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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 13 2010

14:30

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zach: Did it pay off in terms of traffic?

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

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

Scott: Oh, no.

Zach: No, okay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scott: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

Zach: Sure, sure.

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

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

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

Zach: Sure. Well, thanks, Scott.

Scott: Yeah, thank you.

Updates and followups from Scott Lewis:

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

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

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

March 19 2010

15:00

This Week in Review: Loads of SXSW ideas, Pew’s state of the news, and a dire picture of local TV news

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

A raft of ideas at SXSW: The center of the journalism-and-tech world this week has been Austin, Texas, site of the annual conference South by Southwest. The part we’re most concerned about — SXSW Interactive — ran from last Friday to Tuesday. The New York Times’ David Carr gives us a good feel for the atmosphere, and Poynter’s Steve Myers asked 15 journalists what they took away from SXSW, and it makes for a good roundup. A handful of sessions there grabbed the attention of a lot of the journalism thinkers on the web, and I’ll try to take you on a semi-quick tour:

— We saw some conversation last week leading up to Matt Thompson’s panel on “The Future of Context,” and that discussion continued throughout this week. We had some great description of the session, between Steve Myers’ live blog and Elise Hu’s more narrative summary. As Hu explains, Thompson and his fellow panelists, NYU prof Jay Rosen and Apture founder Tristan Harris, looked at why much of our news lacks context, why our way of producing news doesn’t make sense (we’re still working with old values in a new ecosystem), and how we go about adding context to a largely episodic news system.

Michele McLellan of the Knight Digital Media Center echoes the panelists’ concerns, and Lehigh prof Jeremy Littau pushes the concept further, connecting it with social gaming. Littau doesn’t buy the idea that Americans don’t have time for news, since they obviously have plenty of time for games that center on collecting things, like Facebook’s Farmville. He’d like to see news organizations try to provide that missing context in a game environment, with the gamer’s choices informed by “blasts of information, ideally pulled from well reported news stories, that the user can actually apply to the situation in a way that increases both recall and understanding.”

— NYU’s web culture guru, Clay Shirky, gave a lecture on the value that can be squeezed out of public sharing. Matt Thompson has a wonderful live blog of the hourlong session, and Liz Gannes of GigaOM has a solid summary, complete with a few of the made-for-Twitter soundbites Shirky has a knack for, like “Abundance breaks more things than scarcity does,” and “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.”

Once again, Jeremy Littau pulls Shirky’s ideas together and hones in on their implications for journalism in a thoughtful post, concluding that while the future of journalism is bright, its traditional players are clueless. “I just don’t see a future for them when they’re trying to protect information as a scarce commodity,” he writes. “The scarcity, in truth, is in media companies trying to create civic goods via user sharing.”

danah boyd, who studies social media and youth culture for Microsoft Research, gave a well-received talk on privacy and publicity online. It doesn’t have much to do directly with journalism, but it’s a brilliant, insightful glimpse into how web culture works. Here’s a rough crib of the talk from boyd, and a summary from TechCrunch. There’s a bunch of cool nuggets in there, like boyd’s description of the “inversion of defaults” in privacy and publicity online. Historically, conversations were private by default and public by effort, but conversations online have become public by default and private by effort.

— One of the big journalism-related stories from SXSW has been AOL and Seed’s efforts to employ a not-so-small army of freelancers to cover each of the 2,000 or so bands at the festival. The Daily Beast has the best summary of the project and its goals, and TechCrunch talks about it with former New York Times writer Saul Hansell, who’s directing the effort. Silicon Alley Insider noted midweek that they wouldn’t reach the goal of 2,000 interviews.

One of the big questions about AOL and Seed’s effort is whether they’re simply creating another kind of “content mill” that many corners of the web have been decrying over the past few months. Music writer Leor Galil criticized it as crass, complaining of the poor quality of some of the interviews: “AOL is shelling out cash and providing great space for potentially terrible content.” David Cohn of Spot.Us compared AOL to the most notorious content farm, Demand Media, concluding that journalists shouldn’t be worried about them exploiting writers, but should be worried about their threat to the journalism industry as a whole.

— One other session worth noting: “Cult of the Amateur” author and digital dystopian Andrew Keen gave a sobering talk called “Is Innovation Fair?” As Fast Company’s Francine Hardaway aptly summarized, he pointed to the downsides of our technological advances and argued that if SXSW is a gathering of the winners in the cultural shift, we have to remember that there are losers, too.

Pew’s paywall findings: The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism released its annual “State of the News Media” study, and it’s a smorgasbord of statistics about every major area of journalism, from print to TV to the web. A summary of summaries: The study’s six major emerging trends (expanded on by Poynter’s Bill Mitchell), some of its key statistical findings, and the Columbia Journalism Review’s seven eye-popping statistics from the study.

The biggest headline for most people was the study’s finding that only seven percent of the Americans who get their news online say they’d spring for a favorite news source’s content if it went behind a paywall. (The AP writeup has a few more statistics and some analysis about online loyalty and advertising.) Jeff Jarvis, a longtime paywall opponent, wondered why newspapers are spending so much time on the paywall issue instead of their “dreadful” engagement and loyalty online. Former WSJer Jason Fry breaks down the study to conclude that the basic unit of online journalism is not the site but the article — thus undermining the primary mindset behind the paywall.

Poynter’s Rick Edmonds, who writes the study’s section on newspapers each year, said he’s done with dead-and-dying as an industry theme. Instead, he said, the problem with most newspapers is that they are becoming insubstantial, shells of their former selves. “They lack the heft to be thrown up the front porch or to satisfy those readers still willing to pay for a good print newspaper.” Editor & Publisher pulled some of the more depressing statistics from Edmonds’ chapter. Yet Lee Rainie, who co-authored the study’s section on online economics, said he was still optimistic about journalism’s future.

A bleak look at local TV news: Another fascinating journalism study was released late last week by USC researchers that found disappointing, though not necessarily surprising, trends in Los Angeles local TV news: Crime, sports, weather and teasers dominate, with very little time for business and government. USC’s press release has some highlights, and co-author Martin Kaplan offers a quick, pointed video overview of the report, concluding with a barb about wants and needs: “I want ice cream. I need a well-balanced meal. Apparently the people of Los Angeles want 22 seconds about their local government. Maybe if they got more than that, they’d want more than that.”

FCC Commissioner Michael Copps was “flat-out alarmed” by the study and vowed some vague form of action. Jay Rosen was ruthless in his criticism on Twitter, and Los Angeles Times critic James Rainey used the study as the basis for a particularly well-written evisceration of local TV news. Rainey had the most promising suggestion, proposing that a cash-strapped TV station find a newspaper, nonprofit or j-school interested in partnering with it to build an audience around more substantive, in-depth TV news.

The iPad, magazines and advertising: As we expected, lots and lots of people have been ordering iPads since they went on sale — 50,000 in the first two hours and 152,000 in three days, according to estimates. We’re also continuing to get word of news organizations’ and publishers’ plans for apps; this week we heard that the AP will have an app when the iPad rolls out next month, and saw a nifty interactive feature for the digital Viv Mag. (The Guardian has a roundup of other video iPad demos that have come out so far.)

SXSW also had at least three sessions focusing on media companies and the iPad: 1) One on the iPad and the magazine industry focused largely on advertising — here’s a DigitalBeat summary and deeper thoughts by Reuters’ Felix Salmon on why advertising on the iPad could be more immersive and valuable than in print; 2) Another focusing on the iPad and Wired magazine, with Salmon opining on why the iPad is a step backwards in the open-web world; 3) And a third on iPad consumption habits and their effects on various industries.

Reading roundup: One ongoing discussion, two pieces of news and one smart analysis:

The conversation sparked by Netscape co-founder Marc Andreesen’s advice for newspapers to forget the printed paper and go all-in with online news continued this week, with Frederic Filloux noting that “there are alternatives to envisioning the transformation of the print media as only a choice between euthanizing the paper product or putting it on life support.” Steve Yelvington looked at setting up separate print and online divisions (been there, done that, he says), Tim Kastelle spun Andreesen and Google’s Hal Varian off into more thoughtful suggestions for newspapers, and Dorian Benkoil took the opportunity to marvel at how much things have changed for the better.

The first piece of news was Twitter’s launch at SXSW of @anywhere, a simple program that allows other sites to implement some of Twitter’s features. TechCrunch gave a quick overview of what it could do, CNET’s Caroline McCarthy looked at its targeting of Facebook Connect, and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram was unimpressed.

Second, ABC News execs revealed that they’re planning on putting up an online paywall by this summer. The Guardian and paidContent have detailed interviews with ABC News digital chief Paul Slavin.

And finally, newspaper vet Alan Mutter examines the often-heard assertion that small newspapers are weathering the industry’s storm better than their larger counterparts. He nails all the major issues at play for small papers, both the pluses (lack of competition and broadband access, loyal readership) and the minuses (rapidly aging population, some local economies lacking diversity). He ultimately advises small papers to ensure their future success by innovating in order to become indispensable to their communities: “To the degree publishers emphasize short-term profits over long-term engagement, they will damage their franchises — and open the way to low-cost online competitors.”

January 04 2010

18:00

What opportunities are there in broadcast for nonprofit news?

The AP’s Andrew Vanacore had an easily digestible story over the holidays about the problems about to befall nation’s local TV stations — and how they could spell the end of “free” TV.

Turns out, the nation’s big four TV networks are pondering ways that they can cut local affiliates out of the revenue stream by selling their signal directly to cable TV providers. Vanacore writes:

Pay-TV providers are paying the networks only for the stations the networks own. That amounts to a little less than a third of the TV audience, which means local affiliates recoup two-thirds of the fees. If a network operated purely as a cable channel and cut the affiliates out, the network could get the fees for the entire pay-TV audience.

He goes on to say: “If forced to go independent, affiliates would have to air their own programming, including local news and syndicated shows.” But I’m not so sure about the news part. Given a choice between paying the cost of producing local news and airing another segment of “Wheel of Fortune,” I don’t think there’s any doubt that they’ll do what they need to stay afloat.

The forces undermining the local broadcast model are different than those that are pummeling the newspaper advertising-and-subscription model; the relationships among networks, stations, cable companies and advertisers aren’t as easily disrupted by the Internet. But the bottom line for local civic affairs coverage is pretty much the same: The local news that broadcasters have provided as a public service — though arguably not in the same depth as newspapers — is going to get cut back even more. Call it the legacy media flu; there’s no cure except to lower expectations.

So what to do? In the world of words, nonprofits have emerged to help fill the void, and they have been particularly successful at the local and regional level, as reported earlier this month.

This is where I leave my comfort zone, as I have no professional experience in the broadcast arena. But it seems to me that there is a natural opportunity for nonprofits to help fill the void in broadcast as well by shouldering some of the cost of producing local TV news. At the same time, local stations would do well to seek out and nurture these relationships.

It’s already happening at some local stations. On Dec. 18, KHOU in Houston aired a segment about members of Congress taking trips at the expense of interest groups. The report was based almost entirely on reporting by Andrew Kreighbaum of The Texas Tribune, the new nonprofit based in Austin. The only significant cost to KHOU (owned by Belo Corp.) was the time it took to interview Kreighbaum and have its own reporter do a voice-over.

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