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July 03 2011

21:02

Updated gear, tool & book guide, bonus mobile tools included too

Photo courtesy Stéfan Le Dû on Flickr

So as the school year has come to an end I’ve had several requests form graduating seniors for advice on what gear they should purchase to add to their arsenal  to get them ready for the next step of their career. A long time ago I set up a gear guide to help people with this, but it’d been a while since I’d updated it, until this weekend. So take a gander if you’re curious, looking for some interesting summer reading or in the market for new multimedia, mobile gear or books, check it out.

I also added a couple more categories to better split out the topics into more clear buckets: Design, development, mobile/tablet tools, management & leadership, social media & community, video/audio/photo gear and video/audio/photo training. … Oh, and “Nerdtastic stuff”… my favorite category of quirky nerd tools and gifts.

Full Disclosure: That is an affiliate link, so if you make a purchase I’ll get a 4% kick back, which I’ll use towards hosting costs for the site. It doesn’t cost you any more, just sends a little cash my way for helping create the resource.

Flickr photo courtesy Stéfan Le Dû

December 16 2010

20:47

What's your newsroom's bus factor?

I've been using this phrase (and committing the underlying sin) a lot lately. Some background:

In software development, a software project's bus factor is an irreverent measurement of concentration of information in a single person, or very few people. The bus factor is the total number of key developers who would need to be incapacitated, (as by getting hit by a bus) to send the project into such disarray that it would not be able to proceed.

Or, in my case, maybe you decide to take an off-the-grid honeymoon for a couple weeks.

In your newsroom, how many projects will stop running if one person quits, goes on vacation or is in some other way "hit by a bus"? What have you done to raise your bus factor?

October 19 2010

13:30

The scalability of collaboration: ProPublica partners with five (five!) other outlets for its latest story

Today brings the launch of a blockbuster story: A group of investigative journalists, looking into the financial practices of pharmaceutical companies, found that many doctors — some of whom earn six-figure returns for promoting particular drug brands to their patients — often have no research experience related to the medications they promote. And, often, they push “off-label” uses of the drugs, uses those not approved by U.S. regulators, in exchange for the compensation.

It’s a big, important piece — the kind of anger-inducing, broadly affective narrative that is the bread and butter of investigative journalism. The story told in “Dollars for Docs” — the trusted medical professional, shilling for Big Pharma — is, quite literally, outrageous.

For the project, ProPublica collaborated with other news organizations for purposes of reporting, data collection, and application-building. Which is standard practice for the open-minded news outfit. What isn’t standard, though, is the sheer scale of the collaboration itself: “Dollars for Docs” represents the collective work of six — yes, six — different news organizations: NPR, the Chicago Tribune, the Boston Globe, Consumer Reports, PBS’s Nightly Business Report, and ProPublica itself. (So if the whole “exposing affronts to the public interest” thing doesn’t work out for them, the project’s participants can always just form a volleyball team.) Each partner is running its own version of the story based on common data the group has gathered from pharmaceutical companies and elsewhere; some are using ProPublica’s lead piece (written by ProPublica reporters — and 2010 Pulitzer finalists — Charles Ornstein and Tracy Weber) in their distribution strategy, while others are focusing on their customized treatments of the data. And all have access — as the rest of us do — to a widget that allows users to search the database the news collective has amassed to determine whether particular doctors have taken pharma funding.

“We haven’t done one like this before,” Tom Detzel, the ProPublica editor who oversaw the endeavor, says of the undertaking. “We haven’t had more partners than this in any collaboration.”

Which raises the question: How? How do you coordinate among all those partners — who are, after all, not only individual reporters, but also representatives of different mediums and outlets, each with its own way of doing things — to create a collaboration that’s productive and immune to the familiar vagaries of design-by-committee? One approach, Detzel says — and perhaps it’s really the approach — is to give everyone involved plenty of freedom to do their own work and adopt their own approaches. “We just decided we were going to loosen the reins and let everyone run free,” he says. In terms of organizational oversight itself, the model “was a hub-and-spoke kind of thing,” he notes; Detzel’s role at the hub, as he saw it, was a to be a facilitator and fosterer of communication. And “it wasn’t as difficult as it sounds,” he notes. “The partners all took initiative to do their own stories. We didn’t try to draw any lines in the sand: ‘Here’s what you can do, and can’t do.’ We just said, ‘Here’s the topic we want to work with, and here’s the data we have. Take it and run with it.’”

That freedom, though, has to be tempered with strategic communication — which, in this case, occurred naturally among the partners, Detzel says. “Once we got started, and the reporters started talking to each other, they were all sharing information tips, sources, ideas — and we all learned from each other during the process.” In fact, “it’s actually quite fun to see how everybody has a slightly different take on this.”

The partnerships themselves came about fairly organically; they started with Dan Nguyen, the ProPublica reporter tasked with developing the data side of the “Dollars and Docs” story, and some offline conversations he was having with fellow hackers. Nightly Business Reports, which had independently embarked on a similar line of investigation, contacted Nguyen about a possible collaboration; that opened the door to the pairing with the Tribune and the Globe: “We’d done some work with Tribune before,” Detzel says, “and we knew Boston would be interested because Charlie [Ornstein] had some contacts up there on the health team — and because it’s such a big medical center.” Then came NPR (“we’d been looking for a good opportunity to work with the health and science team — and they jumped on this one”), and, finally, Consumer Reports, which contacted ProPublica about sharing data for its health provider ratings site.

This could be the moment in the movie when word of the party that was supposed to be an intimate affair has spread to the point of absurdity; ProPublica could easily have become the hapless kid trying to save his mother’s antique vases from the frat guys and their kegs. And, indeed, the mega-teamup begs the question: How scalable is collaboration itself? When it comes to journalistic partnerships, of course, there are logical limits; though there are certainly gains — in exposure and impact, in particular — to be made from collaboration, partnership is a finite resource. And, for Detzel, making it work — throwing the party, making the friends, all while keeping Mom’s china intact — is a matter of good communication. “It takes a little more time to do things,” he notes, “and you’ve got to overcome some of those old habits that are ingrained in all of us” — the impulse, in particular, to beat the competition. Three more ways to scale: (1) Agree to an end goal for a project, but don’t be too hung up on how you’re going to get there; (2) Allow extra time into the process — “because it does take extra time to do the communication and coordination that’s required to pull something like this off”; and (3) “Trust the reporters to find the story, and they will.”

And that may be the biggest, if simplest, takeaway from the mega-teamup: In the end, collaborations are about individuals. (As David Fanning, executive producer of the documentary program Frontline, put it of his own collaboration efforts with Planet Money and the NewsHour: “Co-productions are never between institutions; they’re only really between the people who work together and trust each other.”) Strategic scaling is possible; it just requires that the individuals involved be coordinated in ways that maximize individuality for, yes, the good of the group. “It’s a new world out there,” Detzel says. “And when you’re sharing, you can actually end up with something that’s got a lot more texture and nuance — really, a much better product than you can make on your own.”

September 27 2010

14:00

Jeff Israely: Juggling on a tightrope, aiming for a news startup’s launch

[Jeff Israely, a Time magazine foreign correspondent in Europe, is in the planning stages of a news startup — a "new global news website." He details his experience as a new news entrepreneur at his site, but he'll occasionally be describing the startup process here at the Lab. Read his first, second, third, fourth, and fifth installments. —Josh]

For any startup dude or dudette, impatience is a virtue…and delays a necessary evil. You must insist, insist, insist and then keep insisting: with gurus, colleagues, developers, designers, potential partners and funders, and that eternal beast of institutional inertia. But you must also remember that all those people essential to your success can never share the same degree of urgency you have in getting your project off the ground.

So we must always guard against our own over-eagerness, that hunger to start actually producing what we have spent months preparing to produce, to finally have something to show for yourself. The journobeast is a creature used to having his work out there to see and touch, and so we must adjust to the longer rhythms and anonymity that go with planning, lining up ducks, laying groundwork. Succumb to your own anxiety and vanity, attempt to stick to timetables linked more to your (tunnel) vision and psychology than to the facts on the ground, and you can start to make mistakes: You frighten away people who might otherwise (in due time) be on board; you overlook key details; you oversell the proximity of your target launch date.

Even in this space, for example, I’d desperately wanted my first after-the-summer post to include a sign-up page — and perhaps the announcement of our name — to add some grist to these musings. That ain’t happening here and now, though it does feel as though we are close enough for me to say (ever impatiently!) that over the next two posts the who and what we are will begin to come into focus, as we head toward the alpha launch of our website.

Still, as always, I hope there may be something from the startup experience itself that may be worth sharing with others wading through the wreckage and sawdust and buzz of heavy machinery of this global information retrofitting. In the final countdown phase of my little piece of it, five distinct areas are staring me in the face: product, partnerships, team, fundraising, the company. Like a watch, all are interconnected, and must be properly calibrated to keep the thing moving forward. But things move forward (or backward) at unpredictable paces. Progress on one of the five components can spur on the others, and the whole project suddenly lurches forward; conversely, one aspect getting sidetracked can send the whole thing unraveling. It’s a confidence game. A juggler on a tightrope. Last week, I taught our French lawyer Serge Vatine the expression Catch-22. The road of a startup is filled with countless such binds and potential binds. They are what keeps me up at night…and alas, what sometimes slows things down.

Smarter, more seasoned people who have already crossed the threshold and beyond can tell you from experience what worked and didn’t work in the weeks before launch. Instead, here I can tell you what it looks and feels like now: facing the unknown of all those moving parts. Scared. Hopeful. Too dumb to know any better.

PRODUCT: One could break down the building of a news website into two component parts: the journalism/information and the how-to-get-it-delivered/consumed/interfaced-with. Content and functionalities. In an ideal world, they should serve each other. But the reality of this early stage, when you’re not quite sure what you have, when your time and resources (that’s what polite folk call cash money) are limited, extra attention on one can sacrifice the other.

We have the good fortune to have found Lili Rodic, who began her career as a journalist, to project manage the development of the site. Though she may not be able to provide us with everything on our wish list, within the constraints of time and money, it’s never because she doesn’t understand what we are after. She knows perhaps better than us — too often entranced by some cool feature or design — that the functionality is not an end in itself, but a tool to bring out the best in the journalism. That is, in fact, our product.

PARTNERSHIPS: In the networked future-of-news, doing it alone is not an option. Gotta partner up, link out, look for love. Partnerships are fundamental to the content we will be offering, and we are perhaps farther along on this aspect of our project than any other — and pleasantly surprised by the relative lack of institutional inertia. But the Internet’s immediacy and accessibility is a double-edged sword: It makes it much easier to actually get a product up and visible. And that means some people will want to wait to see you in operation before committing. That’s been particularly true on the distribution side, where the good feedback from would-be partners has stopped short of actually talking turkey on sales, syndication, links, etc. Instead it’s been some variation on “Let us know when you have something live.” (See above overeagerness to launch!)

TEAM: I have had conversations, in one form or another, with some 20 journalists — of all ages, locations, levels of experience and ranges of interests — who could potentially take part at launch. My network from my years as a foreign correspondent is key to all of this. Still, others have found me via my more recent blogging and tweeting. It’s obviously a buyer’s market — lots of talented people trying to figure out how to continue (or begin) making a living in this line of work. But it’s also a moment of great uncertainty. Talk is plenty, ideas abound, and many by now have had brushes with startups, some of which have never gotten off the ground. Or gotten people paid. So the conversations, on some level, must remain just that until…

FUNDRAISING: It was a full 13 months after the first draft of my business plan that I actually asked anyone for money. Sure, I’d been thinking about it, talking about it, reading about it from people on both sides of the proverbial table. Once I have more perspective on the process, I plan to write a separate post on what it’s like for a longtime staff journalist (read: employee), who is used to asking just about anything from complete strangers except money, to find himself seeking out serious people who might be willing to bet their hard-earned cash money on him.

I am lucky to have a business partner, Irene Toporkoff, who has plenty of experience dealing with money, contracts, and the like…though for her too, this is the first pure fundraising startup experience. We are still gathering advice, getting reactions to our project. But I am now no longer shy about telling just about everyone I speak to that investment is at the very top of our to-do list. Though we still have a scenario for launching first in pure bootstrap mode in order to show what we have to potential investors, we are convinced that we can show much more clearly what we we can do at launch if we have the proper, er, resources.

THE COMPANY: We have decided after some initial wavering to incorporate the company in France, though we know that we can always expand our operations and company to the U.S. Our choice to launch here is in part because that is where we are based. We also like the idea of a new English-language global news source that was born here in the rest of the world. A global perspective is key to the product we will be offering.

But we have also found that France has quite a lively Internet business environment, with smart, forward-looking people and new laws to encourage entrepreneurship. That doesn’t mean there isn’t paperwork to take care of, documents to fill out, a bank account to open. That, it turns out, is high on our to-do list this week. And by October 1, this would-be world news startup will be a living, breathing company. A champagne toast will be in order, then right back to work…and plenty more impatience on the way.

June 21 2010

21:01

What project management software / techniques do you use to coordinate digital projects that cross departments and/or publications?

Projects such as designing and/or redesigning a news website, adding a third-party product (Legacy, Boocoo, Local.com), installing a new front-end system, etc., involve people from the newsroom, the ad department, the production department, accounting, executive management, etc. And, if your company owns more than one publication, you can continually add more "stakeholders" to a project. (Oh, how I cringed when the folks I covered as a reporter used that word -- and yet there it is!)

Short of CC'ing everyone on emails and holding dozens of meetings, has anyone found a good solution for coordinating such projects and keeping everyone in the loop?

I've been looking at project management software at 37signals

Any other software suggestions? Or good tricks learned through trial and error?

June 09 2010

14:19

Software project/product management training for newsroom managers/editors?

As journalists learn programming and programmers learn journalism and then go to work in newsrooms, shouldn't there also be a parallel movement to offer newsroom managers/editors training in managing the creation of software, which is a role that's going to be a natural result of the journo-hacker thing?

Seems it would benefit both the newsroom editors/managers and the programmers they supervise if the managers had at least passing familiarity with concepts such as Hofstadter's' Law, the virtues of a programmer, extreme programming and most importantly The Mythical Man-Month.

I mean, it just seems to me that the skill set of managing/editing the creation of story and image content on deadline is very different than that for managing the creation (and maintenance!) of Web software on deadline.

Does anyone know if the Poynter/Nieman/Knight Digital Media Center of the world offer such? Or if they've ever?

07:53

June 08 2010

23:07

Software product management training for newsroom managers/editors?

As journalists learn programming and programmers learn journalism and then go to work in newsrooms, shouldn't there also be a parallel movement to offer newsroom managers/editors training in managing the creation of software, which is a role that's going to be a natural result of the journo-hacker thing?

Seems it would benefit both the newsroom editors/managers and the programmers they supervise if the managers had at least passing familiarity with concepts such as Hofstadter's' Law, the virtues of a programmer, extreme programming and most importantly The Mythical Man-Month.

Does anyone know if the Poynter/Nieman/Knight Digital Media Center of the world offer such? Or if they've ever?

June 03 2010

15:39

Tools for managing/gathering statistics on a blog network?

I manage a fairly large blog network of about 90 blogs, and part of that management is gathering monthly statistics on what's going on, which is generally stored in an Excel spreadsheet. Information I gather on a per blog basis includes:

  • Number of posts in a month
  • Number of comments in a month
  • Number of total page views
  • Number of page views per page

I had written a script that scrapes each blog to get the first two, and set up Google analytics reports for the latter two, cutting my paperwork to a minimum.

Every site redesign ended up throwing the scraper to hell, and we started tweaking the site more often to the point that I was re-writing the scraper monthly, actually spending more time figuring out what broke and fixing it.

I still have to manually go in and add in the Google Analytics data on a per blog basis into the spreadsheet, which isn't awful but is still monkey work.

I'm working on a new script set that logs in via XMLRPC and pulls all this information in a more standard manner, but I'm wondering if anyone else has a) run into this problem and b) found a good software set for helping manage and pull out this kind of information?

If the answer to a) is yes and b) is no, I'm happy to share my tools, but if they already exist I'd rather not remake them.

March 18 2010

15:32

How to Break Through the Difficult 'Phase 2' of Any Project

If you want to know what it's like pitching a new media project, just go to the experts:

This South Park clip, a classic in its own right, is a favorite around the MIT Center for Future Civic Media because every single new media project -- ours and those from our Knight News Challenge colleagues -- inevitably hits a wall at "Phase 2."

For South Park's Underpants Gnomes, "Phase 1: Collect underpants" is like every great idea we've all had: It doesn't quite make sense to everyone else yet, but we know it's gold. We also know it totally will lead to reinventing the news industry for the better. It will use technology in a new way, it will draw upon existing competencies in communities, and it will be financially sustainable. Totally. It therefore leads to "Phase 3: Profit."

But the sound of crickets at Phase 2 is the challenge. You have that revolutionary idea, but how can you be sure you're meeting an information need of a particular community before you spend your time and money?

Pony Diving

Rick Borovoy, one of our researchers and a veteran of a few media startups himself, calls Phase 2 "pony diving." What's striking about his explanation of pony diving -- of diving into the muck that you think is evidence of something awesome -- is that the idea plays only a small part. To come out of the muck with a full, finished project, you have to have other things in place. You need a sponsor on board. You need a staff ready to move. You yourself need to be able to communicate a vision of the finished product. (Adam Klawonn discusses these points in his post Top 5 Lessons from the Failure of The Zonie Report.) Phase 2 is all about ripping your own project apart, having disinterested people critique every aspect, and then seeing if you're still excited about it. That's how you prepare for Phase 3.

Be Open to Change

Being well prepared also means being open to, and even expecting, change. Just as no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy, no project survives first contact with the real world.

Traditional project management would dictate that Phase 2 has to include contingency planning. You need a stack of notebooks or (here at MIT) a roomful of whiteboards to list the thousands of things that could go wrong, and what you're planning to do to mitigate those risks. (In fact, the News Challenge application process has put increased emphasis on contingency planning.)

But when you're developing new technology, at the top of your contingency plan should simply be a directive to be open to change. You discover new things. You want to incorporate those new things. And if you have a sponsor willing to support experimentation, you can take comfort in the remarkable history of accidental inventions:

  • Alfred Nobel invented dynamite, presumably during a dramatic slow-motion dive, after he dropped nitroglycerin in a pile of sawdust.
  • George Crum invented potato chips, literally out of spite, after a customer kept complaining that his fried potatoes were too thick and soggy.
  • Charles Goodyear invented vulcanized rubber during a failing sales pitch when his floppy rubber fell onto a stove top.
  • Ice cream cones, Play-Doh, Post-Its, penicillin, the pacemaker, and even Viagra were all discovered while trying to invent something else.

And therein lies the lesson for developers of civic media technology facing Phase 2. "Chance favors only the prepared mind," Louis Pasteur said. Or, as Jeff Israely recently put it, the only straight line from point A to point B is where B is failure. Keep at it, but no mater how much you love your idea, be ready to seize -- or propose -- unexpected applications.

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