jacob Weisberg, chairman of the Slate Group, gives a brief but illuminating interview with paidContent’s Staci Kramer that’s largely about, well, paid content. Weisberg explains why Slate’s early experiment with a paywall was a disaster, but says media outlets need to charge for mobile news, since that’s a charge not for content, but for a convenient form of delivery.

— Since we’ve highlighted the launch and open-sourcing of Google’s Living Stories, it’s only fair to note an obvious downside: Florida j-prof Mindy McAdams points out that it’s been a month since it was updated. Google has acknowledged that fact with a note, and Joey Baker notes that he guessed last month that Google was open-sourcing the project because the Washington Post and New York Times weren’t using it well.

— Like ships passing in the night: USC j-prof Robert Hernandez argues that for many young or minority communities in cities, their local paper isn’t just dying; it’s long been dead because it’s consciously ignored them. Meanwhile, Gawker’s Ravi Somaiya notes that with the rise of Twitter and Facebook, big-time blogging is becoming more fact-driven, professionally written and definitive — in other words, more like those dead and dying newspapers.

— Colin Schultz has some great tips for current and aspiring science journalists, though several of them are transferable to just about any form of journalism.

— Finally, I haven’t read it yet, but I’m willing to bet that this spring’s issue of Nieman Reports on visual journalism is chock full of great stuff. Photojournalism prof Ken Kobre gives you a few good places to start.

Mask photo by Thirteen of Clubs used under a Creative Commons license.

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