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April 14 2012

18:46

Live Coverage of the 6th Annual Logan Investigative Reporting Symposium

BERKELEY, CALIF. -- Once again, I am covering the Logan Symposium on the UC Berkeley campus, a gathering of some of the top investigative journalists in the country. I'll be covering the day's panels and talks via ScribbleLive. I can add in your coverage or tweets, just let me know if you're at Logan via the comments below.

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

18:46

Live Coverage of the 6th Annual Logan Investigative Reporting Symposium

BERKELEY, CALIF. -- Once again, I am covering the Logan Symposium on the UC Berkeley campus, a gathering of some of the top investigative journalists in the country. I'll be covering the day's panels and talks via ScribbleLive. I can add in your coverage or tweets, just let me know if you're at Logan via the comments below.

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

March 29 2012

14:00

Merger means the new Bay Citizen will be more investigative and experimental

Breaking: The Bay Citizen won’t be covering as much breaking news any more.

The merger of Bay Citizen with the Center for Investigative Reporting announced yesterday — with CIR forces coming out in charge — will mean structural changes for the nonprofit outlets. But it’ll also mean editorial changes, one of them being a reduction in covering the same big daily stories and subjects the competition is — at least not in the same way.

“There’s so much information, there’s so much newsgathering, there’s so much out there, and there’s so much clutter out there,” CIR executive director Robert Rosenthal told me. “Someone may have it first, but there’s almost no such thing as first anymore. News is a commodity. Information is a commodity.”

(The Bay Citizen’s own story on the merger puts it this way: “The Bay Citizen will likely no longer cover breaking news or culture, as CIR leaders have said they see those as commodities that don’t fit the expanded organization’s core mission.”)

Today, a Bay Citizen reporter “might post several times a day on a breaking story or a story on the Bay Area that they were covering maybe in a unique way,” Rosenthal said. “We’re not going to do that. If we get into a major developing story, it will be in an investigative or explanatory way…For a beat reporter, to suddenly not have the obligation of potentially filing I-don’t-know-how-many stories a day or week — it liberates you.

“You know as well as I do that one of the key elements of this kind of reporting is time: time to develop sources, time to do that extra step, having the time not to be chasing deadlines, quickly running out to events that are covered by multiple other people.”

Developing a focus

From its launch in January 2010, Bay Citizen took a broader approach to its coverage than many of its nonprofit peers, which tended to focus on narrow, specific areas like investigative reporting or a particular beat. Founded at a time when many were concerned the San Francisco Chronicle could close, Bay Citizen mixed in daily breaking news coverage, cultural coverage, and even sports with more investigative and enterprise work.

When the San Francisco Giants were in the 2010 World Series, Bay Citizen had author Dave Eggers attend games and do notebook drawings of players and fans. Indeed, Bay Citizen has done game stories, fan slideshows, and even fifth-inning updates from Giants games and other area sporting events — something not many other nonprofit outlets would do.

In particular, it’s probably not something you’d see from the CIR-founded California Watch, the statewide investigative news service. The Bay Citizen will adopt an approach that parallels the guiding principles at California Watch, only on a more local level, Rosenthal said. The combination of Bay Citizen, California Watch, and CIR can give the organization wide reach.

“Here’s an example: We’ve been looking very hard at issues on homeland security, and we have lots of data sets on a national scale,” Rosenthal says. “A reporter looking at that is thinking, ‘What’s the story for California?’ We may [also] be looking at a national story around surveillance. It’s a very flexible model.”

Bay Citizen is one of three regional nonprofit news outlets to have partnered with The New York Times to provide content for the Times’ regional editions; the others were the Chicago News Cooperative and the Texas Tribune. The Times, in addition to a small amount of money, gave status and prestige to the new local brands, plus the promise of some local print readers. But the deals also committed the outlets to producing a certain amount of newspaper-ready content — stories of a certain length and covering a newspapery mix of beats — that helped define its approach. Stories were due to the Times late Tuesday for Friday publication, so stories had to be able to hold a few days.

The Chicago News Cooperative has faced challenges even greater than Bay Citizen’s, suspending operations last month. Of the three Times partners, only the Texas Tribune — which keeps a tight focus on matters of state government and public policy — has thrived. And the Trib is known for ignoring even big breaking news that falls outside its editorial mission. (The New York Times’ Texas report does include culture coverage, but it’s provided by Texas Monthly instead of the Tribune.)

Rosenthal said CIR is currently re-evaluating The Bay Citizen’s relationship with the Times, noting that the deal carries an agreement of “exclusivity” that raises “concerns.”

Multiple platforms, multiple revenue streams

The flexibility of the model may be the key to the Center for Investigative Reporting’s success, and it’s about more than a newsroom-culture shift away from the kind of crime coverage you’re already going to get on the six o’clock news. Freeing up reporters to spend more time digging deeply into stories is the foundation. But the real opportunity for innovation comes in experimenting with a variety of distribution methods and multiple sources of revenue. That’s at least in part because the fundamental instability of the industry is directly tied to questions about how people get information today.

“It’s very difficult to be ambitious and build something in a newsroom where you’re getting smaller and the business model is broken — and it is broken,” Rosenthal said. “It has been broken. It’s not the journalism that’s broken, it’s the business model. We’re in a completely different world.”

“The process can be very iterative, it can be messy, but at the same time you get some great ideas.”

Adapting — and ultimate survival — in this new world requires deftly crossing platforms to tell stories that matter. Rosenthal bristles at the idea of having “readers” because CIR doesn’t just produce news websites, it produces news across platforms.

CIR’s revenue strategy mirrors the spirit of the diversification with which it approaches content production. Rosenthal says that the funding that flows into The Bay Citizen will, like California Watch, have multiple channels: philanthropic support from “major donor efforts,” content fees, fees from membership, fees from events, corporate underwriting. More opportunities for revenue translate into more journalism, which further fuels a newsroom’s ability to try different kinds of storytelling.

“You’re working simultaneously with the video people, you’re working with a radio reporter, you’re working with people who are doing interactive data, you’re working with people who might be doing animation,” Rosenthal says. “The process can be very iterative, it can be messy, but at the same time you get some great ideas…There’s a tremendous amount of involvement from everybody. It’s a very lively, creative, ambitious culture.”

It’s also a culture that encourages ideas that might not even be discussed in a traditional newsroom. Remember California Watch’s “Ready to Rumble”coloring book? That came out of an investigative series on earthquake safety in schools. Next up: Puppets.

“We’re going to be very experimental,” Rosenthal says. “We’re really thinking of how people of all ages get, use and want information at this revolutionary moment we’re all in. This is a good opportunity— a terrific, unique opportunity to be entrepreneurs.”

Photo of Golden Gate Bridge by Marco Klapper used under a Creative Commons license.

March 28 2012

14:00

Best Practices for Collaborative Investigative Reporting

My first professional job out of college was surprisingly relevant to what I've been doing of late. I started as a program analyst at the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Inspector General in the Office of Evaluation and Inspections. In federal government parlance, that would be the OEI in the OIG at DHHS.

Our mandate was to identify "fraud, waste and abuse" within the department's programs. With unfettered access to vast data sets, we conducted national studies to evaluate various regulations and the ways they were being applied. We were data reporters without my knowing what a data reporter was. It was a lot like investigative journalism, but with bigger budgets and a dress code. It was also a lot like identifying best practices for collaborative investigative reporting.

"Best practices" is a highfalutin' term we used in our proposal to the Knight Foundation just as our office, the Investigative Reporting Program at U.C. Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism (IRP), was about to launch into "Post Mortem," a collaboration about death investigation in America with PBS Frontline, ProPublica and NPR. In retrospect, "blueprint" would have been a better term to use than "best practices," since we all know that there's rarely one draft of a blueprint.

Documenting Collaboration

When "Post Mortem" launched in the spring of 2010, the combination of partners -- national public television, national public radio and a nonprofit digital publication -- was a first, to the best of my knowledge, and we guessed we'd learn much from this ambitious undertaking. When I've described the project to other editors and reporters over the last year, some have voiced skepticism about how "Post Mortem" reflects other collaborations cropping up around the country. Of course Frontline, NPR and ProPublica can pull off a collaboration like "Post Mortem," the skeptics have said, but how does that experience relate to media organizations collaborating at the state or local level?

The answer is that while investigative collaborations vary, a number of decisions and sticking points remain constant, regardless of the organizations involved.

We learned, for example, that collaboration impacts each phase of the reporting process -- from planning and reporting to publication; sometimes the impact of collaboration is obvious, sometimes not. Our Knight Foundation funding provided for an embedded reporter (me) to cover the collaboration; this was an evaluator's dream, giving us the ability to document the process as it unfolded. After all, if you're a journalist in the midst of a collaboration, your goal is not to understand or refine the process of collaborating -- it's to report and publish or broadcast your story. (Though, based on my experience with "Post Mortem," I'd recommend that those spearheading journalistic collaborations do take the time to document the process to some extent, because the unexpected always happens, and there are good lessons in the unexpected.)

Lessons in the Unexpected

In "Post Mortem" there were plenty of revelations. Everyone involved in the project had a basic understanding of television, radio and the web. But when you report for multiple platforms simultaneously, each medium's differences rise to the surface. It was challenging, for example, to get the project's television correspondent to ask questions of subjects that would evoke answers that translated well for both television and radio.

Other challenges were fairly straightforward, like figuring out how to describe the collaboration within the PBS Frontline documentary. NPR and ProPublica reporters weren't on camera, so how could we introduce them in a visual medium?FL_PM.jpg We also couldn't anticipate the possibility that an event like the Arab Spring would bump an NPR "Post Mortem" story for good.

The best practices (PDF) that we at the IRP have drafted are drawn from our own lessons learned, as well as input from others in the field who've tackled collaborative work. Many of the document's observations come straight from the mouths of the "Post Mortem" collaborators, whom I interviewed during and after the project. It's all good stuff, but the ultimate value of these best practices will be if we view them as a collaborative, open-source document: a starting point for more formalized and smoother collaborating.

The Non-Negotiables

Here are a few of the lessons included in our best practices that I think are especially worthy of emphasis:

  • Plan, plan, plan. You can read my recent post about planning on Collaboration Central. I'll say it again. Plan.
  • Take the time to understand your partner's requirements: What do they need to produce the best possible stories for their media? Where might there be conflicting needs, and how can those conflicts be addressed?
  • Understand your partners' organizational culture and structure. This will help throughout the process and at least offer some insight into burning questions like: Why can't they commit to a publication date? Can we get something in writing? And how much time do we need for the editorial process?
  • Finally, whether you're collaborating with other media outfits or working within your own newsroom, a focus on teamwork and leadership skills is imperative to fostering a culture that can sustain collaborative work; without it, people will burn out and collaboration will falter. Journalism professors Jonathan Groves and Carrie Brown-Smith wrote in a recent Neiman Journalism Lab article: "Changing a culture is not a top-down or bottom-up proposition: It's a dance between leaders and their organizations." I couldn't agree more. Let's dance.

Take a look at the best practices (PDF) we wrote and share your tips, thoughts and ideas about working collectively.

Carrie Lozano is a Bay-Area based journalist and documentary filmmaker. She is currently the project director for "Collective Work" a Knight-funded project about collaborative, multiplatform investigative reporting at the Investigative Reporting Program, UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She is also directing and producing a documentary film with Charlotte Lagarde about jazz pianist and composer Fred Hersch. You can follow her at @carrielozano or reach her at clozano at berkeley.edu.

"Collective Work" is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Copyright 2012, The University of California at Berkeley.

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February 28 2012

14:00

What Is Collaboration Anyway?

Journalists, by nature, tend to be fiercely competitive, racing to break the news before their rivals. Given that tendency, anyone who's engaged in a journalism collaboration knows that it's an extraordinary endeavor. That's why it's worth stepping back and identifying what we really mean when we say we're collaborating.

At the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, we've spent the last 18 months focused on that very question in our project Collective Work, which is developing best practices and other resources to help support and encourage collaborative investigative reporting.

When we began the project, little had been written about the subject (there's been much more attention since), so we began interviewing multiplatform editors, reporters and educators about the fast-emerging trend. To date, we've talked to more than 50 industry professionals who've made clear that collaboration means different things to different organizations and experts. Often, what's dubbed collaboration is actually something else, like crowdsourcing, syndication, aggregation or even sharing.

Collaboration as a category of convenience is notable, even in the realm of media jargon. But it's understandable. Unlike more abstract terms -- synergy, convergence, transmedia -- it conveys something new, positive, concrete and universally understood. As the antithesis of competition, it's a not so subtle way of saying: "We're doing something new!"

But from the perspective of building strong business models and infrastructures that support collaborative endeavors, making a distinction matters.

Towards a standard definition

So what does collaboration really mean?

The definition that my colleagues and I have adopted emerged from Collective Work's primary case study: the Investigative Reporting Program's collaboration with PBS Frontline, ProPublica and NPR for the series "Post Mortem," an ongoing in-depth look at death investigation in America, which I described in an earlier post. Based on that experience and our previous partnerships, we are focusing on projects where reporters, editors and producers from different news organizations work as a team to produce and publish original, in-depth, multiplatform stories.

This definition reflects what we think is truly groundbreaking about collaborative efforts and points to an area of reporting that has both untapped potential and plenty of kinks to work out. While collaboration itself doesn't solve the question of how to pay for the reporting, it does put more resources toward a story, resulting in more (often better) coverage that reaches wider audiences than one organization could manage on its own.

Focus on the fundamentals

The benefits may be obvious, but there's a lot to learn about this new way of working. The reality is that the evolving media landscape, limited resources and fast-breaking nature of news don't always allow for methodical planning, processes, training or staffing. Collaboration, in particular, doesn't operate with the same workflow efficiencies that are the hallmark of getting daily newspapers on the newsstand.

Ulrich Nettesheim.jpg

Not to mention that transitioning from a competition-based, solitary work culture to a more open and team-oriented one doesn't happen with ease, which is why we sought the insight of Ulrich Nettesheim, an organizational psychologist, executive consultant and lecturer on leadership and high-performance teams at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business.

According to Nettesheim, we journalists are not alone in the march toward collaborative work. Technical disciplines, such as business, science and journalism, are becoming increasingly interdisciplinary, and a premium is placed on teamwork.

"Part of the world of work means that you have to be able to be a member of and lead teams," explained Nettesheim. "That's a skill set that's no longer optional or nice to do. It's a requirement."

Like assumptions about collaboration, understanding the concept of "team" seems a no-brainer. But from an organizational perspective, Nettesheim emphasized that teamwork has a specific meaning: It requires shared goals, high interdependency of tasks, and strong relationships.

Hearing this gave me a framework for understanding the breakdowns in collaboration that I had both witnessed and heard about. It also clarified why collaboration is not an accurate description for many media partnerships.

Nettesheim helped me discern that what journalists often refer to as collaborations are actually transactions. Transactions between media organizations don't require the same relationships or interdependency that collaborations do.

ca-watch.jpgTo understand the distinction, California Watch is a good case study. Associate editor Denise Zapata explained that part of its model is to allow partners to regionalize statewide stories, either by mining data that California Watch provides or reframing a story with a localized angle. While the process may require some back-and-forth, it's largely a systematized transaction. But when California Watch recently pooled money with partners to send a reporter to Spain for a story that they all shared, that was a collaboration.

Given the industry's quest for sustainability, and the desire among forward-thinking journalists to institutionalize collaboration, correctly identifying and naming transactions would be a helpful business strategy. After all, transactions are potential revenue streams, which makes them easy to justify.

Leadership is needed

With an understanding of what it entails, what can we do to ensure that collaboration survives? Nettesheim emphasized the importance of things like team charters, acknowledging strengths and weaknesses (at the individual and organizational level) and making a commitment to give and receive feedback.

It was heartening to hear. It confirmed that if we look beyond our own industry for collaborative modeling, there are promising solutions to what can make the process inefficient, frustrating and an easy target for editors who haven't quite bought in.

But all of this will only happen with strong, vocal leaders who are open to reflection and understanding the dynamics of teamwork. With all the hats that editors and news executives currently wear, it seems like a difficult, if not impossible, task. So when I asked Nettesheim how media organizations could develop and nurture leadership skills, I was relieved that he hedged on a precise formula and instead gave a digestible example.

"The single best definition of leadership I learned from coach Jack Clark," he explained, referring to UC Berkeley's rugby coach whose team has won 22 championships since 1984.

"It's simple and powerful. 'Make those around you better.'"

As journalists try to make journalism better, Collaboration Central wants to hear from you. How do you define collaboration?

Carrie Lozano is a Bay-Area based journalist and documentary filmmaker. She is currently the project director for "Collective Work" a Knight-funded project about collaborative, multiplatform investigative reporting at the Investigative Reporting Program, UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She is also directing and producing a documentary film with Charlotte Lagarde about jazz pianist and composer Fred Hersch.

Collective Work is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Copyright 2012, The University of California at Berkeley.

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December 30 2011

18:30

Clara Jeffery: What nonprofit news orgs are betting on for 2012

Editor’s Note: We’re wrapping up 2011 by asking some of the smartest people in journalism what the new year will bring.

Next up is Clara Jeffery, co-editor of Mother Jones.

Predictions are a chump’s game. So this is more like a window into what the editors of a small nonprofit news organization are betting on.

There is no spoon

Forget distinctions between blog posts and stories because readers don’t care. What they care about is a source — be it news org or author — that they trust and enjoy.

Data viz

We at Mother Jones had a breakout hit with our income inequality charts. 5 million readers, 240K Facebook likes, 14K tweets, and counting. Charts were pasted up on the walls of Wisconsin state capitol during the union fight; #OWS protestors blew them up and put them on signs, and distributed them in leaflets. Partly, it was the right message at the right time. But it was also that a very complicated story was boiled down into 11 charts and that the sources for the charts’ information were provided.

More broadly, in 2011, chart fever swept media orgs — hey, USA Today, you were right all along! In 2012, I am sure we’re not the only ones who are investing in ways to make data more frequent, and more interactive.

Blur the lines between writer/producer/coder

If you want to do visual storytelling, you need people who can marry words with images, animation, video. We’re not only hiring people who have advanced data app and video skills, but we’re also training our entire editorial staff to experiment with video, make charts, and use tools like Document Cloud and Storify to enrich the reader experience. To that end, anything that makes it easier to integrate disparate forms of media — whether it’s HTML5 or Storify — is a friend to journalists.

Collaboration 2.0

There are a number of cool content collaborations out there — MoJo is in the Climate Desk collaboration with The Atlantic, Grist, Slate, Wired, CIR, and Need to Know, for example. But in retooling that project for 2012 (coming soon!), we really started thinking about collaborating with tech or content tool companies like Prezi and Storify. And why shouldn’t news orgs on the same CMS potentially collaborate on new features, sharing development time? So, for example, we, TNR, Texas Monthly, the New York Observer, and Fast Company (I think) are all on Drupal. Is there something we all want? Could we pool dev time and build a better mousetrap? We actually built a “create-your-own-cover” tool that, in keeping with the open-source ethos of Drupal (and because I’m friends with editor Jake Silverstein) we handed over to Texas Monthly; they improved on it. The biggest barrier to collaboration is bandwidth within each constituent group. But ultimately it makes sense to try learn collectively.

Where am I?

As people increasingly get news from their social stream, the implications for news brands are profound. If nobody comes through the homepage, then every page is a homepage. Figuring out when (and if) you can convert flybys into repeat customers is a huge priority — especially for companies that have subscription or donation as part of their revenue stream. If everyone is clamoring for this, then somebody is going to invent the things we need — better traffic analysis tools, but also A/B testers like Optimizely.

It also means that being a part of curation communities — be they Reddit or Longform/Longreads — is as important as having a vibrant social media presence yourself. As is the eye candy of charts, data viz, etc. Lure them in with that, and often they’ll stay for the long feature that accompanies it.

User generated content 2.0

Social media and Storify are making users into content producers in ways that earlier attempts at distributed reporting couldn’t. Especially on fast-breaking stories, they are invaluable partners in the creation process, incorporated into and filtered through verified reporting. For MoJo, for example, the social media implications surrounding our Occupy coverage were profound. We were reporting ourselves, as well as getting reports from hundreds of people on the ground. Some became trusted sources, sort of deputized reporters to augment our own. And we found ourselves serving an invaluable role as fact-checkers on the rumors that swirled around any one incident.

It was heady and often exhausting. But it won us a lot of loyal readers. We could do all that in real time on Twitter and use Storify to curate the best of what we and others were reporting on our site, beaming that back to Twitter. (And Al Jazeera’s The Stream, for example, is taking that kind of social media integration to a whole new level. Of course, it helps to be bankrolled by the Al Thanis.)

Mobile, mobile, mobile

To me, especially within the magazine world, there’s been an overemphasis on “apps,” most of which thus far aren’t so great and are often walled off from social media. But anything that improves — and monetizes — the mobile experience is a win. And any major element of what you’re offering that doesn’t work across the major devices is a sunk cost. Sorry, Flash.

Investigative reporting renaissance

Despite all the hand-wringing of a few years ago, it turns out that people do read longform on the web, on tablets and readers, and even on their phone. They love charts and graphs and animation and explainers. They want to know your sources and even look at primary documents. And they want it all tied up with voice and style. There’s no better time to be an investigative journalist.

November 12 2011

16:59

Readers request opinion and investigative reporting - stop to "report" only news

Forbes :: 95+% of journalists seem to only “report” the news, rather than give opinions or do investigative reporting. What's also annoying is, that the majority of journalists seem obsessed with “scoops.” There seems to be no higher honor in the journalistic profession than being recognized for getting a scoop and God save the other journalists who fails to recognize – and more importantly – credit a fellow journalist for his or her hard fought scoop.

[Eric Jackson:] The business world needs fewer journalists and more opinions and investigative reporting.

Continue to read Eric Jackson, www.forbes.com

August 03 2011

17:00

California Watch expands south with a new partnership

The nonprofit California Watch, just shy of its second birthday, opens its new Southern California bureau today — and the location says something about the evolution of the news business.

A reporter and community engagement manager will be leaving the outfit’s Berkeley headquarters and taking up residence in the newsroom of the Orange County Register. And the rent is unbeatable: free.

“As traditional newsrooms have cut back, they have been left with vast stretches of open space inside their newsrooms or buildings,” said Mark Katches, editorial director for California Watch and its parent organization, the making the announcement last month. “We are able to capitalize in a way that benefits our organization and our hosts.”

A couple of years ago, when California Watch was new and unknown, the outlook for this kind of team-up might not have been so sunny. The O.C. (don’t call it that) Register, for one thing, might have viewed California Watch simply as a competitor encroaching on its turf. Other reporters setting up shop here, digging for the same dirt?

No longer, though: Now, they’re teammates. (The Register already pays annual licensing fees to run California Watch stories in its own pages.) “There’s just so much news in California that, two years in, there really has not been a case where we have overlapped,” says Robert Salladay, California Watch’s senior editor. “I think that alleviated a lot of fear on the part of reporters and our partners.”

Not everyone they talked to was as receptive to a team-up as the Register, Salladay said, but at the same time, California Watch was actually getting partnership invitations from some papers. “The situation with newspapers is so critical. I think everyone’s happy for the copy, happy that stories are getting done. It is a much more collaborative industry now,” Salladay told me. “I can imagine that, 10 years ago, this model just wouldn’t have flown at all.”

The Center for Investigative Reporting launched California Watch in fall 2009 to do the kind of time-consuming, data-driven reporting that many newspapers can’t afford anymore. Since then, the site has launched its own initiatives: a statewide distribution network, a radio partnership with public broadcasting giant KQED, and a television unit that works in collaboration with WGBH’s Frontline and ABC News. In addition to more than 1,200 news posts last year, the site pumps out, on average, three investigative pieces a month, Salladay told me — and a half-dozen major series a year.

Financially, California Watch continues to subsist on grants from foundations, but the organization is raising some revenue, as well. In January, the outfit changed the way it charges for its content. Members of the California Watch Media Network — among them the San Francisco Chronicle, the Sacramento Bee, and, yes, the Orange County Register — now choose from a menu of stories each year and pay membership fees that vary according to their circulation and audience reach. (Previously, California Watch negotiated the price of each story, a la carte.) Salladay would not disclose the membership rates, but he said it can’t be so much that a newspaper can’t afford it. Newspapers’ financial struggles, after all, are the reason California Watch exists in the first place.

California Watch’s move into Southern California is overdue, Salladay said — especially because it’s where most Californians live. “One of the reasons we want to be in Southern California is that here are a lot of neglected communities that don’t get a lot of coverage, so we’re hoping to get out to some of the smaller communities to do a lot of work on low-income people, disadvantaged communities, work on the border, work on migrant farmworkers. You’d be surprised how many small towns there are down there that aren’t being watched. I think with what the L.A. Times found with the city of Bell, there’s a lot of fruitful work that can be done.”

Looking beyond Orange County, Salladay would also like to get a reporter in Los Angeles, add a border bureau in San Diego or Imperial County, and maybe hire a staff photographer. In just two years, now with 25 employees, California Watch has become the largest investigative reporting team in the state. The organization’s biggest challenge now, Salladay said, is staying on mission.

“We have to constantly remind ourselves that the mission is investigative reporting — looking at waste, fraud, and abuse,” he noted. “There’s a great temptation to pull ourselves away for some great mini-scandal somewhere or some great enterprise story about a social issue. We want to do those, but I think it’s important for us to stay focused.”

January 11 2011

19:30

Two journalism awards to know: Worth Bingham for investigations and Taylor Family for fairness

January is awards entry season in newsrooms across the country — the time when copy machines burn through countless toner cartridges, churning out copies of that great story you wrote back in April, the one that got the mayor thrown in jail.

And since more journalists are facing financial difficulties these days, it’s worth appreciating the journalism awards that attach a goodly-sized chunk of money to the prestige that comes with winning. I want to let you know about two such prizes we administer here at the Nieman Foundation that have deadlines looming: The Worth Bingham Prize for Investigative Journalism and the Taylor Family Award for Fairness in Newspapers.

Worth Bingham Prize for Investigative Journalism

First up: the Bingham Prize, named for the late reporter and member of the storied Bingham journalism family. You can read all about the prize here, but here’s the description:

The Worth Bingham Prize honors investigative reporting of stories of national significance where the public interest is being ill-served. These stories may involve state, local or national government, lobbyists or the press itself wherever there exists an “atmosphere of easy tolerance” that Worth Bingham himself once described in his reporting on the nation’s capital. The investigative reporting may cover actual violations of the law, rule or code; lax or ineffective administration or enforcement; or activities which create conflicts of interest, entail excessive secrecy or otherwise raise questions of propriety.

In other words, good old fashioned watchdog reporting. The winner of the Worth Bingham Prize will receive $20,000; past winners include Seymour Hersh, Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, Dana Priest, Anne Hull, Diana Henriques, Bill Dedman, and other great journalists. We accept entries from newspapers, magazines, and online-only outlets (sorry, broadcasters).

The deadline is coming up quick, though: Entries must be postmarked by this Friday, January 14. So get cracking! Entry details here.

Taylor Family Award for Fairness in Newspapers

The second prize is the Taylor Family Award for Fairness in Newspapers. The prize was established by the family that published The Boston Globe for more than a century, in particular Globe chairman emeritus William O. Taylor. The purpose of the award is “to encourage fairness in news coverage by America’s daily newspapers”:

The guidelines for the Taylor Fairness Award do not offer a definition of fairness. This is deliberate, recognizing that elements of fairness in journalism are diverse and do not easily lend themselves to a precise definition for a journalism competition.

Past winners include the Chicago Tribune, The Hartford Courant, The Charlotte Observer, The Sacramento Bee, and the Globe itself. First prize is $10,000. The contest is only open to newspapers and their websites. You’ve got a little more time to apply for this one: Friday, January 21 is the deadline. Details here.

Good luck!

December 20 2010

16:00

Secrecy conference: In countries like Romania and Cambodia, illegal leaks can be transparency’s only hope

While, in the United States, WikiLeaks has caused a furor for its journalism-by-data-dump, similar leaks abroad are a major source of reporting on government operations — occasionally providing the only transparency available, as journalists struggle against secretive governments, corrupt media, and threatened or actual violence. At the first morning panel of the Nieman Foundation’s secrecy and journalism conference, international reporters and editors drew connections and contrasts between the situation here and abroad.

When media is part of the problem

Stefan Candea, a Nieman Fellow and founder of the Romanian Centre for Investigative Journalism, was 11 when communist rule collapsed in his home country, ending 50 years of media as propaganda tool. Today, however, the media is still far from being without fear or favor.

“We were told by the chief justice in Massachusetts that a functioning democracy requires a free ballot, free judges, and a free media. We have none of those in Romania,” he said. “The traditional media is not free because it’s run by local oligarchs whose main source of income is working with the state. Their only motivation with owning media is to stay out of jail.” Candea said that one one media owner told his top news management that his company should act like the keys to his limousine: “If you turn the key to the right it should start; if you turn the key to the left it should stop.”

So Candea left Romania’s print world, which he said taught him what not to do, and formed CRJI, which began tracking and exposing the close ties between media, political power and organized crime. But to gather that information, his organization has had to be flexible on its sources. “We don’t refuse access to any databases, whether it’s a hacked database or not, because we have so few sources of information,” he said.

Desperate times, creative measures

In 1993, Cambodia saw its own revolution in the form of free elections, which also ushered in the creation of a free press. But while things were better, newly passed freedom of information laws were almost universally unenforced, according to Kevin Doyle, Nieman Fellow and founder of the Cambodia Daily. After a 1997 grenade attack on peaceful protesters outside the country’ judiciary left 16 dead, officials were widely suspected of encouraging the attacks. Weak freedom-of-information laws, however, meant journalists could do little but question the government’s flat denials. Years passed without any progress on solving the case.

And then the Cambodia Daily got creative: One of Doyle’s staff, based in the United States, suggested a Freedom of Information Act request might yield results, since the FBI had come in to investigate because one of the dead was an American. Two years later, after a long and dogged process, the FBI finally released the files.

“The FBI found witnesses that implicated the state in the attacks, to the point of the police allowing the attackers through a police brigade while those persuing them were stopped,” said Doyle. In a country with so few sources of official information, it was a major coup.

WikiLeaks with a local impact

Well before the current blockbuster leaks made WikiLeaks a household name, the organization made several releases that still had a wide ranging impact. One occurred right in the backyard of Rob Rose, a Nieman Fellow and reporter for South Africa’s Sunday Times.

South Africa had convened a commission to look into banking inequality — a legacy of the country’s apartheid past — but the released report was so redacted as to be almost farcical. WikiLeaks obtained and released the unredacted report, possibly by simply removing the commission’s poorly performed blackouts. The impact was tremendous. “It accelerated change in the banking system, which I thought was a critical event,” said Rose.

Another incident, however, exposed the dangers journalists face when aggressively pursuing leaked stories. World Cup soccer is big business for the host country, but contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars in public money were withheld from the public. Then the Sunday Times received a CD full of the unredacted contracts, exposing contractor and bidding corruption that cost taxpayers millions. But the day before Rose left for his Nieman Fellowship, he said, a colleague was arrested for reporting on the documents.

The prospects for improved press freedom laws in the future aren’t looking bright. “What hasn’t helped is that countries like China have seen huge economic success without a free press,” he said. “China is a huge trading partner of many African countries, and they’ve used the success of China to repeal certain press laws.”

The limits of leaks

But while leaks, even those of dubious legality, are a critical reporting tool throughout the world, they cannot begin to replace solid investigative reporting, Alejandra Matus said.

Matus, a Nieman Fellow last year and a freelance investigative journalist from Chile, spent six years investigating the Chilean court system, hoping to emerge with enough material for a book. “I found myself reporting in the courts where everything was secret,” she said. “The testimonies, the disposition, how they arrived at decisions.”

It was a long, tedious process of showing up to the courthouse, meeting people, and slowly gaining their confidence. Sometimes, Matus said, they gave her documents but more often they just gave information. “That is not the type of information you could leak to WikiLeaks,” she said. Instead, it was the explaining the procedures and systems, and the back story, that allowed such a broken court system to continue.

And at the end of her six years, Matus found she still did not have enough for her book. Instead, she went and studied other legal systems around the world for reference. “It was not that the book revealed one secret or one wrongdoing of one person, but the book put in context a whole system that wasn’t working,” she said. Part of the job was getting the secrets, she said but the bigger task was the processing of the information, much of which was already public or at least known locally, in order to create a traceable, irrefutable account of what was wrong.

“I’ve seen a lot of hysteria by journalists around WikiLeaks — they feel threatened,” she said. “I think the most meaningful part of this is he had to give the information to journalists to process it. That’s why there are journalists: to do the boring part.”

October 21 2010

16:00

MuckRock makes FOIA requests easy, but will reporters use it?

Making freedom of information requests can be a daunting task. If it’s not an agency dragging its heels on releasing documents or asking for a fee large enough to buy a compact car, then it’s the actual process of the, well, process. You’ve got to identify the right agency, contact the right administrator, find out whether they take requests in the mail or electronically, and even then you’ve got to word your request precisely or risk ending up with liquor licenses when you wanted restaurant inspections.

It’s a system begging for simplification. While DocumentCloud is making it easier to wrangle and make sense of public records, MuckRock wants to make FOIA requests similarly effortless.

On its face MuckRock is a tool that allows journalists of all stripes (pro to amateur and in between) to make document requests easier. Think of it like Netflix: You tell MuckRock what you’re looking for and it provides suggestions, ultimately getting you what you’re looking for. But instead of Starship Troopers, you wind up with a nicely formatted request letter to your record agency of choice.

But in keeping with the idea of transparency, MuckRock also provides an online tracking service to see the progress of requests, and acts as a repository for all the records collected through the site.

“The idea we had was making a nice, modern interface for the end user on a very backwards, outdated, finicky process,” Michael Morisy, MuckRock’s co-founder told me.

The question, perhaps a bigger one than going from an analog system to a digital one, is whether journalists (particularly investigative ones known for being careful with their records) are willing to trade control over information (and potentially their scoop) for a streamlined, simplified FOIA process.

“The real tragedy is in a lot of cases a reporter will get hundreds of pages of government documents and they might use two or three sentences from them or might not use them at all,” he said. “And then they go into some filing room for all eternity where they’re lost.”

Morisy and co-founder Mitchell Kotler built a FOIA wizard of sorts that takes users through the steps of selecting federal or local agencies and the particular data they’re interested in. Among the options are areas like budgets, public contracts, sex offender lists and pet license information. From there MuckRock acts as an emissary, sending the request letter and providing the tracking tool to show whether the documents are being processed or are past due. Though the site currently only lists state and local data for Massachusetts, Morisy said they are hoping to expand. But the local level may be where MuckRock could have the most impact, making it easier for newspapers or local sites to create projects like a public employee salary database.

The idea was to build a service that anyone could use — a long-time journalist, a neighborhood blogger, or someone simply looking to get answers out of city hall. The value to bloggers or citizen journalists seems clear: Providing not just tools but guidance on the sometimes labyrinthian process of making document requests. But for journalists working at established media outlets, the pitch is a little more tricky. “We’ve kind of found our sweet spot right now is helping out anybody who’s at least that pro-am journalist or a community blogger,” said Morisy, who has written for the New York Daily News and Business 2.0. “But also the overburdened reporter who writes stories, blogs, tweets, and has to juggle investigations.” In theory, a new resource to help newsrooms expedite FOIA requests would be a help, particularly at a time when shrinking staff and rising demand on reporters may exclude investigative projects. In reality, experienced journalists are generally more comfortable undertaking FOIA requests themselves, if not for accuracy than to keep a story under wraps from competitors or the government itself.

“We want to give people as much control over what’s public and what’s private — the last thing we ever want to do is ruin a reporter’s scoop,” Morisy said. With that in mind, MuckRock now allows users to embargo their requests and documents for up to 30 days after receiving a response from an agency.

DocumentCloud, WikiLeaks, and attempts at crowdsourced document analysis show that technology has enabled better methods of obtaining, displaying and dissecting information. What may also need to adapt, Morisy argues, is the mindset around collecting and reporting on public documents. Journalists often have to commit to a balancing act, asking for documents only to keep them hidden away during their reporting, Morisy said. MuckRock encourages transparency by its design, Morisy said, and he hopes it encourages all journalists to make as much as their reporting open as possible.

“I think it’s important for people to see how these documents are obtained, and that it’s not just reporters that have access to documents — anyone can get them,” Morisy said.

September 27 2010

16:00

From Al Capone to Rod Blagojevich, how Chicago’s Better Government Association is reinventing itself

What should a good government organization with an investigative bent look like in 2010? That’s the question leaders of the Better Government Association, a Chicago institution that’s been battling city corruption since Al Capone, have been asking recently. The BGA is best known for its investigative partnerships with Chicago media, perhaps most famously the time it helped the Chicago Sun Times open and operate a bar called The Mirage Tavern. The 1977 investigation documented rampant city corruption, from kickbacks to tax skimming.

That type of investigative work is needed now more than ever, the BGA’s new executive director, Andy Shaw, told me. Shaw pointed to a combination of serious problems in city and state government (e.g. Rod Blagojevich) and the decline in the power of the state’s biggest traditional media outlets (e.g. the Chicago Tribune’s parent company currently being in bankruptcy proceedings). How does an institution like the BGA have impact in that kind of an environment?

Shaw, a veteran politics reporter for the ABC affiliate in Chicago, joined the BGA in June 2009. Since then, he’s quadrupled the BGA’s budget to $1.5 million, thanks to a number of foundation grants from places like the Knight Foundation and charitable arms of companies like Boeing. He’s ramped up the operation from a staff of two to a staff of 14. Shaw just announced the hire of three veteran Chicago reporters: Bob Reed, Bob Herguth and John Conroy (recently profiled in CJR). And he’s rethought how the BGA should operate in a new media age.

“All of this is made possible by the realization that we have a service that is critically necessary,” Shaw told me. “We know how to investigate.”

I spoke with Shaw about his specific plans for expansion. He was candid in his responses, saying he hopes other cities will start up their own BGA-style organizations — not unlike the boom we’ve seen recently in regional investigative nonprofits. “We’re trying to create a model for anti-corruption watchdogs to operate,” he told me. “There’s this desperate need for information and scrutiny.” Here are a few of the areas where the BGA is investing.

Partnerships

The rest of the journalism world seems to be catching up to the BGA when it comes to partnerships between nonprofits and news organizations. Shaw says now’s the time for BGA to diversify the kinds of partnerships it has. The group will still maintain relationships with traditional outlets like the Chicago Sun-Times and local television stations, but they’re also looking to online and niche publications, like Crain’s Chicago Business, and the education-focused Catalyst Chicago. One of its strongest partners is the Chicago News Cooperative, which provides The New York Times with content.

“The lifelong mission of this organization, which goes back to 1923, has become increasingly more important as legacy media is less able to do its old job,” Shaw said. “We have had an increasing number of partnerships with media in the pursuit of good stories. Over the last year, we’ve doubled the number of partnerships.”

Audience

Traditionally, the BGA reached an audience through its partner news organizations. Thanks to a grant from the McCormick Foundation, Shaw says they’re in the midst of a major overhaul of their site, which will begin rolling out in October. The site itself will become a destination for information, plus a place for users to submit content or tipsters to reach investigators.

“They’ll be able to report problems with government, ranging from potholes that don’t get fixed to snow that doesn’t get removed, to work sites where nothing gets done, to boards, commissions and agencies that don’t seem to be doing their jobs — or doing their jobs in a questionable way.”

BGA also wants to train locals to do reporting themselves, letting users contribute blog posts to the site. Shaw hopes that distributed effort will allow BGA to move into parts of Illinois outside Chicago. Their Watchdog program offers in-person training on filing Freedom of Information requests and other investigative basics.

Impact

Shaw is clear that BGA is an advocacy group, with a mission to stamp out corruption. That means a great story with no impact is of less value to BGA than it might be to a news organization. He wants readers contacting officials and pushing for change. “The biggest difference is we’ve begun to understand how important civic engagement is,” he said. “It’s not enough to disclose. We must propose solutions. Everything we uncover is matched with a source of remediation: cancel the contract; rebid the contract; revisit the salary structures. We are telling the subjects of our stories what we think they ought to be doing.”

Though BGA brings an advocate’s perspective, Shaw’s effort to double down on impact is right in line with what other nonprofit news organizations are facing. Nonprofit news organizations like the Center for Public Integrity and ProPublica all talk about impact as an important part of their viability as nonprofits — results sell better to funders than stories alone.

July 09 2010

12:15

Colombian journalist Hollman Morris denied U.S. visa to be a Nieman Fellow at Harvard

It’s the time of year when the new class of Nieman Fellows starts arriving here in Cambridge, but we thought you should know about an unprecedented situation currently keeping one of our colleagues away. Hollman Morris Rincón, an independent journalist in Colombia, won a Nieman Fellowship this spring to study conflict negotiation strategies, international criminal court procedures, and the Rome Statute. I’ll just quote the AP:

BOGOTA, Colombia — The U.S. government has denied a visa to a prominent Colombian journalist who specializes in conflict and human rights reporting to attend a prestigious fellowship at Harvard University.

Hollman Morris, who produces an independent TV news program called “Contravia,” has been highly critical of ties between illegal far-right militias and allies of outgoing President Alvaro Uribe, Washington’s closest ally in Latin America.

The curator of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard, which has offered the mid-career fellowships since 1938, said Thursday that a consular official at the U.S. Embassy in Bogota told him Morris was ruled permanently ineligible for a visa under the “Terrorist activities” section of the USA Patriot Act.

Here’s a video of Hollman talking about human rights abuses in Colombia; here’s an interview from the Center for Investigative Reporting with Hollman and his brother and colleague Juan Pablo Morris about their work:

The Morris brothers take their cameras deep into the Colombian countryside to probe into the disappearance of thousands of individuals kidnapped over the past decade, and track efforts to unearth their graves far from the cosmopolitan capital city of Bogotá or the eyes of the international or global press. “Our aim,” Juan Pablo told us, “is to reconstruct the memory of those atrocities….Many of the people who followed the paramilitaries in the 1980s and 90s are running the country today.”

Contravia has uncovered links between paramilitary leaders and high officials in Colombian politics and finance. Thirty senators and representatives in the Colombian Congress have been imprisoned because of their ties to the paramilitary death squads; another sixty have been investigated. That’s a third of Colombia’s 268 member Congress, giving rise to a new term — ‘para-politica’ — to describe the ongoing crisis as one top politician after another is accused of complicity with the para-military squads. Most of those accused represent political parties that are part of the governing coalition led by President Alvaro Uribe.

Hollman Morris was given the Human Rights Defender Award by Human Rights Watch in 2007. He’s been forced to leave Colombia several times for extended periods after the airing of Contravía revelations. The show does not receive commercial backing; subsidies come from the Open Society Institute, the European Union and other international sources.

In February 2009, Contravía’s reporting prompted a denunciation by the government: Colombia’s Minister of Defense, Juan Manuel Santos, accused Hollman Morris on national radio of being “close to the guerillas,” after he conducted several interviews with FARC hostages who were later released. Uribe himself denounced Morris to the national press, and implied he was a member of the “intellectual bloc” of the FARC.

Santos is now the president-elect of Colombia and, ironically enough, was a Nieman Fellow himself while a newspaperman in the 1980s.

The independent website Colombia Reports reports on documents from April, allegedly from the Colombian security agency, that appear to call for surveillance and harassment of Hollman, including requesting “the suspension of visa.”

Obviously, we’re hoping this can be resolved. For decades, the Nieman Fellowships have brought journalists from around the world to Harvard to study and learn from one another in an atmosphere of open exchange. My boss, curator Bob Giles, has written to the State Department asking it to change its decision, and other forces are rallying in his support. I don’t know that we have many readers in Foggy Bottom, but if we do, we sincerely hope this won’t be the first time an American political decision has prevented a foreign journalist from studying with us.

June 30 2010

13:00

ProPublica’s website redesign puts “future of context” ideas to work

Late last night, ProPublica launched a redesign of its website. As most site revamps tend to be, the new propublica.org is sleeker, slicker, and generally more aesthetically pleasing than its previous incarnation. But it’s also more intuitively navigable than the previous version, incorporating the accumulated changes that the investigative outfit has learned about its users, its contributors, and its journalism in the past two-and-a-half years. As Scott Klein, the outlet’s editor of News Applications and the site revamp’s chief architect, puts it in his intro to the redesign:

When we first sat down to design our website in early 2008, we had just started as an organization, and we had yet to publish anything. We had only a skeleton staff. We had to create something of a Potemkin village website, guessing at the kinds of coverage we’d be doing and how we’d be presenting it. In the two years since, we’ve constantly tweaked the site, and have bolted on new features that we never imagined we’d be doing.

With this redesign, we’ve tried to take everything we’ve learned, and everything we’ve added, and put it together into one nice, clean site. Our hope is that the level of design sophistication now matches the sophistication of our reporting.

The revamp has been in the works, in earnest, basically since November, Klein told me — with many of the intervening months spent not in designing and coding, but in conversing: explaining to the designers the outlet hired to help with the overhaul (the San Francisco-based firm Mule) what ProPublica does and what it’s about. Before they could design ProPublica’s new website, Mule essentially “needed to get a Masters degree,” Klein says, in the organization itself.

It seems they did. Propublica.org now feels more mission-coherent than the original site. The “Donate” button is more prominent than on the previous — a not-so-subtle reminder that ProPublica, known as it is for the substantial funding it’s received from the Sandler Foundation, is always looking for more money, from more sources, to sustain its work. (Speaking of, scratch that: It’s “Donate” buttons that are prominent, three on the front page.)

The site has also added, in its “About Us” section, a list of FAQs — complete with (helpfully, delightfully) an audio-filled name-pronunciation guide: “Some pronounce it Pro-PUB-lica, some Pro-POOB-lica. Most folks here in the newsroom pronounce it Pro-PUB-lica. Of course we’re always happy to be mentioned, using any pronunciation.” (The ProPublica staff were inspired to write FAQs, senior editor Eric Umansky told me, by fellow-online-only-nonprofit Voice of San Diego — which posted its own FAQs last week.)

The new site tries to answer questions in the broader sense, too. In a recent episode of their “Rebooting the News” podcast, Jay Rosen and Dave Winer discussed the systemic challenges of the multi-level crowd: audiences — or users, or readers, or whatever term you prefer — who come into stories with differing amounts of prior knowledge, differing contextual appreciations, differing levels, essentially, of interest and information. One problem news organizations face — and it’s a design issue as much as a strictly editorial one — is how to engage and serve those different users through the same interface: the website.

The ProPublica redesign tries to address that issue by making consumption of the journalism its site contains a choose-your-own-adventure-type proposition. The revamped site, like its previous version, features, at the top of every page, a list of topics that have become focus areas of ProPublica investigations (currently, “Gulf Spill,” “New Orleans Cops,” “Loan Mods,” and six more). Now, though, the landing pages of those topic-based verticals (whose content is generally organized chronologically, river-of-news-style) also feature curated, interactive boxes that incorporate live data from ProPublica’s new applications. Check out the “Calif. Nurses” vertical, above — anchored by “Problem Nurses Remain on Job as Patients Suffer,” a finalist for this year’s Public Service Pulitzer. Scroll down past that top curated box, and there are further options for self-navigation: Users can filter stories according to their general significance (the “Major Stories Only” button), their personal significance (the “Unread Stories Only” button), their author, or their age.

The idea was to give users several paths into, and among, stories and topics, Klein explains. It’s a kind Google’s Living Stories experiment was an inspiration in that respect, he says, as was the filter-focused layout of the website of Washington’s Spokesman-Review. The changes are about making the site a personal, and even somewhat personalized, place — and about making it accessible to new users while still compelling for the old.

June 01 2010

16:00

MinnPost’s Joel Kramer on the pull between big audience and big impact

The New York Times’ David Carr took a look recently at the nonprofit news site MinnPost, which he called “one of the more promising experiments in the next version of regional news.” Here’s an excerpt:

“We want MinnPost to be able to stand on its own by 2012, and I have a very aggressive definition of sustainability, which is that we have enough revenues to survive without foundation money,” [MinnPost founder Joel Kramer] said. “A lot of the foundation money for journalism goes to large, investigative-oriented sites, and I don’t know that there will always be money for sites like ours where the emphasis is on regional coverage.”

That means that some ambitions have been deferred. The staff is small, some of the work comes from freelancers and, journalistically, MinnPost is a careful, really smart site, but it is built on high-quality analysis rather than deep reporting and investigative work. Mr. Kramer was hard-pressed to come up with a single large story the site broke that changed the course of events.

Kramer’s right that much of the attention nonprofit news outlets receive focuses on the big investigative operations, most prominently ProPublica. And if your goal is to replace what newspapers no longer do as much of, investigative reporting is an obvious focus for nonprofits and foundations. ProPublica’s Paul Steiger has said he measures his success by “impact” — a.k.a. stories that “changed the course of events” — more than audience.

I was interested in that tension between impact and audience, so I gave Kramer a call. “Having a loyal audience is central to our success and our survival, and, therefore, when we decide how to allocate resources, we have to focus on which things will build this loyal audience,” he told me. Here’s an edited version of the conversation I had with Kramer about the evolution of MinnPost.

I’m remembering when MinnPost launched back in 2007, that it was launched in response to newsroom cuts in Minnesota. Do you still see your site as serving that fill-in function of trying to produce additional news in the state? Or has your vision for what the site is doing changed?

The goal was never fill in. I would say that the goal is to serve a community of people who care about Minnesota, people who are engaged in creating the state’s future, opinion leaders, office holders, activists. It’s an important segment of the people who read newspapers. It’s not everybody. Our goal has always been to serve that audience with news, information, analysis, commentary, forum for discussion, for people who are actively involved in the community of the state. That has always been our goal. It’s never been to replace what mainstream media do, but to supplement it, aimed at the people who read the most and act on what they read the most. And that has not changed.

David Carr referred to journalism that “changed the course of events.” Do you see that sort of journalism as your responsibility as a news outlet?

I don’t think that is our principal responsibility. We take our principal responsibility as informing this community with what they want and need to know to play the roles they want to play in creating our community and creating its future.

We do ask our audience what it is that makes them read MinnPost and why they like it and why they keep coming back to it, and the most important thing is reporting and analysis from writers they trust and being on top of stories they really care about and explaining what the stories really mean. In other words, getting beyond the superficial reporting. For example, reporting on the motives of lawmakers — assessing the quality of their proposals and of their actions. Comparing what happens here to comparable situations elsewhere. Predicting what might happen next, based on the authority of the reporter. And introducing these readers to new ideas they didn’t know about, trends and people they should know about. These are the main things, the most important things we do.

Does the site look the way you would have predicted two years ago? Has it evolved based on feedback from your readers?

It has evolved. We learned both from examining the data about traffic and talking to readers that frequency of appearance on the site by trusted writers is a critical element of success. I’m not going to say that is necessarily true for everybody — I’m just talking to our experience. But for us, we learned that. Whereas before I started I might have thought that writers would take a longer period of time on a story and then write less frequently and maybe at greater length, that does not produce the kind of loyal following that we were after. That critical element is appearing frequently on the site, in a way that it is clear who the writer is.

I went back and looked at the clips from when MinnPost launched and at the time it seemed that the site was going to be more like a traditional newspaper translated online than what it is now, which I think is more like a blog that has taken reporting elements. I think if you were to read your description from when it launched and looked now, I think it looks different.

When we launched, some skeptics said that, you know, ‘Joel and his people don’t really understand new media, they don’t really understand the internet.’ And I would plead guilty to that. At the time I even said, I’m a journalist, I come out of a print background, although we did have a couple of editors with more of an Internet background than I did, and I agreed that I was trying to make something happen here that related to a value system I had built in previous media. But I said we were going to learn. So there’s no question: I’d be shocked if our site looked today like I was talking about 2.5 years ago. That’s a long time ago in the Internet world. So, yes, it’s clearly different — no question about it.

But the differences, in my opinion — and this is important to me — they’re not differences in what constitutes quality. Because you can have quality in short term, [quality] that’s in long form. You can have quality in pieces that took six months and pieces that were turned in four hours. And from day one, we were committed to the idea that our writers did not have to be bound by some false definition of objectivity, in which the writer pretends that he or she has no views about anything. So those thing were there from the beginning. But there has been a significant evolution about what works in the medium and what works to build and audience.

What about other models, like nonprofits that focus more on investigative reporting?

As is mentioned in the Times piece, we have the goal of becoming sustainable without foundations. It’s a very ambitious goal and I’m hoping we’ll achieve it by 2012, our fifth year. It’s certainly not a goal shared by all nonprofit journalism enterprises. A key to succeeding at that goal is you have to have an audience that you can figure out a variety of ways to monetize. That could be advertising, it could be sponsorships, it could be donations. It could be the support of people of wealthy means in the community who love the idea and the audience that’s been created. Having a loyal audience is central to our success and our survival, and, therefore, when we decide how to allocate resources, we have to focus on which things will build this loyal audience. And it’s that that we’re talking about changes over time because you get tremendous feedback, traffic feedback, anecdotal feedback, and you learn what it is that is attracting your audience to you.

I think the differing goals of these nonprofits are interesting; some nonprofits are just not particularly concerned with the traffic levels on their website. What do you think of the differences?

There are all kinds of different missions, and I think it’s a great time in the ecosystem where all different things are being tried. If you’re not concerned with traffic, you need to have a set of supporters who are going to be there, not because of your audience, but because of some other factor — such as your impact through investigations on the quality of government in your community, or something like that. So there are ways you could sustain with that without a focus on a regular audience. Another thing you can do, and some of my peer sites are doing this, is give your content away to other places. Now if you do that, then visits to your site are not important, and then you might be able to build a model based on syndication where publishing less frequently but giving it to prominent places could work for you. But our model is based on building a loyal audience to our site.

May 06 2010

15:00

Hummel Report: Another nonprofit news org with an anti-govt.-waste message and conservative funding

Sheila Conlin is a veteran television journalist who currently works at NBC News Channel and is finishing up a master’s degree in journalism. As part of her degree, she put together the video report you see above, which takes an interesting look at how one TV reporter has reinvented himself as a one-man band against government waste — with support from a conservative group that would like to see those stories inspire a smaller government.

Laura wrote about the phenomenon in February, noting two states (Connecticut and New Jersey) among many where conservative groups are funding investigative reporters to dig up examples of government waste, fraud, and abuse. In Conlin’s piece, in Rhode Island, it’s the nonprofit Hummel Report, produced by Jim Hummel, a former Providence Journal and WLNE-TV reporter who gained attention for his “You Paid For It” segments on the evening news.

Hummel’s business partner in the project is William J. Felkner, who along with being The Hummel Report’s director of operations is also the founder and CEO of the Ocean State Policy Research Institute, which describes its work as “crafting sound public policy based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, and traditional American values.” Ocean State is listed as a sponsor of The Hummel Report, and the organization’s logo is all over its pages.

Now, I happen to believe that whatever their politics, projects like The Hummel Report are a good thing. I’d rather see more reporting — even if some of it is motivated or funded by political interests — than less reporting. The audience can make its own judgments. But it’s worth noting, as we’ve said before, that the new wave of nonprofit news organizations everyone hears about (ProPublica et al.) will face a messaging challenge to distinguish themselves from partisan-funded operations on both the left and right.

In Conlin’s piece (stick with it through the 1:30 intro), Hummel says he has “total editorial control over my content — who can say that?” And I’m sure that’s true. But as decades of local TV news segments with names like “You Paid For It” have shown, the format and principles of the medium can influence the kinds of stories that get done — even without any outside interference. Here’s Hummel in the piece, talking about how he’s asking corporations to sponsor his project:

The corporations I’m approaching, I believe in. I think they’re good corporations. That doesn’t mean at all that I wouldn’t investigate if I heard something. But I just don’t go — I’m not equipped to go after a lot of private companies because — it’s just a public records issue. They can tell me to, you know, get off the property and “we don’t have to tell you anything.” Government is and should be accountable.

Hummel’s pitch to corporations: “We work for Rhode Island, but we can’t survive without the support of the business community. The more waste and corruption we expose, the less you have to pay for.”

Focus on government corruption and conservatives will cheer. Focus on corporate malfeasance and liberals will applaud. I just hope, in the end, we’ll have some of both.

April 17 2010

20:20

Live Blog: Logan Symposium on Investigative Reporting at Berkeley

BERKELEY -- I'm settling into a large auditorium at the University of California-Berkeley for the 4th Annual Reva and David Logan Investigative Reporting Symposium . Not to sound too snooty, but it's an exclusive event that's run by Lowell Bergman, professor of investigative reporting at Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. Of course, Bergman is most famous for his work at "60 Minutes." Plus, he was played by Al Pacino in "The Insider." Each year, the symposium picks a theme, and brings you panels on that theme. This year's theme: "The State of Play: Collaboration, Consequences, and Cash."

Right now, Neil Henry, the dean at UC Berkeley, is getting things started by talking about how admissions to the J-school are up, despite the overall challenges facing the news business. He's pointing out that there's still a passion among these students to do journalism, albeit in new forms and in new venues.

Lowell Bergman: He's explaining the theme this year is a nod to the Russell Crowe flick of the same name. The investigative reporting at Berkeley has been expanding, thanks to some solid funding. That's allowed the program to bring students back for fellowships to work on interesting stories. From the beginning, the fellowships have been about collaborative reporting. They focus on stories that can run on the Web, on TV and in print.

Through the program, they realized that many organizations, like public media and traditional media, were not really prepared to collaborate. So they recruited some attorneys to work pro bono to help deal with some of the legal complications.

Bergman was also discussing the history of the Markoff Award, funded through a donation by NY Times reporter John Markoff. The money came from a settlement the Times reached after Hewlett Packard was caught spying on some reporters, including Markoff.

A New Era Of Collaboration?

David Boardman, of the Seattle Times, introduces the panel. As you know, the world of journalism is changing, more profoundly than at any time in my career. When ASNE canceled its annual meeting last year, it reflected the feeling that a bomb had dropped on our industry. Tens of thousands of journalism jobs were lost. Fear and trepidation prevailed.

Today, people have stopped wringing their hands. And now are forging new partnerships that would have been unthinkable even just a few years ago. The emergence of new non-profits investigative centers have fueled excitement. But there are still concerns over resources and funding. There are big questions about sustainability. Many still have small audiences and rely on Big Media for distribution. And details of collaborations are still being worked out.

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

April 12 2010

21:40

ProPublica’s expensive story and deserved Pulitzer

Congratulations to ProPublica’s Sheri Fink, who just won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting for her story about a New Orleans hospital in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. (She shared it with Barbara Laker and Wendy Ruderman of the Philadelphia Daily News.)

We wrote about Fink’s terrific piece twice last fall. First, Zach Seward noted the huge cost of producing the story — $400,000 by one estimate — and the unusual cost-sharing between ProPublica, the Kaiser Foundation, The New York Times Magazine, and Fink herself. And I (gently!) tweaked the piece’s online presentation for not being as reader-friendly as it could have been.

April 08 2010

16:00

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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