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May 29 2013

10:38

Join the Zeega Makers Challenge for 'The Making Of...Live at SFMOMA'

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In 24 hours, Zeegas -- a new form of interactive media -- will be installed on four projection screens at San Francisco's renowned Museum of Modern Art. This showcase is part of "The Making Of..." -- a collaboration between award-winning NPR producers the Kitchen Sisters, KQED, AIR's Localore, the Zeega community and many others.

Join in this collaborative media experiment and make Zeegas for SFMOMA. To participate, log in to Zeega and create something for the exhibition. To make the simplest Zeega possible, just combine an animated GIF and a song. And if you want to do more, go wild.

You can contribute from anywhere in the world. The deadline is midnight EST on Wednesday.

make a zeega

If you've never made a Zeega, worry not: It's super-easy. You can quickly combine audio, images, animated GIFs, text and video from across the web. Zeegas come in all shapes and sizes, from GIFs accompanied by a maker's favorite song to a haunting photo story about a Nevada ghost town to an interactive video roulette.

The Zeega exhibition is one piece of "The Making Of...Live at SFMOMA." As SFMOMA closes for two years of renovation and expansion, over 100 makers from throughout the region will gather to share their skills and crafts and tell their stories.

For the event, there will be two live performances of Zeegas and the "Web Documentary Manifesto," and there will also be a session with Roman Mars ("99% Invisible"), The Kitchen Sisters, AIR's Sue Schardt talking about Localore, and other storytelling gatherings throughout the festivities. For the full program, click here.

Jesse Shapins is a media entrepreneur, cultural theorist and urban artist. He is Co-Founder/CEO of Zeega, a platform revolutionzing interactive storytelling for an immersive future. For the past decade, he has been a leader in innovating new models of web and mobile publishing, his work featured in Wired, The New York Times, Boingboing and other venues. His artistic practice focuses on mapping the imagination and perception of place between physical, virtual and social space. His work has been cited in books such as The Sentient City, Networked Locality and Ambient Commons, and exhibited at MoMA, Deutsches Architektur Zentrum and the Carpenter Center for Visual Arts, among other venues. He was Co-Founder of metaLAB (at) Harvard, a research unit at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and served on the faculty of architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, where he invented courses such as The Mixed-Reality City and Media Archaeology of Place.

December 27 2011

15:20

Public Media: A Wish List for 2012

What's the No. 1 innovation that's needed in public media in 2012?

I posed that question to the public media group on Facebook, as well as to some additional colleagues via email. The responses ranged from a focus on cultivating a culture of innovation, to calls for more innovative content approaches, to the need to grow public media's audience to provide greater support for our existing innovations. And according to some, what's needed more than anything -- more than any individual innovative approach -- is a shared, collective vision of where public media needs to go next.

Here's a selection of the responses I received:

"I think what's still needed most is a change in the culture so that innovation and risk-taking are supported and encouraged." - Ian Hill, community manager, KQED

Several people agreed with Ian, only some of whom were comfortable being quoted in this piece. Adam Schweigert, who recently departed public media (a temporary hiatus, he insists!) after 7-plus years in the system, said creating a culture of innovation "will do a lot to help recruit and retain new voices, increase diversity, (and) lead to further innovation in content and technology ..."

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Need for Resources

Veteran journalist Max Cacas, currently defense editor at Signal Magazine, but with long ties to public media, argued that a culture of innovation is well and good, but we first need the resources to support such a culture. He offered a specific recommendation:

"I think what is needed is an 'innovation seed bank' that public radio/TV/media outlets in smaller markets can tap into so that they can make efforts to serve new audiences without compromising their existing and ongoing services."

Which raises a great question (one that was still being debated on Facebook, last I checked): Does building a culture of innovation create resources to support said innovation ... or do the resources indeed need to come first?

Kelsey Proud, online producer at St. Louis Public Radio, noted, "Some things can be done without money, but others, like equipment purchases, simply cannot."

Yoonhyung Lee, director of Digital Media Fundraising at KQED, feels that we have plenty of innovation in the system ... What's needed are bigger audiences to help translate innovation into sustainability:

"(Innovations) don't necessarily pay the bills. And they don't necessarily garner the kind of audiences that ONE prime-time program, ONE hour of drive-time listening would. Innovations are great, but if we can't find the audiences to support them ... well, does that falling tree make a sound if no one is listening?"

Tech Not Always the Driver

Of course, when you ask a question about innovation, people tend to respond with their own definitions of the admittedly broad term. Some emphasized that while "innovation" often connotes "technology" in this day and age, technology should not necessarily be the driver:

"While it is a significant driver of change, technology for technology's sake has little meaning. Our imaginations must lead technology. Media makers must first decide what difference they want to make, and for whom -- then figure out the tools to get them where they want to go." - Sue Schardt, executive director, AIR

On Facebook, producer Stacy Bond agreed, voicing her opinion that we should be using technology "to innovate on-air (and in ways that are truly cross-platform, not just safe ways of paying lip-service to cross-platform)." Scott Finn, news director at WUSF in Florida, wants to see expanded digital reporting and original investigative reporting at the state and local level; "then," he said, "we need to develop the digital infrastructure to share stories across stations and with NPR."

Public media veteran Michael Marcotte agreed that sharing was key, but wants to see it on an even broader scale. While he agrees resources and culture change are key issues, he thinks the main innovation needed in 2012 is a shared vision, and a plan to go with it:

"We share the mission of public media, but we don't act in coordinated fashion for the long-term success of the entire system. I think 2012's innovation should be a national, collective, shared effort to define and refine the vision that drives strategy, policy and investment approaching 2020."

In a recent piece for Current, Melinda Wittstock -- founder of Capitol News Connection, a startup that recently closed its doors -- called public media a "cozy, clubby world," where "risk is a four-letter word." What do you think? Is public media risk-averse? Do we need to begin taking more risks in 2012? If so, which risks should we take?

What risks will you be taking in the new year?

Amanda Hirsch is a writer, online media consultant and performer who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. The former editorial director of PBS.org, she blogs at amandahirsch.com and spends way too much time on Twitter.

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This is an edited version of a post that originally appeared on the Integrated Media Association's Public Media Innovators Project, a weekly blog series about the people and projects that are helping make public media a relevant and viable media enterprise for the 21st century.

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

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.”

November 19 2010

18:27

Public Media Experiments Show Promise, Need to Involve Public

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The Public Media 2.0 series on MediaShift is sponsored by American University's Center for Social Media (CSM) through a grant from the Ford Foundation. Learn more about CSM's research on emerging public media trends and standards at futureofpublicmedia.net.

This article was co-authored by Jessica Clark, with research support from Christopher Ali and Erin Roberts.

After a slew of reports, conferences, and hearings, the calls for public media to step into the journalism breach have been met with action. Over the past year, there has been a wave of experimentation in local news projects in public media, a trend that is increasing rapidly, especially at radio stations. As Ken Doctor sums up in this Newsonomics post:

We've seen 12 topical sites prominently launched in major cities, under the rubric of Project Argo. We've seen National Public Radio building out a state-of-the-art internal wire (the NPR API), facilitating the sharing of national, global and local stories among public radio stations. We've seen the Corporation for Public Broadcasting fund various new initiatives, including the Local Journalism Centers, aimed at improving regional issues reporting. We've seen Boston's WBUR, the Bay Area's KQED, the Twin Cities's MPRNews.org and L.A.'s KPCC all launch standalone news sites over the last year, moving beyond the programming brochure look that has long characterized public radio on the web.

These projects are just the start. They are matched by ambitious proposals to ramp up stations' reporting capacity, such as Bill Kling's push to add over 300 new reporters to local public radio newsrooms, and NPR's new Impact of Government initiative, which will add reporters to cover state governments in all 50 states.



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Eight Strategies

How often and how well are rising public media news projects actually engaging members of the public? Researchers at the Center for Social Media (CSM) have been examining the rise of multiplatform local news projects in our Public Media Showcase, profiling the efforts of stations including KQED, KETC (now the Nine Network of Public Media), WHYY; nationally funded projects including the Local Journalism Centers the Public Insight Network; and individual programs like the PBS NewsHour. Through this research, we've observed some trends, some challenges, and some hopeful indicators for the future of public media. (View highlights from our journalism and public media coverage here.)

A year ago here on MediaShift, we outlined eight strategies for effective public media 2.0 experiments: Involve, go deeper, reach new and nontraditional publics, repurpose/remix/recycle, collaborate, enable media literacy, play with form and promote political discussion. Our research since has focused in particular on the first strategy, examining diverse efforts to involve users in news creation, curation and conversation. But along the way we've found evidence that the other strategies are also gaining traction.

Several prominent projects have emphasized "going deeper" in their news coverage -- see, for example, Argo and the Local Journalism Centers, which depend on particular content verticals to draw users. Many station sites now include social media features that repurpose, remix and recycle content, and we're seeing more and more projects that experiment with form -- using maps, databases, widgets and visualizations to present information.

Some stations are moving beyond distributing content and incorporating digital literacy efforts as well -- one gateway for reaching new and nontraditional publics, where there's still a lot of work to be done. This year's election also provided the chance for both national and local news projects to build upon the electoral experiments launched in the last two cycles. We cover several of these trends in more depth below.

A Continuum of Engagement

Stations, makers and programs are adopting a range of engagement strategies to involve users, from closed to open. In our past year's research, we've explored numerous multiplatform and participatory reporting models, from the hyperlocal to the global. Figuring out how well public media projects are working requires a more nuanced sense of how members of the public are expected to interact with them. Informed by interviews conducted by CSM research fellow Erin Roberts, we've developed the following scale to help assess the openness of a given news project, and the corresponding roles expected of users. (See the main image to the right.)

  • Editor-driven approaches follow the traditional journalistic model, with editors controlling the production of news from start to finish, engaging users only once content is broadcast or posted.
  • Interactive approaches provide users with narrowly focused options to interact with content, usually through features such as clickable maps, blog commenting, moderated discussion forums, Twitter and Facebook accounts, etc.
  • User-informed approaches actually position users as sources, relying on them for information, perspectives, and crowdsourced research, which are then filtered through an editorial process.
  • Community-centered approaches invite users to participate in the production process, with a small amount of guidance.
  • Finally, on the most "open" end of the scale, user-driven approaches embrace users as full collaborators in news production.

Not surprisingly, we discovered that most public broadcasting news initiatives are still clustered on the closed end of the spectrum. While many have begun to embrace interactive features, few are actually inviting users to become full creative collaborators. In fact, the potential of users as collaborators is only beginning to be realized, with just a few public media organizations inviting users to create and repurpose content. Examples on the open end of the public media scale tend to be outside of traditional public broadcasting -- community media projects, and hyperlocal citizen journalism sites -- which offer the virtues of inclusion and active engagement for users, but don't share the same level of trust as big brands like PBS and NPR.

On the whole, both stations and national public media news projects are centrally concerned with retaining editorial control in order to remain authoritative and balanced sources of news and analysis. Conversation with users on sites like PBS NewsHour is lively but highly moderated, with editors directing specific questions to anchors, or calling for participation sharply limited by topic. Interactive projects like public media games, widgets, maps, etc. retain this same centralized feel, but give users focused options for engagement and content creation.

The aim, says Dave Gustafson, the NewsHour's online news and forward planning editor, davegustafsonheadshot.jpgis to foster "high minded discussions of important topics" -- closer to the authoritative vibe of a magazine like the Economist than the staccato, 24/7 pace of a site like Yahoo! News.

"We want to be as open and engaging as possible while still protecting ourselves from the free-for-all," Gustafson said.

Like many outlets, public broadcasters are struggling to ward off online trolls who discourage civil exchanges with name-calling and flame wars; NPR recently contracted with professional moderators to help field thousands of comments per day. Projects such as the Public Insight Network are now figuring out sophisticated ways to open the doors to deeper consultation with users. Some of the more daring station-based news experiments have also begun to adopt some of the methods and values of community media makers, such as the Nine Network of Public Media and WHYY, with projects described below.

The most promising projects combine elements from across the continuum, providing users with a core of trusted information, along with robust interactive multimedia packages, opportunities to comment on and suggest coverage, and spaces for inclusion, debate and content creation. Learning how to mix and match these approaches coherently and intelligently will be an ongoing challenge--one that promises to turbocharge the relevance and depth of public media.

Collaboration is Key

This year, we've seen increased cross-platform collaboration among public media outlets, perhaps most notably with the CPB-Funded Local Journalism Centers, which consist of regional partnerships working to address broad topics, such as health, agribusiness and regional economies. These projects are progressing at varying rates, with differing approaches toward online and in-person community engagement. Kathy Merritt, CPB's senior director of program investments, said, "CPB is really trying to drive the ongoing conversation around collaboration. We think it's really important. And, frankly, it hasn't really been the practice up till now."

Although stations are collaborating more with one another, there has been both tension and promise when it comes to partnerships with outlets outside of the public broadcasting system. James Rainey's recent article in the L.A. Times describes the competition between public radio news, local newspapers, and new online outlets:

Don't count on any clarity in the local news space any time soon as newspapers tenaciously cling to their incumbent advantages -- including staffs still larger than most of the upstarts -- and upstarts continue to crowd the space.

I'm doubtful of the few who have been suggesting that public radio stations and their websites will become the primary sources of local news. I expect we're looking at a more cacophonous future -- with the radio news sources just one of many voices in the room.

beacon.gifThe Nine Network of Public Media/KETC has circumvented this tension by actively embracing a partnership with local newspaper, the St. Louis Beacon. KETC and the Beacon collaborated on both Facing the Mortgage Crisis and Homeland, which Amy Shaw, the network's vice president of education and community engagement, said has been "to the benefit of both organizations."

Nationally, collaborations are starting to bubble up in order to fill gaps in investigative reporting left by receding print coverage. The Public Insight Network recently announced an ongoing partnership with ProPublica, Center for Investigative Reporting and The Center for Public Integrity. ProPublica, Frontline and the Times-Picayune also teamed up on a multi-media investigation of the New Orleans police department earlier this year. And last month, Frontline and ProPublica partnered on The Spill, an hour-long documentary on the BP oil spill. These strategic partnerships have successfully employed the strengths of each organization, and it's likely we will be seeing more of them in the future.

Increased cross-platform collaboration is likely to be of great benefit to public television stations, which simply have not been able to capitalize on local news the same way that public radio stations have. In February, Center for Social Media researcher Christopher Ali conducted a descriptive content analysis of the news and information programming of all PBS stations with available websites.

Ali found that 70 stations produced no local newscast at all; 86 stations produced a weekly newsmagazine; six stations produced a newscast that aired one to three times per week; and just 13 stations produced a nightly local newscast (four times per week or more).

There are several reasons for the dearth of regular local newscasts -- the most obvious is the cost of production. However, we have observed some successful cross-platform news experiments like KQED News. Additionally, we've seen some improvements in national public television news programs, like the NewsHour, which launched a rebranding effort last year to attract more digitally savvy young adults, and has been gaining both audience and redistribution of content through its coverage of the BP oil spill and the recent elections.

Diversifying the Public Media Audience

One of the blatant gaps that public media makers are still struggling to fully address is reaching new and non-traditional publics. In a recent study of PBS's major public affairs shows, Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting found guest lists that were "strongly dominated by white, male and elite sources, who are far more likely to represent corporations and war makers than environmentalists or peace advocates." (PBS's ombudsman, Michael Getler responded that "counting heads on a news program is meaningless unless one also analyzes what they are saying.")

Most pubcasters would agree that widening representation is a good thing, and that it is only a first step towards reaching new users. Currently in a beta phase, the WORLDCompass.org site represents a step forward, serving as "an all-inclusive platform for anyone with something interesting and thought-provoking to share," aggregated around monthly themes that include topics like Diaspora and The Skin You're In.

Another gap that still persists is the very real struggle with differences in digital literacy -- some users clamoring for mobile, others still learning how to use email. Researcher Christopher Ali documented this gap in his coverage of WHYY's new NewsWorks initiative: "This digital divide was illustrated by one of WHYY's community forums held at a community digital media center. Here, one room featured WHYY proselytizing the value of NewsWorks, while in another room, community members were attending a regularly-scheduled class on how to use e-mail."

Some public media initiatives, Ali noted, could find themselves in a Catch-22 trying to reach everyone and end up "both too early for digital neophytes and too late for early adaptors."

However, some stations are doing an admirable job of addressing this particular issue. WHYY itself offers a host of community media options, with the Dorrance H. Hamilton Public Media Commons offering training courses for adults, after school programs for youth and professional development for educators. This type of training serves multiple purposes: It builds community engagement and brand loyalty, and provides locally produced content from a community perspective. The Nine Network of Public Media combines media training and distribution with their NineAcademy, a free community media program that trains locals in shooting, editing, and storytelling. The academy is in turn an intrinsic part of the station's Homeland project, which covers immigration issues.

The Public Media Corps project, which the Center for Social Media is helping to incubate, is also experimenting with community-driven models for digital literacy training and engagement with local news. Check back on MediaShift early next year for best practices gleaned from this beta test.

Persistent Challenges

Many of the challenges facing local public news initiatives are immediately apparent: Funding, staffing, training, and the hotly debated tensions between local versus national coverage and broad versus vertical approaches. Having a digital expert on staff can make a huge difference, as can a relatively small amount of funding to devote to digital resources.

During this time of great experimentation, we have found that innovative approaches may not always immediately attract users. In cases like these that rigorous impact measurement is crucial for strategic, iterative project development.

Public broadcasters face the difficult task of finding new ways to characterize success in an open environment, as CSM's Erin Roberts points out in her coverage of NewsHour: "Until recently, public broadcasters have focused almost exclusively on how many people encountered their content, not who those people are or how they interacted with the content."

Digital civic engagement may never scale up to the level estimated broadcast audience, but as the continuum above suggests, more participatory approaches position publics for deeper involvement, which in turn can open up new opportunities for both local relevance and fundraising.

The National Center for Media Engagement's recently revamped guide for producers lays it on the line:

The best engagement projects reflect thoughtful consideration of issues, audiences, alliances and, most importantly, outcomes ... While it's simpler and possibly more appealing to imagine a family gathered in front of a glowing TV set, eating popcorn and enjoying every minute of your program, the reality is more complex. If you want to affect the way people think, believe and act, you must engage them across platforms, in different settings and over time.

Given the ever-shifting ground for public media news projects, stations and producers need better tools and opportunities to share best practices with one another in a clear and systematic way. Establishing formal and informal hubs for networking, learning and information sharing among these projects -- like Idea Lab here on MediaShift, or Harvard's Nieman Lab -- could help to catalyze the creation of new and better projects around the country.


As we move towards 2011, there are even more shifts on the horizon. For now, however, public broadcasters still lag well behind local newspapers in their range and volume of coverage -- as a set of recent local news ecologies conducted by the New America Foundation suggest, they're a key but incomplete solution to the problem of diminishing accountability journalism in U.S. communities. More is needed on all fronts -- funding, sharing of best practices, and systematic assessment -- to transform this moment of experimentation into a vital public news service that not only informs citizens, but gives them the civic agency to actively participate in our democracy.

Katie Donnelly is Associate Research Director at the Center for Social Media at American University where she blogs about the future of public media.

Jessica Clark directs the Center for Social Media's Future of Public Media Project, and is a Knight Media Policy Fellow at the New America Foundation.

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The Public Media 2.0 series on MediaShift is sponsored by American University's Center for Social Media (CSM) through a grant from the Ford Foundation. Learn more about CSM's research on emerging public media trends and standards at futureofpublicmedia.net.

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

September 09 2010

14:00

The Newsonomics of public radio’s Argonauts

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

Overnight, it seems, journalism has been transformed from a daily grind to an heroic quest. Rupert Murdoch has dubbed his adventure to get readers to pay for tablet (and other) content Alesia (after a Roman/Gauls battle) and now public radio formally launches Project Argo. Ah, journalists pursuing the golden fleece. Forget Woodstein — the pursuit of journalism itself is now an against-all-odds mythic trip against budget monsters and business model slayers.

If last year was the year of massive cutting, this is the year of new news creation popping up from unusual quarters. AOL’s Patch is probably the biggest hiring agent, with more than 400 new full-time jobs covering local communities. Sites like TBD.com and Bay Citizen are crafting new products and strategies and hiring dozens of journalists. Now Argo pushes forward, in a quest to stick a new flag of public media in terra incognita, and is hiring journalists in the process.

Argo is intended to bring a high level of attention to hot button topics, covered from a regional perspective. “We want to be the best means of authoritative coverage,” NPR Digital Media G.M. Kinsey Wilson told me recently. [We want] to be the top-of-mind choice for issues like immigration [now covered out of L.A. by KPCC with the Argo site Multi-American].”

Coverage is handled by the increasingly familiar reporter/blogger/curator, finding the most relevant coverage for readers. Largely providing a single new full-time position for each new site, “hosts” come from some impressive reporting backgrounds, like WBUR’s Carey Goldberg, former Boston bureau chief of The New York Times, and Rachel Zimmerman, former health and medicine reporter for The Wall Street Journal. Much of the content — and there’s an impressive amount at launch — is text, not audio.

At first, Argo seems hard to put in context. It’s public radio becoming public media becoming locally topical, but in ways that can inform more than local audiences — which we used to think of as public radio listeners, but who are now public media listeners and readers. Got that?

I’ve talked to a number of people in the emerging public media landscape — a fairly merry lot of Argonauts and other dragon slayers who see lots of upside — so let’s take a look at the emerging newsonomics of projects like Argo.

By the raw numbers, Argo is a $3 million investment. That’s not much by traditional journalism standards, but in this day and age, it wins headlines, like the minor economic development miracle of a new big-box store being covered on the Metro front. The money comes both from a foundation — the omnipresent Knight Foundation at $1 million — and from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting at $2 million.

That Knight funding reminds us of the good that’s still being done by the once dependable profits of newspaper companies, as Knight Ridder funding built one of the 25 foundations in the country, one that has been instrumental in seeding sprouts of the new new journalism.

That CPB funding reminds us that our tax dollars have been supporting news for more than four decades now, even as the debate rages abstractly on whether it’s a good idea to have “government” in the news business. NPR’s news effort — supported by members, philanthropists like Joan Kroc and yes, our tax dollars — makes a pretty good case that some government funding is a good idea, especially if we compare NPR radio news to what is elsewhere generally available in the growing desert of commercial radio news coverage.

Argo itself is 12 sites, produced by 14 public radio stations (two sites are jointly produced), each specializing in major topics like education, health, immigration, and ocean health, and exploring that topic regionally. Journalists are hired by individual public radio stations, each of which applied for the funding. The initial funding is intended to sustain the sites through the end of next year — and to provide “prototype products,” according to Wilson.

So that funding is one of the first things that tells us about the business of this effort. Like Silicon Valley startups, the effort is about building a product that seems to meet a clear audience need, building that audience — and then finding a sustainable business model. That’s what has built companies for decades in the valley, and it’s in contrast to how much of the journalism business has long gotten funded.

Looking under the covers, though, here are three more things to watch about the emerging economic model underneath Argo:

  • It’s local and vertical. In the conundrum that the web has been for newsies, publishers often felt compelled to choose “local” or “vertical,” the fancy term for topical. Of course, readers’ concerns encompass both, and an education site that focuses on local education (such as Minnesota Public Radio’s Argo site On Campus) creates double value and may multiply audience. Even though, it’s “local,” just as WBUR’s CommonHealth, it will find national audiences as well.
  • It’s built for networking. Public radio used to a fairly one-way street, with national NPR and then Public Radio International and American Public Radio essentially licensing or syndicating shows to local stations, of which there are more than 250. Now built on increasingly flexible technologies like NPR’s emerging API and PRX’s exchange, local stations can increasingly both syndicate their own work, Argo-funded and other, to each other — and pick up other stations’ work more easily. In a sense, we see an alternative wire in creation, especially as the Public Media Platform goes forward.
  • It builds on public radio stations’ local news push. A number of stations represented in Argo have also begun building out their local/regional/statewide news presences. KQED, in the Bay Area, which is launching MindShift through Argo, just hired eight new news staffers as it launched KQEDNews.org (Good piece by MediaShift’s Katie Donnelly on the initiative and its context.) So in KQED’s case, as in WBUR’s, KPCC in L.A.’s, and Oregon Public Broadcasting’s, the topical initiative receives more play due to the expanded news reach — and the expanded news reach gets more public notice because of the new topical coverage.

Each of those factors are multipliers, multipliers of public radio’s emerging digital news business. They multiply audience. They multiple the ability to get members and membership income. They multiply sponsorship opportunities, the “advertising” of public radio. That’s on the business level. On the journalism level, public radio’s news values — the closest to newspaper’s traditional ones — get to flex their muscles, another early test of just how far public media wants to go in filling the yawning local news vacuum.

August 25 2010

17:55

While Others Shrink, KQED Expands Cross-Platform News

Last month, KQED News in San Francisco dramatically expanded the scope of its news coverage with a new website, an increase from six to 16 local radio newscasts and the addition of eight news staffers, including six producers/reporters, a developer and a social media specialist. Its expansion will continue over the next several months (look for a new news blog in the next couple of months).

The changes at KQED reflect a system-wide emphasis on experimentation and news expansion by public media outlets. Since the release of the Knight Commission's report, Informing Communities - Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age, last October, station-based news projects have grown substantially. Large, cross-platform projects are becoming more prevalent, especially among public media organizations with the resources to produce them. See, for example, some of the innovative work being done by outlets like WYNC and WBUR.

Cross-Platform Coverage + Collaboration

KQED's news site combines coverage from KQED Public Radio, KQED Public Television, and KQEDnews.org. In addition to cross-platform news coverage within KQED, the site aims to provide seamless integration of local, national, and international coverage (thanks to extensive integration of NPR's API); in-depth news and commentary (including investigative reporting); and real-time weather and traffic updates. Eventually, the site will incorporate additional interactive features to make news stories more dynamic and relevant to Northern California residents.

According to Tim Olson, KQED's vice president of digital media and education, the expanded site is part of an overall increased push in news coverage. This shift is not the result of a new dedicated source of funding. Rather, said Olson, "It was something [KQED president and CEO] John Boland wanted to do for a long time. We restructured the budget to accommodate these changes."

The new site builds on KQED's history of successful collaborative initiatives. For example, KQED Quest is a "multimedia series exploring Northern California science, environment and nature." Quest integrates radio, television, and online coverage in a site that features maps, a community blog, and hands-on explorations.

KQED News also already has a wealth of in-depth news reports that integrate social media and Web 2.0 technologies. Take, for example, Climate Watch, which provides continuous coverage of climate-related news and incorporates mapping projects such as Reservoir Watch, which tracks the state's water reservoir levels. There's also California's Water Bond - Where Would the Money Go?, which explores the distribution of funds in recent California water-related legislation.

reservoir watch.jpg

Another special feature, Governing California, invites users to learn about California government. This feature includes a California Budget Challenge game that allows users to submit their thoughts on spending decisions, and an interactive timeline of reform history in the state.

Additionally, "Health Dialogues," an exploration of health and health care in the state, includes an interactive map of health issues in rural California and Healthy Ideas, an eight-week special project that invited health care professionals to share their ideas on health care reform.

KQED News also incorporates maps, Twitter feeds, blogs, podcasts, video and user commenting on its news stories. KQED radio dedicates a portion of airtime to listener feedback, and the integrated site includes Perspectives, a section that provides two-minute audio commentaries from listeners each day.

Listen to this recent Perspective audio report from a KQED listener:

Traffic Increase & Challenges

Since the launch of the expanded site, KQED News has seen a 10-fold increase in the number of users, an impressive feat considering that, according to this article in the San Francisco Chronicle, "Measured by audience size and budget, KQED is the largest public station in the country with TV and radio under one roof." KQED is growing in terms of partnerships as well: The organization currently has ongoing partnerships with upwards of 25 other news outlets, including organizations like the Center for Investigative Reporting, Youth Radio, and ProPublica, and this number is growing.

The expansion is not without its challenges, however. KQED's clear strength is in radio news, but, as Olson noted, "text and images are required for a robust online news presence." Improving the text on the site is a major priority, and as the site continues to expand, this emphasis will grow as well. Olson noted that NPR has gone through a similar transition over the past few years, which was addressed by gradually training reporting staff, and adding photo editors and copy editors.


Another challenge is balancing the "one-stop shopping mall" all-news aggregator approach with the "hyper-targeted topic verticals" approach. It's sometimes difficult for sites to combine both of these elements, and KQED is currently testing both approaches, in addition to some of the more targeted projects listed above.

Olson said the expanded site is "very much just the first step" in overall growth. In addition to a news blog, "News Fix," launching shortly, a mobile version of the site is currently in production, and will be released in the fall. "We're in it for the long haul," said Olson. "We're just getting started."

Katie Donnelly is Associate Research Director at the Center for Social Media at American University where she blogs about the future of public media. With a background in media literacy education, Katie previously worked as a Research Associate at Temple University's Media Education Lab in Philadelphia. When she's not researching media, Katie spends her time working in the environmental field and blogging about food.

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16:45

NPR’s Argo Project becomes the Argo Network, mixing the local and the national on reported blogs

NPR’s Argo Project (or Project Argo — it seems to vary) is starting to take shape — launch is set for one week from today, September 1. Argo is the network’s $3 million effort (with Knight and CPB money) to ramp up the online presence and reporting capacity of member stations by building a network of reported blogs grounded in topics of both national and local interest. As project director Joel Sucherman puts it, describing the now-christened Argo Network:

Each Argo site is run by a different member station, but all of them cover news that resonates nationally. While KPLU’s ‘Humanosphere’ covers the development of a burgeoning global health industry in Seattle, for example, it will also be a worthy bookmark for anyone interested in the worldwide mission to end poverty and improve health.

The sites promote each other, as in this box of “Network Highlights” that appears on article pages. It’s that network functionality that’s one of the most interesting things about Argo; NPR is made up of its member stations, and there’s long been tension between the growth of the national organization and the health of the individual stations who comprise its membership and rely on the network for much of their programming. For the mothership to be supporting local programming — even if just on the web — could smooth over what has at times been a contentious relationship. But it also raises challenges of how to make sure the content is useful to both a local and a national audience.

We’ve got the full list of Argo sites below — go check them out. Some have already softlaunched and look to be in full flower, while others are still on the Argo staging server. NPR officials declined to talk for this post, saying they’re not quite ready.

Name: On Campus, based at Minnesota Public Radio
Blogger: Alex Friedrich
Tagline: Everything higher education in Minnesota.

Name: Ecotrope, based at Oregon Public Broadcasting
Blogger: Cassandra Profita
Tagline: Covering the Northwest’s environment.

Name: Multi-American, based at Southern California Public Radio
Blogger: Leslie Berestein Rojas
Tagline: Immigration and cultural fusion in the new Southern California.

Name: Humanosphere, based at KPLU (Seattle)
Blogger: Tom Paulson
Tagline: Covering the fight to reduce poverty and improve global health.

Name: The Informant, based at KALW (San Francisco)
Blogger: Rina Palta and Ali Winston
Tagline: Cops, courts and communities in the Bay Area.

Name: The Empire, based at WNYC (New York)
Blogger: Azi Paybarah
Tagline: Everything you need to know about New York state politics and governance.

Name: The Key, based at WXPN (Philadelphia)
Blogger: Bruce Warren and Matthew Borlik
Tagline: Discover Philly’s best local music.

Name: MindShift, based at KQED (San Francisco)
Blogger: Tina Barseghian
Tagline: How we will learn.

Name: Home Post, based at KPBS (San Diego)
Blogger: Jamie Reno
Tagline: The military in San Diego.

Name: DCentric, based at WAMU (Washington)
Blogger: Anna John
Tagline: Gentrification w/o representation.

Name: CommonHealth, based at WBUR (Boston)
Blogger: Carey Goldberg and Rachel Zimmerman
Tagline: Where reform meets reality [in health care].
[Note: Still hosted on beta server.]

Name: Climatide, based at WGBH (Boston)
Blogger: Heather Goldstone
Tagline: Oceans, coasts, and climate change on Cape Cod.
[Note: Still hosted on beta server.]

August 02 2010

14:00

The Newsonomics of membership, part 2

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

New news organizations have embraced the membership model (see part 1 of The Newsonomics of membership), but they don’t have to reinvent the wheel to do it. They can hone that wheel, for the digital-only and digital-first age. One of the best places to gain insight is in public radio, which has been plying the membership trade for more than 40 years now — learning the dos and don’ts and sharing some best practices internally.

As city sites begin to build on what MinnPost, Texas Tribune, and GlobalPost have started, they can certainly apply some of those lessons. I made an initial, unscientific foray into NPR membership, to feel the ground and see what’s shaking. I think at this point, pending much deeper study, we can see both some metrics and some lessons that have useful applications.

The Metrics

As I noted in my first membership post, there are at least three key metrics for new websites to master as they move forward:

  • What percentage of which part of the readership can news sites expect to contribute?
  • What’s the median gift?
  • How much of their going-forward budgets — and if and when foundation money dries up — can be made up by readers?

NPR station experience helps inform those metrics.

Percentage of listeners who become members: There is no single number to cite, but most reports come in at somewhere between 6 and 12 percent, though it’s clear that counting methodology is not consistent across the nation. KUT, Austin’s public radio station, is part of a group of eight like-sized stations which collectively pool their membership data. Those eight sign up 5.8 percent of listeners, Holly Gaete, KUT’s director of membership, told me. “Listeners” are those who listen for at least five minutes per week. KUT currently counts 17,338 contributors.

Oregon Public Broadcasting says it gets about 10 percent of its public TV viewers to become members, but has no similar data for the radio; that’s one of the nuances of counting, as a number of dual-license stations (public TV and public radio under one umbrella) complicate any apples-to-apples comparisons.

A few people make the point that it’s long-time listeners — those who’ve listened for two years or more — that make up the best universe of potential public radio members. That notion (akin to MinnPost’s Joel Kramer’s notion that frequent visitors offer greater potential than infrequent ones) makes sense, but is apparently not something widely measured in public radio.

What brings them in?: KUT’s Gaete makes the point that membership directors use diverse tools to gain members. Here’s her breakdown:

Radio pitches (those twice-yearly pledge drives): 37 percent
Mail: 36 percent
Web: 18 percent
Telesales: 5 percent
Other: 4 percent

Stewart Vanderwilt, KUT’s general manager, differentiates between those who make “intellectual” decisions to give — responding to mail, for instance — from those who make an “emotional” decision, often responding to an on-air appeal. The intellectual decision-makers’ average gift is higher, and they renew at a higher rate. KUT’s overall renewal rate is 58 percent.

The sweet spot of giving: Again, counting standards differ, but it’s the $50-$150 range that draws a majority of gifts. The buck-a-week or 10-bucks-a-month pitch seems to have resonance with donors, with some making the point that “that’s cheaper than the daily newspaper.”

What’s the trend line?: Interestingly, the recession’s not done a great deal of damage to membership, at least not as much as we’ve seen circulation fall at dailies. Some stations report membership mildly down, but giving flat or up a tad. Others report membership even up a little, but giving down. Stations’ recent membership performance may indicate a couple of things: Long-term relationships may help weather bad economic periods, and listeners understand the increasing role of public radio in filling the news vacuum.

How important is membership giving?: KQED’s Scott Walton, executive director of communications, reports that membership tops 200,000 — and accounts for 60 percent of the stations’ $55 million budget. Oregon Public Broadcasting — its number of contributors up two percent over the last year — counts 120,000 members, which account for 64 percent of its budget.

The Lessons

Beware the power of the barker. Bill Buzenberg, now director of the Center for Public Integrity, used to serve as vice president of news for National Public Radio. He’s in a unique position to observe membership, given that background. As he compares online news startups with public radio, he notes one big distinction that will affect membership sign-ups.

“The difference is that public radio has a ‘barker channel,’ meaning they have the radio megaphone to get people to come into the tent or become members in the first place during membership drives in which they can withhold the programming,” he says. “That barker channel is great for public radio and drives up the membership numbers, even if listeners hate the membership drives. MinnPost, or other non-profit centers, have no barker channel.”

If barking helps, just talking to potential donors — and current ones — about the deep journalism crisis, especially the local one, helps too. Donors feel an obvious kinship with the stations — maybe akin to a loyalty newspaper subscribers have traditionally felt. Or perhaps, the notion of voluntary donation itself creates a reinforced relationship, more so than a fee-for-service “subscription.” That’s a key question as we see membership pushes for online media ramp up just as paywalls are increasingly erected by legacy news companies.

“People have the tangible sense that journalism is troubled,” reports Oregon Public Broadcasting CEO Steve Bass, who says he hears that from donors, as newspapers from The Oregonian to smaller dailies cut back on coverage.

Borrowing lessons from public radio isn’t easy. Metrics within public radio vary and are not freely available. In addition, we’re in the early stages of thinking about what’s different and what’s similar between public radio and online news sites. Further collaboration here — maybe abetted by such groups as the Knight Foundation — could be a win/win, though potential competition as we see developing in the Twin Cities (MPR, MinnPost) could be an issue.

Finally, as member-based sites ramp up — or, in the case of public radio, morph into digital-first news producers — one curious question will be the the advertising value of these members. Membership and ads need not be two separate universes. In fact, member data — how they read, what they read, what they buy, where they are — can greatly help the targeting of ads. That could make members even more lucrative than readers, and listeners, overall.

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