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June 28 2013

15:00

This Week in Review: The backlash against Greenwald and Snowden, and RSS’s new wave

glenn-greenwald-cc

Greenwald, journalism, and advocacy: It’s been three weeks since the last review, and a particularly eventful three weeks at that. So this review will cover more than just the last week, but it’ll be weighted toward the most recent stuff. I’ll start with the U.S. National Security Agency spying revelations, covering first the reporter who broke them (Glenn Greenwald), then his source (Edward Snowden), and finally a few brief tech-oriented pieces of the news itself.

Nearly a month since the first stories on U.S. government data-gathering, Greenwald, who runs an opinionated and meticulously reported blog for the Guardian, continues to break news of further electronic surveillance, including widespread online metadata collection by the Obama administration that continues today, despite the official line that it ended in 2011. Greenwald’s been the object of scrutiny himself, with a thorough BuzzFeed profile on his past as an attorney and questions from reporters about old lawsuits, back taxes, and student loan debt.

The rhetoric directed toward Greenwald by other journalists was particularly fierce: The New York Times’ Andrew Ross Sorkin said on CNBC he’s “almost arrest” Greenwald (he later apologized), and most notably, NBC’s David Gregory asked Greenwald “to the extent that you have aided and abetted Snowden,” why he shouldn’t be charged with a crime. The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple refuted Gregory’s line of questioning point-by-point and also examined the legal case for prosecuting Greenwald (there really isn’t one).

There were several other breakdowns of Gregory’s questions as a way of defending himself as a professional journalist by excluding Greenwald as one; of these, NYU professor Jay Rosen’s was the definitive take. The Los Angeles Times’ Benjamin Mueller seconded his point, arguing that by going after Greenwald’s journalistic credentials, “from behind the veil of impartiality, Gregory and his colleagues went to bat for those in power, hiding a dangerous case for tightening the journalistic circle.”

The Freedom of the Press Foundation’s Trevor Timm argued that Gregory is endangering himself by defining journalism based on absence of opinion, and The New York Times’ David Carr called for journalists to show some solidarity on behalf of transparency. PaidContent’s Mathew Ingram used the case to argue that the “bloggers vs. journalists” tension remains important, and Greenwald himself said it indicated the incestuous relationship between Washington journalists and those in power.

A few, like Salon’s David Sirota, turned the questions on Gregory, wondering why he shouldn’t be charged with a crime, since he too has disclosed classified information. Or why he should be considered a journalist, given his track record of subservience to politicians, as New York magazine’s Frank Rich argued.

Earlier, Rosen had attempted to mediate some of the criticism of Greenwald by arguing that there are two valid ways of approaching journalism — with or without politics — that are both necessary for a strong press. Former newspaper editor John L. Robinson added a call for passion in journalism, while CUNY’s Jeff Jarvis and Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi both went further and argued that all journalism is advocacy.

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Snowden and leaking in public: The other major figure in the aftermath of this story has been Edward Snowden, the employee of a national security contractor who leaked the NSA information to Greenwald and revealed his identity shortly after the story broke. The U.S. government charged Snowden with espionage (about which Greenwald was understandably livid), as he waited in Hong Kong, not expecting to see home again.

The first 48 hours of this week were a bit of blur: Snowden applied for asylum in Ecuador (the country that’s been harboring WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange), then reportedly left Hong Kong for Moscow. But Snowden wasn’t on a scheduled flight from Moscow to Cuba, creating confusion about where exactly he was — and whether he was ever in Moscow in the first place. He did all this with the apparent aid of WikiLeaks, whose leaders claimed that they know where Snowden is and that they could publish the rest of his NSA documents. It was a bit of a return to the spotlight for WikiLeaks, which has nonetheless remained on the FBI’s radar for the last several years, with the bureau even paying a WikiLeaks volunteer as an informant.

We got accounts from the three journalists Snowden contacted — Greenwald, The Washington Post’s Barton Gellman, and filmmaker Laura Poitras — about their interactions with him, as well as a probe by New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan into why he didn’t go to The Times. In a pair of posts, paidContent’s Mathew Ingram argued that the leak’s path showed that having a reputation as an alternative voice can be preferable to being in the mainstream when it comes to some newsgathering, and that news will flow to wherever it finds the least resistance. The Times’ David Carr similarly concluded that news stories aren’t as likely to follow established avenues of power as they used to.

As The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple described, news organizations debated whether to call Snowden a “leaker,” “source,” or “whistleblower,” Several people, including The Atlantic’s Garance Franke-Ruta and Forbes’ Tom Watson, tried to explain why Snowden was garnering less popular support than might be expected, while The New Yorker’s John Cassidy detailed the backlash against Snowden in official circles, which, as Michael Calderone of The Huffington Post pointed out, was made largely with the aid of anonymity granted by journalists.

Numerous people, such as Kirsten Powers of The Daily Beast, also decried that backlash, with Ben Smith of BuzzFeed making a particularly salient point: Journalists have long disregarded their sources’ personal motives and backgrounds in favor of the substance of the information they provide, and now that sources have become more public, the rest of us are going to have to get used to that, too. The New York Times’ David Carr also noted that “The age of the leaker as Web-enabled public figure has arrived.”

Finally the tech angle: The Prism program that Snowden leaked relied on data from tech giants such as Google, Apple, Facebook, and Yahoo, and those companies responded first by denying their direct involvement in the program, then by competing to show off their commitment to transparency, as Time’s Sam Gustin reported. First, Google asked the U.S. government for permission to reveal all their incoming government requests for information, followed quickly by Facebook and Microsoft. Then, starting with Facebook, those companies released the total number of government requests for data they’ve received, though Google and Twitter pushed to be able to release more specific numbers. Though there were early reports of special government access to those companies’ servers, Google reported that it uses secure FTP to transfer its data to the government.

Instagram’s bet on longer (but still short) video: Facebook’s Instagram moved into video last week, announcing 15-second videos, as TechCrunch reported in its good summary of the new feature. That number drew immediate comparisons to the six-second looping videos of Twitter’s Vine. As The New York Times noted, length is the primary difference between the two video services (though TechCrunch has a pretty comprehensive comparison), and Instagram is betting that longer videos will be better.

The reason isn’t aesthetics: As Quartz’s Christopher Mims pointed out, the ad-friendly 15-second length fits perfectly with Facebook’s ongoing move into video advertising. As soon as Instagram’s video service was released, critics started asking a question that would’ve seemed absurd just a few years ago: Is 15 seconds too long? Josh Wolford of WebProNews concluded that it is indeed too much, at least for the poorly produced amateur content that will dominate the service. At CNET, Danny Sullivan tried to make peace with the TL;DR culture behind Vine and Instagram Video.

Several tech writers dismissed it on sight: John Gruber of Daring Fireball gave it a terse kiss-off, while Mathew Ingram of GigaOM explained why he won’t use it — can’t be easily scanned, and a low signal-to-noise ratio — though he said it could be useful for advertisers and kids. PandoDaily’s Nathaniel Mott argued that Instagram’s video (like Instagram itself) is more about vanity-oriented presentation than useful communication. And both John Herrman of BuzzFeed and Farhad Manjoo of Slate lamented the idea that Instagram and Facebook seem out of ideas, with Manjoo called it symptomatic of the tech world in general. “Instead of invention, many in tech have fallen into the comfortable groove of reinvention,” Manjoo wrote.

Chris Gayomali of The Week, however, saw room for both Vine and Instagram to succeed. Meanwhile, Nick Statt of ReadWrite examined the way Instagram’s filters have changed the way photography is seen, even among professional photographers and photojournalists.

google-reader-mark-all-as-readThe post-Google Reader RSS rush: As Google Reader approaches its shutdown Monday, several other companies are taking the opportunity to jump into the suddenly reinvigorated RSS market. AOL launched its own Reader this week, and old favorite NetNewsWire relaunched a new reader as well.

Based on some API code, there was speculation that Facebook could be announcing its own RSS reader soon. That hasn’t happened, though The Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook is working on a Flipboard-like mobile aggregation device. GigaOM’s Eliza Kern explained why she wouldn’t want a Facebook RSS feed, while Fast Company’s Chris Dannen said a Facebook RSS reader could actually help solve the “filter bubble” like-minded information problem.

Sarah Perez of TechCrunch examined the alternatives to Google Reader, concluding disappointedly that there simply isn’t a replacement out there for it. Her colleague, Darrell Etherington, chided tech companies for their reactionary stance toward RSS development. Carol Kopp of Minyanville argued, however, that much of the rush toward RSS development is being driven just as much by a desire to crack the mobile-news nut, something she believed could be accomplished. RSS pioneer Dave Winer was also optimistic about its future, urging developers to think about “What would news do?” in order to reshape it for a new generation.

Reading roundup: A few of the other stories you might have missed over the past couple of weeks:

— Rolling Stone’s Michael Hastings, who had built up a reputation as a maverick through his stellar, incisive reporting on foreign affairs, was killed in a car accident last week at age 33. Several journalists — including BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith, The Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman, Slate’s David Weigel, and freelancer Corey Pein — wrote warm, inspiring remembrances of a fearless journalist and friend. Time’s James Poniewozik detected among reporters in general “maybe a little shame that more of us don’t always remember who our work is meant to serve” in their responses to Hastings’ death.

— Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism issued a study based on a survey of nonprofit news organizations that provided some valuable insights into the state of nonprofit journalism. The Lab’s Justin Ellis, Poynter’s Rick Edmonds, and J-Lab’s Jan Schaffer explained the findings. Media analyst Alan Mutter urged nonprofit news orgs to put more focus on financial sustainability, while Michele McLellan of the Knight Digital Media Center called on their funders to do the same thing.

— Oxford’s Reuters Institute also issued a survey-based study whose findings focused on consumers’ willingness to pay for news. The Lab’s Sarah Darville and BBC News’ Leo Kelion summarized the findings, while paidContent’s Mathew Ingram gave an anti-paywall reading. The Press Gazette also highlighted a side point in the study — the popularity of live blogs.

— Texas state politics briefly grabbed a much broader spotlight this week with state Sen. Wendy Davis’ successful 13-hour filibuster of a controversial abortion bill. Many people noticed that coverage of the filibuster (and surrounding protest) was propelled by digital photo and video, rather than cable news. VentureBeat’s Meghan Kelly, Time’s James Poniewozik, and The Verge’s Carl Franzen offered explanations.

— Finally, a couple of reads from the folks at Digital First, one sobering and another inspiring: CEO John Paton made the case for the inadequacy of past-oriented models in sustaining newspapers, and digital editor Steve Buttry collected some fantastic advice for students on shaping the future of journalism.

Photos of Glenn Greenwald by Gage Skidmore and Edward Snowden stencil by Steve Rhodes used under a Creative Commons license. Instagram video by @bakerbk.

April 24 2012

20:50

MinnPost reaches five years of fundraising with MinnRoast

The secret to having a successful nonprofit journalism site? Comedy. Also, a CEO who’s willing to dance. This Friday MinnPost is holding MinnRoast, an event that mixes fundraiser and summer camp talent show.

It’s the fifth straight year for the Minnesota nonprofit news site’s version of the Gridiron Club Dinner. This year, the celebrity will be supplied by Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton, Senator Al Franken, the mayor of St. Paul, two former candidates for governor, the majority leader of the Minnesota State Senate, and local news personalities.

“I’m in the show. This year I’m in three dance numbers,” MinnPost CEO Joel Kramer told me. “I never danced before I got involved in MinnRoast.”

Of course, at one point, Kramer probably didn’t have much experience running a nonprofit news site either, but he seems to be adapting to both well. As funny as MinnRoast is, it’s serious business for MinnPost: Kramer said each year the fundraiser has contributed more to the nonprofit’s bottom line. “Revenue from MinnRoast this year will be in the neighborhood of 10 percent of our overall revenue.” That would be up slightly from 9 percent in 2011, according to MinnPost’s most recent year end report.

MinnPost is often pointed to as a bright spot in the nonprofit journalism landscape (it ended last year in the black), so it’s worth looking at what makes their fundraising efforts work. Events are a big part of that. Like a lot of nonprofit news sites (and increasing number of for-profit outlets), events are part of business for MinnPost, which counts its annual birthday party and book blast among its regular events. This year, they expect more than 900 people will attend. With tickets ranging from $35 to $175 and sponsorships starting at $800, you can figure out how that math adds up.

For nonprofit news sites — and nonprofits in general — it’s all about finding as many ways as possible for people to give you money. In a way, MinnPost is extending the idea of its membership model. If you’re already a donor, you’re likely to check out the show, but MinnPost hopes their audience brings a friend to have a good time. Kramer told me one of the benefits of the show is the sponsors’ use of their tickets to bring people unfamiliar with the site. That introduction can be valuable if it creates an impression, even if it is during a night of silliness. “People go to lots of fundraising events, and unfortunately most of them can be a drag,” Kramer said. “We just put the emphasis on a tremendous amount of fun and minimal amount of time raising money at the event.”

In that way, the event also serves as a tool of community engagement, bringing together readers, journalists, and public officials. MinnPost gets to act as a kind of convener and help generate money for their work. MinnRoast would already be noteworthy because it brings leaders in Minnesota’s political parties together for a night where the talk is less partisan than normal. Kramer said it’s a fairly polarizing time in state and national politics and taking a break from that can be healthy. “I think it’s a good idea to break the tension for people that are fighting with each other or in adversarial relationships to have a night off to have fun and be reminded we’re in the same community,” he said. It’s worth noting that because of the annual show, MinnPost has been criticized for having a seemingly cozy relationship with people in power — or at the least, singing and dancing in silly costumes with them.

MinnRoast will likely continue to grow. They expected only 200 people in the first year and saw 400. This year they’re close to selling out the theater where the event is held, which could mean a bigger venue in the future. More specifically, Kramer said MinnPost needs MinnRoast, as well as the other events the site hosts, to continue to grow as they try to adjust how the site makes money. In 2011, about 21 percent of MinnPost revenue came from foundations, a percentage Kramer knows will change whether MinnPost is proactive in finding new dollars or not. Kramer said one of their goals for 2012 is to increase advertising as well as donations through memberships. “Our goal is to keep building the other sources of revenue,” he said.

July 25 2011

16:00

For the Texas Tribune, “events are journalism” — and money makers

Texas Tribune Festival logo

When Evan Smith helped launch the nonprofit Texas Tribune in 2009, he set out to get people engaged in their government again, especially in places where newspaper coverage has dwindled. The Tribune introduced blogs, multimedia, troves of government data, and something old-fashioned for an online news startup: face-to-face conversations.

The Tribune has hosted more than 60 public events — all free — attracting top influencers, big audiences, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in corporate sponsorships. Now the Tribune is blowing up the event and throwing The Texas Tribune Festival, a weekend of ideas for policy wonks, lobbyists, and anyone else invested enough in local government to pay $125 for a ticket.

“Events are journalism — events are content. And in this new world, content comes to you and you create it in many forms,” says Smith, the Tribune’s chief editor and chief executive.

One goal: to combat low levels of public engagement on a lot of the issues the event will address. “We think much of the technology world embraces ‘push’ as opposed to ‘pull’ as a way to reach people,” Smith says. “We are taking a ‘push’ approach to content, and that means going to people with content where they live.”

The speaker list includes top names in the universe of Texas politics: energy tycoon T. Boone Pickins, former U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro. And the topics covered are also the Tribune’s core coverage areas: health and human services, energy and the environment, public and higher education, and race and immigration.

Evan Smith

If that all sounds familiar, it’s because the idea is modeled on the New Yorker Festival. In 2009, Smith hired the person who created that festival, Tanya Erlach, the former senior talent manager for The New Yorker. (“She’s not reinventing the wheel; this is her wheel,” Smith says.) Erlach handles everything from programming to logistics.

Smith is the first to admit that events don’t only produce journalism. They also produce revenue. And even the free events, including the TribLive speaker series, have been money-makers. They are cheap to produce, for one thing, and often underwritten by corporate sponsors. Smith estimates the Tribune raised about $650,000 in corporate support last year, which includes events. He expects to raise $1.3 million this year. While major gifts from philanthropists represented almost all of the Tribune’s revenue in 2009, Smith expects more financial diversity in 2011, with income from philanthropy, corporations, and events evenly split. Altogether, the Tribune has raised $9.3 million in barely two years — far more than like-minded nonprofit startups elsewhere.

“A lot of better established nonprofit news organizations — and I’m not counting the public broadcasting TV and radio stations but the sites that are similar to ours, ones that have been in existence longer — really have not approached the task of soliciting corporate support, underwriting, and sponsorships. We’ve just not seen other folks approach this, and they started to call us and ask us and our folks, you know, ‘How are you doing this?’”

If journalism is to survive, Smith says, business must be in the DNA. It’s in the Tribune’s DNA. Another Tribune co-founder was a venture capitalist, John Thornton, who initially raised $4 million in startup funding, including $1 million of his own cash and a large grant from the Knight Foundation. While Smith does not handle fundraising, he does reach out to executives personally to solicit their support.

Is Smith sheepish about that? “Hell, no.” Is there a conflict of interest? “Our only bias is in favor of Texas.” Public radio and television, he points out, rely heavily on corporate underwriting. The Tribune is neither paying people to speak at the festival nor covering their expenses. And the only reward for a corporate sponsorship is “a handshake and a tax letter,” he says.

“The work we do is important. And it needs to be paid for,” Smith explains. “There are appropriate sources of revenue out there. There is nothing to be ashamed of when putting a ‘for sale’ sign on as much stuff as possible, provided that it doesn’t have a negative impact on the work that you do or doesn’t create a negative perception of your integrity.”

Besides the financial value of the Tribune’s events, Smith says, there’s also value in the B word — you know, the word that tends to be uncomfortable in journalism circles. “Just as some other organizations may shrink from associating with corporate interests, there are some organizations, I suspect…that don’t fully appreciate the value of branding,” he says. A big festival is a platform for the Tribune to present itself as a grown-up operation, to build credibility and attract new readers.

Tickets went on sale July 11, with a discount for Texas Tribune contributors. Smith is working out a deal with sponsors to make admission free for college students.

April 21 2011

21:00

AP expands its content-distribution experiment with nonprofit news

Earlier today, the Associated Press announced that it will be expanding its project to distribute content from nonprofit news outfits to newspapers. The expansion builds on the partnerships the cooperative — itself a nonprofit — had developed with the public-interest news providers ProPublica, the Center for Public Integrity,the Center for Investigative Reporting, and the Investigative Reporting Workshop. The partnerships were built in hopes of a win-win scenario: wider content distribution for the nonprofits, and more high-quality content for papers. Today’s announcement doubles down on the project’s implied institutionalization of an ecosystem that promotes collaboration between nonprofit and for-profit news sources. (With it, the AP is also announcing a fifth partner: the Maynard Institute.)

Expansion-of-an-existing-project isn’t always big news, of course, but it’s worth noting in this case because the AP’s nonprofit-distribution effort has been an undertaking that, as our Laura McGann noted in February, was less pathbreaking than participants had hoped it would be when it was first announced — largely because the nonprofits’ content (most of it, anyway) simply wasn’t picked up by newspapers.

“We wish it had gone better,” Bill Buzenberg, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity, told the Lab after the project’s six-month beta period. John Raess, AP’s San Francisco bureau chief (and one of the project’s leads), acknowledged the same thing his partners did: that the project had been, at that point, “not as hugely successful as we’d like.” And Sue Cross, the AP’s senior vice president for global new media and US media markets (and the executive who launched the project), noted that there’d been no talk of expanding it.

So today’s announcement of an expansion is not just news, but also, potentially, good news — both for nonprofit outlets and the consumers who stand to benefit from the public-interest reporting they do.

“It’s been very low-key because we’ve been taking it slowly,” says Kate Butler, the AP’s vice president for U.S. newspaper markets — a rollout that’s been both experimental and intentional. “We wanted to start small, see what the issues were — and see what worked,” she told me. And a big part of that came down to solving — or, at least, improving — a logistical problem Laura noted in February: the delivery platform AP uses to share the stories themselves. The AP has been engaged in an org-wide effort to transition its members from its satellite wire to its web-based AP Exchange — a process that, save for a few stragglers, was pretty much completed as of this March, John Raess told me.

During the project’s beta, Butler notes, the AP had been using AP Exchange as its web portal. To find content — including the content from nonprofits — editors would log into the Exchange system and actively search for stories. But the expanded partnership with nonprofits will make use of the AP WebFeeds technology, which includes metadata for stories and allows for easier searching and sorting of those stories — and, crucially, allows content to flow directly into papers’ content management systems.

Essentially, the cooperative has traded push notifications for pull in distributing nonprofit-produced news content to papers. The new system, Butler says, “removes a step and makes it easier for the content to be seen.”

The nonprofit stories are opt-in for news publishers — sent to your CMS only if you want them to be — but it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which a paper would turn down exposure to stories that are, ostensibly, both in the public interest and, you know, good. (No money changes hands in the exchange.) Though he declines to specify the particular outfits at this point, Raess has so far talked to around 15 publications, he told me — and “every editor I’ve talked to has said yes.”

January 19 2011

18:30

“Gee, you guys are spending an awful lot of money”: The Bay Citizen editor on funding quality news

Seven months into its bid to reinvent the metro newspaper, The Bay Citizen, the San Francisco-based nonprofit news site, has so far raised a total of $14.5 million in philanthropic gifts, rolled out daily online news and culture coverage with a 26-person-staff, and, during November, attracted a monthly audience of approximately 200,000 unique visitors. It’s on track to spend $4 million during its first year.

I interviewed editor-in-chief Jonathan Weber in The Bay Citizen’s downtown San Francisco office, and later by e-mail and over the phone, to find out what he’s learned from the site’s first half-year of operation — editorially and financially. This is the first in a two-part series.

“There is nothing especially virtuous about being broke”

In a world where many local nonprofit startups are shoestring operations run by refugees from downsized or shuttered metro papers, The Bay Citizen’s relatively large budget continues to attract scrutiny — and some hostility. (As a quick comparison, the national investigative nonprofit ProPublica spent approximately $9.3 million last year, and the local civic news outlet Voice of San Diego spent approximately $1 million.)

“I’m honestly mystified as to why so many journalist-commentators seem to think that spending real money on journalism is a bad thing,” Weber told me. “I’ve been there, and there is nothing especially virtuous about being broke.” Moreover, he said, “I would challenge anyone to take a hard look at what we do — and I mean really dive in in a serious way over a period of time — and tell me that we are wasting money.”

F. Warren Hellman, the San Francisco investor who provided $5 million in seed money for The Bay Citizen, initially described it as a journalistic mainstay during the “inevitable” demise of local newspapers, and said it “might put journalism, broadly defined, on a much more stable foundation.”

Since then, the outlet has emerged as a general interest site for the entire Bay Area: It provides lists of weekend events, covers breaking news, and has even commissioned local author and artist Dave Eggers to produce a series of whimsical sketches of a World Series game. Instead of focusing, as most sites do, on a smaller geographical area, or a content vertical (like the Gawker Media blogs, or NPR’s local, topic-based Argo blogs, which launched this fall), The Bay Citizen is assuming the entire portfolio of a print paper.

“Others might disagree, but I have never seen any critique related to what we actually do journalistically,” Weber said. “It’s sort of this abstract, ‘Gee, you guys are spending an awful lot of money’ — and that kind of criticism makes no sense to me.”

The latest debate over The Bay Citizen’s finances came late last month, after an item in the Chronicle detailing (and mocking) The Bay Citizen’s solicitation of $50 memberships implied that the outlet had spent all its $5 million in seed money — rather than the $4 million it had actually spent. (The Chron item also didn’t mention the additional $9.5 million the organization had raised.) Other journalists involved in smaller nonprofit and local news ventures tweeted their skepticism, including Howard Owens, publisher of the online-only Batavian in western New York, who wrote, “My question is, why do they need more than $1mill operational cost per year in SF?”

Weber responded that for a staff of 26, a $4 million budget was reasonable. (Steve Katz, publisher of the San Francisco-based nonprofit magazine Mother Jones, backed up that math.) But The Bay Citizen is also finding ways to amplify the work of its staff. Perhaps its most innovative step so far has been to position itself as a partner and umbrella site for the Bay Area’s many hyperlocal blogs.

“A different philosophical view about partnership”

The content on The Bay Citizen’s website is the product of a “range of different relationships,” Weber notes. On the front page, for instance, there are articles by staff reporters and paid freelancers. There is also content from the outlet’s community blog partners, who typically get paid $25 for every article The Bay Citizen re-posts from their sites. (The re-postings also appear on pages that are branded with the blog partners’ names and three additional links to articles on their homepages.) Weber has said repeatedly that he wants The Bay Citizen to be “a connector and a hub for an emerging ecosystem” of local blogs.

The site also features a Citizen Blog, which is open to pretty much anyone who wants to blog on local topics. (The Chron features a similar mix of content on its homepage, including citizen blog posts and stories from local partner sites, together with national wire stories, a “Daily Dish” of entertainment news, sports coverage, photo slideshows, and, of course, lots of advertising.) The Bay Citizen’s homepage features a single ad, as well as a jar of change with the slogan “$1 a week helps. Save Independent Reporting.”

The Bay Citizen’s local blog partnerships also include joint reporting projects between staffers and outside bloggers. The finished articles run both on the Bay Citizen and the local blog. They’re partnerships, Weber said, that can bring together the inside-baseball knowledge of local bloggers with the bigger-picture political perspective of staff reporters. “We have a different philosophical view about partnership and the role of non-staff people of various descriptions, and what role they play in the bigger project,” he notes. “I think traditionally mainstream media organizations have always had a religious view that ‘all news comes from here’ and ‘we don’t really publish other people’s news,’ and we definitely don’t.”

The Bay Citizen has also found “a sweet spot in mid-range enterprise news,” Weber said, as in its story about a payment scandal in the San Francisco Unified School District. These aren’t three-month, “capital I-investigative reporting” projects, as Weber put it, but quicker stories that might need only a single records request to pull together. (The Center for Investigative Reporting and its offshoot California Watch, which specialize in long-term investigative reporting projects, are right across the Bay in Berkeley.)

The value of business experience

While the idea for The Bay Citizen was conceived at a time when the San Francisco Chronicle was hemorrhaging millions and seemed close to shutting down, the outlet is now competing with a more stable Chronicle (whose print circulation, at last reporting, was 223,549 on weekdays) as well as a slew of other Bay Area news outlets, large and small. It’s doing so with the ambitious plan of leveraging its first few years of philanthropic funding into the kind of popular support that makes public broadcasting-style membership drives viable.

For all that, Weber said, employing a large staff — with business-side as well as journalistic expertise — makes sense. “The rationale on staff size is pretty simple,” he notes. “If you’re going to bite off something big and ambitious like doing daily and enterprise news and multimedia on a wide range of subjects for a large region, and producing 2 pages twice a week for The New York Times, you need the people to do it. ‘Big’ is a relative term. We have a big staff compared with New West or many other local start-ups, but we’re very small compared with any metro newspaper, and also smaller than ProPublica and CIR, as comparisons.”

While the $400,000 salary of Lisa Frazier, The Bay Citizen’s CEO, has generated particular criticism ever since it was announced last year, Weber has repeatedly said that “journalists tend to undervalue business experience.” And he told me that The Bay Citizen’s four-part revenue plan — which starts with large gifts and grants, and then aims to ramp up membership revenue over several years, bringing in additional money through syndication and underwriting — is complicated enough to need a sophisticated business manager. He also noted that The Bay Citizen’s ability to raise so much money in large gifts is indicative of the fact that major donors feel more comfortable giving to organizations with experienced businesspeople at the helm.

How does Weber expect it all to pay off? “By creating a great news operation that produces and supports important and interesting journalism and attracts a wide audience, which in turn will create financial support.”

January 10 2011

19:00

How Peter Maass’ groudbreaking story on Saddam’s statue found a lifeboat in nonprofit funding

Magazine awards season approaches, and one of the stories likely to be gracing nominee lists is one that ran in last week’s New Yorker: an epic analysis — equal parts war report, personal narrative, historical correctionism, literary journalism, and media criticism — detailing how, ultimately, the press distorted the iconic toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad’s Firdos Square, in the spring of 2003.

It’s a fascinating piece of backstory journalism. And one, it turns out, with its own rather fascinating backstory: “The Toppling” was financed largely by nonprofit sources. Without them, in fact, it might not have been written in the first place.

If you’re a freelancer, or a magazine writer, or both, you may find it either reassuring or horrifying to learn that even a story as exceptional as “The Toppling” went through several rounds of rejection before it found a home. “Not every magazine piece is right for every publication,” Maass, himself a freelancer, notes, and when the story was only an idea — albeit one based on the fact that Maass had actually been present to witness the real-life events that framed the iconic images — “it was hard to get somebody to sign on the dotted line to commission it.”

So Maass turned to a place that tends to be relatively comfortable with uncertainty: academia. He applied for — and received — a Shorenstein fellowship to work on the piece, spending Harvard’s 2010 spring semester researching the events that informed the images of Firdos Square and finding, as it were, the “there” there. (We got to know Peter then, since his wife Alissa Quart was a Nieman Fellow at the time.)

And yet, even after the research was completed — gird yourselves, mag writers — the pitch was rejected again. “It’s a big story — it’s a long, complicated story,” Maass told me. “And so it’s a big investment of space and time for a publication.”

So Maass turned to ProPublica, an outlet known for its willingness to invest, financially and otherwise, in time-consuming, resource-intensive investigations. The nonprofit provided additional funding money (though both the outlet and the author are mum on the specific amount, it was “significantly less” than the $30,000 Shorenstein stipend, Maass told me, but “not insignificant”). ProPublica also provided editorial guidance as Maass completed the piece’s complex narrative.

From there, ProPublica, which aims to maximize its stories’ impact by collaborating on them with other outlets, reached out to The New Yorker about a partnership…and the magazine got an excellent story, and that excellent story got another home.

“The Toppling” came about through a funding model that in some ways mimics the funding goals of journalism outfits more broadly: diversifying — which is to say, hedging — by way of multiple financial streams. The article’s initial reporting — Maass’s 2003 Baghdad trip, during which he witnessed the statue-felling that would provide the kernel of the story — was paid for by a for-profit magazine (Time); its research and editing were funded by nonprofits (Shorenstein and ProPublica); and its publication was paid for by The New Yorker. (Though Mike Webb, ProPublica’s director of communications, declined to get into details, he told me of the arrangement: “We paid Peter to do the story. Then when it was finished, The New Yorker paid a portion of Peter’s fee back to us.”)

It’s a model of financial cross-pollination that not only throws a potential lifeline to the (in)famously endangered species that is the long-form investigation, but one that also, Maass notes, offers a certain kind of freedom to authors themselves. One of the more liberatory aspects of working with several institutions to produce “The Toppling,” he says, is that the collaboration gave him even more freedom than usual to re-publish — and append and expand and otherwise contextualize — his own work with photos, maps, and other pieces of background information. “I’ve got the usual, inevitable author’s website,” he notes, and “what’s been nice is that I’m able to use material from The New Yorker and material from ProPublica and then throw my own material in there. And I don’t have to ask anybody.”

Financial freedom, though, is a different matter. Magazines, Maass says, are “kind of venture capitalists of the word”: In journalism, constrained as it is by the various inconveniences of reality, stories are always uncertain undertakings. And the risk involved in that uncertainty is only amplified for magazines, which tend to deal with journalism at the highest levels of scale and cost. In the past, Maass notes, publications underwrote that risk — the time wasted, the kill fees paid — as a necessary inefficiency: If you’re going to pan for gold, you have to be willing to sift through sand.

Now, though, magazines’ financial woes often manifest themselves in their generally reduced appetite for risk — the precise kind that willingly traded inefficiency for serendipity. In today’s context, Maass notes, “it’s much more difficult for almost all of them to take chances.” Which means that it’s much more difficult for writers to take chances, as well. “The Toppling” represents, in all, “probably a year’s worth of work,” Maass says; given the Shorenstein stipend, that works out to about a $30,000 yearly salary (plus the “significantly less” but “not insignificant” ProPublica money). “If you’re 25 or 30 years old, then it’s okay to get that kind of money for a year’s work,” Maass says. “But I’m not.”

It’s to the good, then, that freelancer investigative reporters have, in nonprofits, an alternative means of funding work: little lifeboats to help them stay afloat in the choppy seas of financial adversity and risk aversion. “The Toppling,” though, represents an exception rather than a rule. Ideally, Maass says, “it would be nice if one could assemble enough financing for a story like this and be able to support a family. I don’t think we’re quite there yet. But at least we’re somewhere.”

January 05 2011

14:05

Why ProPublica is publishing web ads — and what that means for the nonprofit outfit’s funding future

Check out ProPublica’s website today, and you might notice — along with blog posts, donation buttons, links to special projects, and the kind of deep-dive investigative journalism that the nonprofit outfit is celebrated for — a new feature: advertisements. Starting today, the outfit is serving ads on its site to complement the funding it takes in from foundation support and reader contributions, its two primary revenue streams.

“This has been something we’ve been expecting to do for some time,” Richard Tofel, ProPublica’s general manager, told me in a phone call. “It was a question of when.”

ProPublica isn’t alone in venturing into the realm of dot-org advertising. A number of ProPublica’s nonprofit peers, California Watch, Texas Tribune, Voice of San Diego, and MinnPost among them, already run sponsored messages on their sites, served directly and via community partnerships and corporate underwriting. As Tofel noted in a blog post explaining the decision to take on ad support: “We’re doing this for the usual reason: to help raise revenue that can fuel our operations, promoting what people in the non-profit world call ’sustainability.’”

The revenue raised, though, won’t likely be much in comparison to that offered by ProPublica’s other funding streams. The site had 1,300 donors in 2010, Tofel notes, providing $3.8 million on top of the funding provided by the Sandler Foundation; web advertising being what it is, the revenue that comes from the ads will likely be a trickle compared to the site’s donation-based funding streams. “Given what’s happened to web advertising in the last five years, on any kind of reasonable projection of the size of our audience” — though the number fluctuates, ProPublica currently averages a little more than a million pageviews a month, he told me — “we’re not talking about a great deal of money.”

So HuffPost this is not. And that will be true not only in terms of the revenue generated by the ads, but also in terms of their content itself. ProPublica’s ads will be served as part of the Public Media Interactive Network, a digital ad network — operated by National Public Media — that started in 2008 to sell remnant ad space on NPR.org and PBS.org, but which recently expanded to include nonprofit news sites. (According to this press release, Texas Tribune and MinnPost are also members.) The network sells packages; publishers can either opt into or opt out of running those packages’ ads on their sites. And while “we’ve looked at the range of their clients, and I don’t see any at the moment that we’d have a problem with,” Tofel notes — none of those “lose inches of belly fat!” monstrosities here, folks — ultimately, “it’s our decision about whether to accept a particular advertiser that they have found.” As ProPublica explains in its new Advertising Acceptability Policy statement:

First, ProPublica reserves the right to accept or decline any advertisement or sponsorship it is offered.

ProPublica will decline to accept advertising that it knows or believes to be misleading, inaccurate, fraudulent or illegal, or that fails to comply, in ProPublica’s sole discretion, with its standards of decency, taste or dignity.

ProPublica, like all quality publishers of original journalism, maintains a clear separation between news and advertising content. Advertising that attempts to blur this distinction in a manner that, in ProPublica’s sole judgment, confuses readers will be rejected.

It’s an expect-the-best/prepare-for-the-worst approach to ceding a bit of control over what readers see when they visit the site, Tofel explained. “You just want to leave yourself the latitude so that you don’t get into a situation that is uncomfortable — or that undermines, most importantly, readers’ faith in what they’re reading.”

And that transaction with readers — one that, ultimately, understands an audience not as an anonymous collective of eyeballs and click-givers, but as individuals and, in the best sense, message-amplifiers — will remain a constant even as ProPublica tweaks its revenue strategy. As will, Tofel notes, the outlet’s partnerships with other news organizations (48 last year alone!) — and its rare-in-the-media-world comfort with sending users away to other outlets, partner and otherwise. While, yes, the inclusion of web ads represents an interest in keeping — and growing — direct traffic to ProPublica’s own site, “we are not in business to make money,” Tofel says. “We are in business to make change. And that’s still very much the case. But we do need to come up with enough money to float the boat, not just today and tomorrow, but on into the future.”

November 30 2010

17:00

Team of volunteer journalists wants to train locals in conflict zones to tell their own stories, improve their lives

What if online video could prevent genocide? That’s what three USC Annenberg School graduate students wondered when they hopped a flight to Rwanda a few years ago, Flip cameras in their carry-ons.

“The idea was, in a time where YouTube exists, it’s immoral for genocide to exist in human history,” Jon Vidar told me recently. The group wanted to give survivors tools to tell their own stories. “Honestly, we were pretty idealistic going in.” Since that first visit to Rwanda, Vidar, a freelance photojournalist, and his journalist friends have taken the concept to neighboring countries and then, earlier this year, to Iraq. Their ad hoc trips have morphed into a nonprofit, kept going by volunteers, called The Tiziano Project, named for an Italian journalist who liked to go where he shouldn’t. Their mission is straightforward: Train locals in conflict zones and post-conflict zones in the craft of journalism, particularly new media, and give them the tools they need to tell their own stories.

“We’re trying to train locals to be journalists,” Vidar said.

The group’s most recent project, Tiziano360, trained 12 locals in Iraq in new media, producing a website that “documents the life, culture, and news in present day Iraqi Kurdistan.” Vidar worked in the Kurdish region of Turkey for four years doing archaeological research, a motive for the region selection. Logistically, it was easier to work on the Iraq side of the border, Vidar said.

The site has a slick design and the content is high quality. It recently won an award from the New Media Institute for multimedia storytelling. But Tiziano also has a practical aim. “A direct goal of the project is job creation,” Vidar said. “We don’t care where people get jobs, as long as they are using the skills in new media storytelling.”

Four of the participants credit the project with new job offers. Other trainees from past projects now string for Western outlets.

“The best thing in this project was the practical aspect of it,” Shivan Soto, who participated in the Iraq project, wrote in an email. “[It] was a very good and new experience for me.”

Since picking up new skills, Soto has been offered a variety of gigs from news organizations and NGOs. And another participant, Sahar Alani, took a job with a large corporation in the region working in new media.

For now, Tiziano is funded project-by-project. For the 360 experiment, they submitted a pitch to a Facebook contest backed by the JP Morgan Chase Community Giving program. They won $25,000, Andrew McGregor, a Tiziano founder, told me.

“During the competition, we really motivated the Kurdish community [on Facebook],” Vidar told me. “We had 600 Kurdish friends, friends in the government. We had friends in NGOs.”

Next up for Tiziano is a project that will start by working with students in Los Angeles and move on to the Congo. The trainer himself is a genocide survivor.

October 20 2010

13:00

Meet “The Hub,” a virtual clubhouse for community nonprofit news sites

At the Block by Block community news conference last month, an irony emerged: Local site publishers, who spend their days cultivating community, hadn’t enjoyed much community amongst themselves. Again and again during the event — a convergence that co-host Jay Rosen aptly described as “entrepreneur atomization overcome” — participants expressed their desire for a centralized spot for conversation, information…and commiseration. As one publisher put it during the conference’s introduction session: “I just don’t want to feel like I’m alone in this.”

Enter The Hub, a new site that wants to be just what its name suggests: a centralized space — in this case, one for community news nonprofits. The site wants to be a go-to spot — the go-to spot, actually — for the people involved in nonprofit news, from journalists to publishers, from academics to funders. Click over to the site now, and you’ll find, among other things: a Getting Started section with legal and tax primers, editorial guidelines, and samples of marketing collateral; a Beyond the Basics section with info on business modeling and engagement strategies; an Academics and Research section with reports and teaching tips; a searchable database of participating news sites; a collection of contextual materials, like Q&As with, and videos of, nonprofit experts; and — maybe the most valuable resource for a nonprofit startup — a list of organizations that fund nonprofit journalism.

The Hub is overseen by Voice of San Diego, which has emerged of late as a kind of mega-org, leading collaboration efforts with fellow nonprofits. The idea for the site, says Scott Lewis, VOSD’s CEO, came in part from the many, many occasions in which VOSD execs and editors found themselves fielding requests for consulting and advice from people hoping to start their own nonprofit news sites. (Little surprise: The logistics to be worked out when it comes to news startup-ing — editorial, legal, and, of course, financial — are dizzying.) “We were getting so many people asking so many questions and wanting so many documents,” Lewis told me, “that we just thought, ‘Okay, let’s put it up. Let’s put it all up.’”

Though the idea was conceived by journalists, the site was funded by a foundation — the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation — and built by academics: San Diego State University assistant professor Amy Schmitz Weiss, with the help of grad students Jessica Plautz and Yueh-hui Chiang. They designed the site (work began in May) and then, over a busy summer, seeded it with relevant data. The hope, though, is that news organizations will supplement the existing infrastructure with their own contributions: information about their operating models, resources they’ve found helpful in building out those models, etc. Ultimately, Lewis says, he’d love to see each outlet with its own profile page on the network. (“Like a Facebook for nonprofit news sites,” he says.) From there, The Hub could also function as means of connecting community sites, both fledgling and already existing, not only to each other, Block by Block-style…but also to the organizations that might want to fund them. Voila!

The Hub doesn’t want to be simply a repository of documents, though, or even a connector of institutions; it also wants to be a centralized space for conversations. This past spring, the Knight Foundation convened a group of nonprofit journalism practitioners in Austin to share best practices, consider opportunities for collaboration, and generally discuss strategies for sustaining themselves into the future. (Check out videos of that meeting here and here and here and here.) Many new insights sprang from that meeting, Lewis notes — one of them being the meta-insight that was the need for a spot to incubate those insights in the first place. “We needed a natural place to put ideas once they come out,” he puts it — and “a natural place to promote them and make sure they spread.”

Lewis recently wrote a much-circulated blog post on the benefits of revenue promiscuity in the nonprofit world; it’s now hosted on The Hub. Ideally, he says, other people will contribute their own posts — original topics, or riffs on writings from other contributors — that will live on the site and fashion it into a kind of virtual brain trust. (Think Snarkmarket, the excellent group blog run by Twitter’s Robin Sloan, NPR’s Matt Thompson, and Wired’s Tim Carmody.) If the current state of the site is any indication, though, Voice of San Diego will continue to play a leadership role in cultivating the conversation, with the outfit’s models and strategies continuing to be a guiding resource for emerging startups. It’s a one-for-all approach that serves an all-for-one goal in nonprofit journalism. “If we and everyone else are seen as a viable solution that the community can turn to,” Lewis says, “then that helps us all.”

September 24 2010

14:00

This Week in Review: Apple’s subscription plan, the exodus from objectivity, and startup guides galore

[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]

Is Apple giving publishers a raw deal?: The San Jose Mercury News’ report that Apple is moving toward a newspaper and magazine subscription plan via its App Store didn’t immediately generate much talk when it was published last week, but the story picked up quite a bit of steam this week. Bloomberg and The Wall Street Journal both confirmed the story over the weekend, reporting that Apple may introduce the service early next year along with a new iPad. The service, they said, will be similar to Apple’s iBook store, and Bloomberg reported that it will be separate from the App Store.

Those reports were met with near-universal skepticism — not of their accuracy, but of Apple’s motivations and trustworthiness within such a venture. Former journalist Steve Yelvington sounded the alarm most clearly: “Journalists and publishers, Apple is not your friend.” It’s a corporation, Yelvington said, and like all corporations, it will do anything — including ripping you apart — to pursue its own self-interest.

Several other observers fleshed out some of the details of Yelvington’s concern: EMarketer’s Paul Verna compared the situation to Apple’s treatment of the music industry with iTunes, and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram and TechCrunch’s MG Siegler wondered whether publishers would balk at giving up data about their subscribers to Apple or at Apple’s reported plans to take a 30% share of subscription revenue. Ingram predicted that publishers would play ball with Apple, but warned that they might wind up “sitting in a corner counting their digital pennies, while Apple builds the business that they should have built themselves.” Dovetailing with their worries was another story of Apple’s control over news content on its platform, as Network World reported that Apple was threatening to remove Newsday’s iPad app over a (quite innocuous) commercial by the newspaper that Apple allegedly found offensive.

Media analyst Ken Doctor broke down publishers’ potential reactions to Apple’s initiative, looking at the plan’s appeal to them (“It offers a do-over, the chance to redraw the pay/free lines of the open web”) and their possible responses (accept, negotiate with Apple, or look into “anti-competitive inquiries”). In a post at the Lab, Doctor also took a quick look at Apple’s potential subscription revenue through this arrangement, an amount he said could be “mind-bending.”

All Things Digital’s Peter Kafka noted one indicator that publishers are in serious need of a subscription service on the iPad, pointing out that Time Inc.’s Sports Illustrated can’t pay for the designers to make its iPad app viewable in two directions because, according to its digital head, it doesn’t have the money without an iPad subscription program. Gizmodo’s Matt Buchanan used the same situation to explain why iPad subscriptions would be so critical for publishers and readers.

A coup for journalism with a point of view: It hasn’t been unusual over the past year to read about big-name journalists jumping from legacy-media organizations to web-journalism outfits, but two of those moves this week seemed to mark a tipping point for a lot of the observers of the future-of-journalism world. Both were made by The Huffington Post, as it nabbed longtime Newsweek correspondent Howard Fineman and top New York Times business writer Peter Goodman.

The Wrap’s Dylan Stableford looked at what Fineman’s departure means for Newsweek (he’s one of at least 10 Newsweek editorial staffers to leave since the magazine’s sale was announced last month), but what got most people talking was Goodman’s explanation of why he was leaving: “It’s a chance to write with a point of view,” he said. “With the dysfunctional political system, old conventional notions of fairness make it hard to tell readers directly what’s going on. This is a chance for me to explore solutions in my economic reporting.”

That kind of reporting (as opposed to, as Goodman called it, “laundering my own views” by getting someone from a thinktank to express them in an article) is exactly what many new-media folks have been advocating, and hearing someone from The New York Times express it so clearly felt to them like a turning point. The tone of centrist detachment of mainstream journalism “has become a liability in keeping newsroom talent,” declared NYU professor Jay Rosen on Twitter. Others echoed that thought: Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan extolled the virtues of being “able to call bullshit bullshit,” and former Salon editor Scott Rosenberg said legacy news orgs like The Times need to find a way to allow its reporters more freedom to voice their perspective while maintaining their standards. Salon’s Dan Gillmor agreed with Rosenberg on the centrality of human voice within journalism and noted that this exodus to new media is also a sign of those sites’ financial strength.

Former McClatchy exec Howard Weaver countered that while transparency and clear voice is preferable to traditional “objectivity,” freeing traditional journalists isn’t as simple as just spilling their biases. Advocacy journalism is not just giving an opinion, he said, it’s a “disciplined, ethical posture that tries to build truth out of evidence, regardless of the outcome.”

Getting journalism startups off the ground: If you’re interested in the journalism startup scene — for-profit or nonprofit — you got a gold mine of observations and insights this week. Over at PBS’ Idea Lab, Brad Flora, founder of the Chicago blog network Windy Citizen, examined five mistakes that kill local news blogs. Here’s how he summed his advice up: “You are not starting a blog, you are launching a small business. You are no different from the guy opening a bar up the road. … You need to know something about blogging and social media, yes, but what you really need to bone up on is what it takes to run a small business.” The post has some fantastic comments, including a great set of advice from The Batavian’s Howard Owens. On his own blog, Owens also gave some pretty thorough tips on developing advertising revenue at a local news startup.

On the nonprofit side, the Knight Citizen News Network went even deeper into startup how-to, providing a comprehensive 12-step guide to launching a nonprofit news organization. It may be the single best resource on the web for the practical work of starting a nonprofit news site. Voice of San Diego is one of the most successful examples of those sites, and its CEO, Scott Lewis told the story of his organization and the flame-out of the for-profit San Diego News Network as an example of the importance of what he calls “revenue promiscuity.”

David Cohn, founder of another nonprofit news startup, Spot.Us, also looked at six new journalism startups, leading off with Kommons, a question-answering site built around Twitter and co-founded by NYU Local founder Cody Brown. Rachel Sklar of Mediaite gave it a glowing review, describing it as “a community that seeks smart, conversation-furthering answers prompted by smart, probing questions — publicly.” She also said it sneakily lures users into giving it free content, though Brown responded that anyone who’s ever asked you to interview has been trying to do the same thing — only without giving you any control over how your words get used. (Kommons isn’t being sneaky, he said. You know you’re not getting paid going in.)

Three more future-oriented j-school programs: After last week’s discussion about the role of journalism schools in innovation, news of new j-school projects continued to roll in this week. City University of New York announced it’s expanding its graduate course in entrepreneurial journalism into the United States’ first master’s degree in that area. New-media guru Jeff Jarvis, who will direct the program, wrote that he wants CUNY to lead a movement to combine journalism and entrepreneurship skills at schools across the country.

Two nationwide news organizations are also developing new programs in partnership with j-schools: Journalism.co.uk reported that CNN is working on a mentoring initiative with journalism students called iReport University and has signed up City University London, and AOL announced that its large-scale hyperlocal project, Patch, is teaming up with 13 U.S. j-schools for a program called PatchU that will give students college credit for working on a local Patch site under the supervision of a Patch editor. Of course, using college students is a nice way to get content for cheap, something Ken Doctor noted as he also wondered what the extent of Patch’s mentoring would be.

Reading roundup: As always, there’s plenty of good stuff to get to. Here’s a quick glance:

— Former Washington Post executive editor Len Downie gave a lecture in the U.K. Wednesday night that was, for the most part, a pretty standard rundown of what the U.S. journalism ecosystem looks like from a traditional-media perspective. What got the headlines, though, was Downie’s dismissal of online aggregators as “parasites living off journalism produced by others.” Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan gave it an eye-roll, and Terry Heaton pushed back at Downie, too. Earlier in the week, media analyst Frederic Filloux broke down the differences between the good guys and bad guys in online aggregation.

— The New York Times published an interesting story on the social news site Digg and its redesign to move some power out of the hands of its cadre of “power” users. The Next Web noted that Digg’s traffic has been dropping pretty significantly, and Drury University j-prof Jonathan Groves wondered whether Digg is still relevant.

— A couple of hyperlocal tidbits: A new Missouri j-school survey found that community news site users are more satisfied with those sites than their local mainstream media counterparts, and Poynter’s Rick Edmonds posited that speed is less important than news orgs might think with hyperlocal news.

— Finally, a couple of follow-ups to Dean Starkman’s critique of the journalism “hamster wheel” last week: Here at the Lab, Nikki Usher looked at five ways newsrooms can encourage creativity despite increasing demands, and in a very smart response to Starkman, Reuters’ Felix Salmon argued that one of the biggest keys to finding meaning in an information-saturated online journalism landscape is teaching journalists to do more critical reading and curating.

August 18 2010

16:30

Seeking Sustainability, Part 2: John Thornton and others on strategies for nonprofit revenue generation

This spring, the Knight Foundation hosted a roundtable discussion exploring a crucial issue in journalism: the sustainability of nonprofit news organizations. This week, we’re passing along some videos of the conversations that resulted (and, as always, we’d love to continue the discussion in the comments section). We posted Part 1 of the series, a talk focused on business-model viability over time, yesterday. And in today’s pair of videos, John Thornton, chairman of the excitement-inducing Texas Tribune, leads a discussion about a topic near and dear to the hearts of even, yes, nonprofit news outlets: revenue generation.

“It is nowhere in the mid-life venture capital playbook to start a nonprofit news organization,” Thornton noted; “and so none of us would be doing this if the central mission weren’t about public service.”

Thornton’s introduction is above; below is a discussion that it sparked among the nonprofit all-stars Knight brought together for the occasion — among them The Bay Citizen’s Lisa Frazier, the Chicago News Cooperative’s Jim O’Shea and Peter Osnos, the Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith, Voice of San Diego’s Scott Lewis, The Atlantic PhilanthropiesJack Rosenthal, Seattle CrossCut’s David Brewster, the New Haven Independent’s Paul Bass, California Watch’s Mark Katches, J-Lab’s Jan Schaffer, and the St. Louis Beacon’s Nicole Hollway. The group discussed finance-crucial issues like publicity, community, membership incentives, collaboration, demographic measurement, branding, corporate sponsorship, and more…not from a theoretical perspective, but from the point of view of practitioners who spend their days thinking about how to keep their organizations thriving.

The conversation, by the way, is well worth watching all the way to the end: The video closes with group members discussing some of their more outlandish — and, so, intriguing — ideas for revenue-generation.

August 13 2010

16:00

Knight Foundation’s new biz consultant thinks news startups can learn from outside of journalism

When Nick Denton sent out an email to his Gawker empire in April 2008 announcing the sale of the popular political site Wonkette, it came as a shock to those of us who so closely identified Wonkette with the Gawker brand. Not to mention that the 2008 presidential campaign season was in full swing and traffic on political sites was way up. Denton, the founder and owner of Gawker Media, explained that Wonkette (along with two other properties, a travel site called Gridskipper, and a music site called Idolator) “each had their editorial successes; but someone else will have better luck selling the advertising than we did.”

It was a moment when Denton showed his cards: If a site, even one clearly identified with his brand, was a threat to the broader organization, he’ll cut it loose. Here’s the crux of his thinking, in the run-up to the economic meltdown:

Everybody says that the internet is special; that advertising is still moving away from print and TV; and Gawker sites are still growing in traffic by about 90% a year, way faster than the web as a whole. But it would be naive to think that we can merely power through an advertising recession. We need to concentrate our energies, and the time of Chris Batty’s sales group, on the sites with the greatest potential for audience and advertising.

I was reminded of this moment recently after a conversation with a new hire at the Knight Foundation, Benoit Wirz. Knight brought Wirz on board to serve as director of business consulting, where he’ll work with “Knight Foundation staff to develop programs based on realistic business plans.” He’ll also work with individual grantees, including the crop of Knight News Challenge winners. The goal is to get Knight grantees thinking along the lines of Denton: How will my project survive for the long term?

“There are organizations that are struggling with that issue,” Wirz told me. “It would be good to give the organizations we’re working with the best chance to be sustainable.”

Wirz joined Knight from the Florida investment firm USGlobal, where he was vice president for strategic planning and worked with companies ranging from an architectural glass manufacturer to energy firms. I asked Wirz what spurred his interest in working for Knight, particularly on news projects. He said the challenges faced by a news startup are similar to their counterparts in other fields. “My sense is that startups in general face a lot of the same problems, whether they’re journalism or not,” he told me. The solutions aren’t cookie-cutter, but the strategies to get there can work across industries.

The Knight News Challenge, in particular, has always looked for projects that are scaleable, replicable, and in general sustainable, Gary Kebbel, the former journalism program director for Knight and now journalism dean at the University of Nebraska, told me. The new position is an investment in that ideal. “The Knight News Challenge has been used to find and fund new, exciting projects,” he said. “In doing that, it’s made some bets on great ideas.” But, of course, not everyone with a great idea is also an experienced project manager. Kebbel noted that Knight has always offered grantees technical help with basic business functions, like payroll.

More broadly, Knight is looking to make sure its projects and specific grantees take market factors into account. The foundation’s CFO Juan Martinez told me “what he’s really supposed to do is help us evolve our thinking.”

Don’t go Cadillac

Wirz is still new on the job, but we did talk about his broad thoughts on how to get news startups thinking. One of his rare universal points: Forget the Cadillac launch. Journalism might be the first draft of history, but most journalists see their work as something more polished than a sloppy copy. The journalistic process — report, check your facts, edit, copy edit and deliver a product as close-to-perfect as possible — doesn’t always line up with the best mindset in the startup world, Wirz says. Spending too much time and money planning the perfect prototype isn’t necessarily the way to go.

“You want to spend as little amount of money on a product as possible, put it out there, and then get as much feedback as you can,” Wirz said. “I think that model is something that can be useful for journalism startups, in particular, to keep in mind.”

Take the much talked-about new local startup in Washington, TBD. They embraced the attitude that their project is “to be determined,” which is where the probably-too-cute name comes from. The new site launched this week with some nice bells and whistles, like a homepage that can tailor your content via geo-tagging, but the organization fully expects their product to evolve as their audience interacts with them. The site’s general manager Jim Brady told paidContent that in the run up to the launch “we finally just had to say we’ve got to stop throwing new things in here and just get this thing out the door and freeze where we are.” Will the strategy work? Well, that’s TBD.

Pick the right risk

Another broad theme Wirz plans to focus on is managing risk. “The moment you make a business plan, you know it’s wrong,” he said. “You know that it’s wrong. It may be wrong in a good way; it may be wrong in a bad way.” Wirz wants to help startups make sure that the risk of what will go wrong centers on their innovative idea, not the myriad other, more predictable business problems. “There are certain risks that are just inherent in being in a business model. There are portions of business models based on risks. Why I’m here is to mitigate some of the risks that you don’t have to take.”

Friend of the Lab Jeff Israely, who is working on launching his own news startup and writing about it for us, is grappling with this very issue. Israely is a seasoned journalist, not an entrepreneur, who recently described himself as “a well-meaning but lonely 40ish hack with little technical knowledge and scant business experience.”

One of the ways to mitigate risk is to think about sustainability from the get-go, even during the grant application process or the early business-plan development phase. Wirz plans to work with Knight to make sure that groups are already thinking about their long-term plans long before they see any money. And that planning can come from unfamiliar territory. “My hope is certainly to share outside of the journalism world with the journalism community as much as possible,” he said.

August 03 2010

14:00

California Watch’s distribution model, by the numbers

In mid-July, California Watch posted the results of an investigation by reporter Louis Freedberg: After surveying the 30 largest K-12 districts across the state, Freedberg found that some were cutting the school calendar to as low as 175 days in an effort to balance their budgets.

It’s an explosive story, one that has resonance for an interest group whose welfare everyone has a stake in: kids. And California Watch wanted it to have as wide a reach — and as big an impact — as possible. To do that, the outlet treated its story’s distribution process as an integral part of the editorial process — to the extent that, if you read editorial director Mark Katches’ detailed description of that process, it’s hard to tell where the one ends and the other begins.

As Katches explained:

As we carve our niche in the California-media landscape, we are finding new ways to reach an audience. If we had one word to describe our distribution model it would be this: flexible. We craft a new distribution strategy for each story we produce, depending on the topic and the intensity of local interest.

I was intrigued, in particular, by the sheer numbers behind the distribution effort. Here’s the breakdown:

Media partners for this story: 20

Media partners California Watch has teamed with since its launch: 70+

Languages the story was distributed in: 5 (Chinese, English, Korean, Spanish, and Vietnamese)

Platforms it was distributed on: 4 (print, web, TV, radio)

Individual shows that discussed the story on KQED, Northern California’s public radio station: 3 (“California Report,” “Forum,” “This Week In Northern California”)

Words in California Watch’s original, full-length story: 1,900

Words in the abridged versions of the story tailored for print publication: 1,100-1,200

Versions of the abridged story: 3 (one for Northern California, one for central, one for Southern)

Words in initial story summary circulated to media partners in advance of publication: 335

Weeks media partners has to edit the story for themselves before its embargo was lifted: 1

And, then, the totals:

Estimated newspaper subscribers reached: 1.15 million

Estimated TV viewers and radio listeners reached: 200,000

Of course, “reached” is a tricky metric; eyeballs are one thing, but attention is another. More interesting to me, though, is how California Watch is doing that reaching in the first place: through a collaboration strategy that could almost be called “aggressive.” In a good way. The outfit is making it as easy as possible for other news organizations to use its content. In the past, that kind of generosity would have been, basically, suicide; now, though, with the influence of the link economy and the journalistic culture coming around to collaboration — and, of course, in California Watch’s case, with a nonprofit model that values social good ahead of financial gain — having content used by other outlets is not just acceptable, but something to be strived for. (Their goal: add at least one new distribution partner for every big new story they publish.) It’s a new model of journalistic impact that reimagines replication as the sincerest form of flattery.

July 07 2010

20:30

Attention nonprofits: Young adults love texting donations

This afternoon the Pew Internet and American Life Project released a study on Americans’ mobile device and wireless habits. The full report has many interesting figures, but I’m going to zoom in on just one portion that signals an important trend for nonprofit journalism.

Pew asked survey participants whether they had ever made a charitable contribution via text message. A surprising 10 percent of all cell phone users have. When you look at young people, it gets even more interesting: 19 percent of 18 to 29 year olds have made a charitable donation via text. Other age groups text donations considerably less: 10 percent of 30 to 49 year olds, 8 percent of 50 to 64 year olds, and 4 percent of 65 and up.

I emailed with Peter Panepento, the web editor at The Chronicle of Philanthropy, to put the 19-percent figure in perspective. Surprisingly, he says 26 percent of people in their twenties have mailed in a donation in the last two years. (Who knew 20-somethings were so generous! And so likely to use the mail!) “What’s startling about that number [the 19 percent] is the fact that it is catching up with other forms of giving so quickly,” Panepento wrote. “Giving through mobile phones is still in its infancy and only a small percentage of charities even have the ability to set up mobile-giving programs. These programs are still too expensive for most groups, whereas direct mail and checkout-counter-style giving is a huge part of how most nonprofit groups raise money.”

The survey also showed differences among demographic groups in donation texting. Of cell phone users of all ages, 23 percent of English-speaking Latinos have sent a charitable text, 16 percent of African Americans and 7 percent of whites. Pew has previously found similar racial differences among mobile news consumers.

Here’s the question for journalism: Can nonprofit news groups figure out a way to cash in on the potential of mobile fundraising, particularly when the next generation of donors clearly like giving via their cell phones? Earlier today we an item about a new iPhone app for Boston NPR station WBUR, which is inching public radio closer to mobile giving. This growth is the reason Apple’s ban on in-app donations matters: WBUR was forced to come up with a series of workarounds that complicate the process. Those aren’t quite the same as, say, texting the word “HAITI” to give ten bucks to the Red Cross.

Photo by Paul Hart used under a Creative Commons license.

June 28 2010

14:00

Opening up journalism’s boundaries to bring change back in: How Knight and its News Challenge have evolved

It was with considerable irony that I found myself last week missing much of the action surrounding the announcement of the latest winners of the Knight News Challenge, all because I was scrambling to put the finishing touches on a dissertation about…the Knight News Challenge.

Go figure.

Now that the dissertation is finished (at least temporarily, in the hands of my committee members), I’ve had a chance to reflect on how this fourth class of winners fits into the overall picture that has developed from the Knight News Challenge. This contest matters because, far and away, it’s the most prominent innovation effort of its kind in the future-of-journalism space. And so, in some sense, the News Challenge has an agenda-setting impact on the rest of the field at large, emphasizing certain trends over others and altogether giving shape to what we think of as “news innovation.”

But to understand the News Challenge in full, we have to step back and consider the organization behind it — the nonprofit John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the leading funder of journalism training for years and now the biggest philanthropic supporter of news-related startups and experiments. This, of course, is especially true in the nonprofit news sector: Just pick your favorite news upstart (Voice of San Diego, Texas Tribune, et al.), and chances are it has a good share of Knight funding. [Including this website — full disclosure, the Knight Foundation is a financial supporter of the Nieman Journalism Lab. —Josh]

So, the question that prompted my dissertation was simply this: With all this investment and influence in journalism innovation, what is the Knight Foundation trying to accomplish? (We can put this another way. Mark Dowie, in his 2002 investigation of nonprofit foundations, said, “If foundations are indeed ‘America’s passing gear,’ we need to ask what, or whom, they are passing, and where are they taking the country?” In our case, if Knight is akin to journalism’s passing gear, how — and toward what future — is it attempting to drive the field?)

The short answer is that Knight has sought to innovate journalism in part by stepping away from it, by making a strategic shift from “journalism” to “information.” This broadening of boundaries has created crucial space for innovators — from inside and outside journalism — to set forth a reformed view of what journalism is and ought to be. Chief among these new ethics is the emerging ethic of participation — the sense that journalism not only can be participatory, but indeed should be, and that something is missing if the public isn’t involved. In this sense, the foundation and its innovators, in rhetoric and action, are working to bring change to the rather ossified occupational ideology of journalism, or this professional culture that has developed much of its authority around the idea that it has gatekeeping control over what passes as “news.”

Now let me try to explain the longer answer. First, I came at this case study of the Knight Foundation and the Knight News Challenge from a number of angles: interviews with foundation leaders and more than a dozen KNC winners (namely, the ones who seemed to want to build a news organization/platform with their funding); an analysis of hundreds upon hundreds of pages of documents, such as foundation reports and News Challenge applications; and even some statistical analysis using a large body of data gathered on KNC applications from the first three years (the 2007, 2008 and 2009 contest cycles). There isn’t space in a single post to summarize my findings from each of these areas, but elsewhere I presented some early results on the KNC, and you can contact me if you’re interested in the final dissertation come July.

For now, I’ll touch on the big picture: how the Knight Foundation and its News Challenge have evolved in recent years.

From the news industry to the crowd

The Knight Foundation has long been a leading supporter of journalism education, and for much of the 1990s and early 2000s did this through the endowment of chaired professorships at journalism schools around the country. But after Alberto Ibargüen took over as foundation president and CEO in 2005, Knight began to realize that, as Ibargüen has said, it shouldn’t be in the business of teaching best practices for jobs that might not exist in the future.

Around the same time, Ibargüen and Knight became attracted to philanthropy’s growing use of challenge contests and other means of tapping into the “wisdom of the crowds” to find solutions to problems. If the “problem” for journalism in an era of digital disruption was the need to find new or refurbished models through which journalism’s core functions and societal benefits could be achieved — to “meet the information needs of communities,” in the foundation’s common refrain — then Knight was making a break from its past in turning away from faith in industry expertise and toward an acknowledgement that the solutions may well come from the aggregate expertise of a participatory crowd of contributors.

The Knight News Challenge was born in 2006 in this context: as a contest attempting to tackle a big professional problem (the shrinking of newspapers in many communities) by purposefully looking beyond the profession alone, seeking to engage a whole range of people — techies, entrepreneurs, activists, etc. — and their ideas that might shake up journalism. This crowdsourcing strategy is seen both in the nature of the contest — which is open to all — and in the actual content of the proposals that have been funded, many of which have a crowd-focused component of distributed participation (from Spot.Us in 2008 to Ushahidi in 2009 to GoMap Riga and Tilemapping in 2010).

From professional control to participation

These connected assumptions — that neither Knight nor the news industry had the solutions to its “informed communities” problem, but that answers could come through participation from distributed crowds that were newly connected online — led Knight to conclude that it should give up control over some facets of its philanthropy, as it did with its challenge contests, first the Knight News Challenge and more recently with the likes of Knight Community Information Challenge and Knight Arts Challenge.

What’s more, the foundation chose to give up control over maintaining journalism’s professional boundaries of exclusion — of defining journalism by one’s professional status — thus rhetorically opening the gates to greater participation from audiences. This was no small shift. Professionals, by nature, seek to be autonomous from outside influence, and so an acknowledgment of one’s lack of expertise or lack of control is a serious departure from the professional paradigm. Nevertheless, Ibargüen’s logic — of openness, of distributed control, of crowd wisdom and collective engagement — is more in tune with the digital media environment and its participatory culture. And, in this sense, his logic may reflect the Knight Foundation’s adaptation to the situation — its own way of “figuring out the flow” (Ibargüen’s words) and leveraging the momentum to accomplish its purposes.

All of this works to “open up” journalism in a way that allows something like crowd participation — which is still mostly at the margins of mainstream journalism — to become not only palatable but indeed truly valuable, a very ethic of good practice, in a rebooted formulation of journalism. This, in fact, is the general perspective of the KNC winners I interviewed, and is one of the core themes I explore further in the dissertation.

From journalism to information

In more recent times, the Knight Foundation has undergone a further evolution from “journalism” to “information,” both in rhetoric and practice. First, remember again that Knight’s ultimate goal is helping people get the information they need to function in (local) democracy. Historically, it was the newspaper that took care of providing that crucial information, and so the News Challenge was an effort to work on the problem of declining news at the community level.

But, as the News Challenge developed over time, Knight staff began to wonder if they were unduly focused on the “means” of informed communities — on the troubled journalism profession — and instead should be giving more emphasis to understanding and promoting the “outcomes” of informed communities, with less regard to how those outcomes were achieved. It’s kind of like being less concerned about the well-being of doctors and more concerned about public health, whether or not doctors are the ones doing the healing. As Ibargüen told me in an interview:

If you’re being agnostic about the form [i.e., digital delivery], shouldn’t you really focus on the end result? [Emphasis mine.] That is, stop trying to figure out how to fix current media and instead ask the question, “What does a community in a democracy need? What kind of information does it need in order to function well within a democracy? Where are we now, and what public policy can you support that will get us from where we are now to where we ought to be?”

In other words: Worry less about journalism and more about quality information, however it gets gathered and distributed. This line of thinking led to the formation of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy. This high-level commission produced a report that was among the major future-of-journalism treatises to emerge in 2009. While journalism does receive fairly substantial treatment in the report, Amy Gahran was “struck by how little [the report] had to say about how professional journalists and mainstream news organizations fit into the future of civic media.”

Even more, the Knight Foundation appears to have realized that it can have a broader impact in philanthropy and society to the extent it downplays “journalism,” a term that, like it or not, comes with the baggage of stereotypes and a professional identity complex. “Information,” by contrast, has no particular ideology, and therefore can be malleably shaped to suit the circumstances. By invoking “information” and “information needs,” the Knight Foundation has been able to communicate to and connect with a range of fields, foundations, and corporations in a way “that we almost certainly would never have done before,” Ibargüen said. Because “information” is an empty vessel, open to interpretation, it has enabled Knight to speak the language of other fields, even as it seeks to advance the interests of its own. As Ibargüen told me:

One of the lessons for me is that when I used to talk about this as journalism, I’d get the great glazing of the eyes, as people would say, “Get over yourself, you’re just not that important, you know!” And now I know to say, “OK, this matters, this is at the center of almost anything. You tell me your subject, and I’ll tell you how information matters.” [Emphasis mine.]

This journalism-to-information shift can be seen in how the News Challenge has developed. My own examination of winners over the years suggests that projects have become less and less about “producing journalism” and increasingly about “supporting information,” some of which might be considered journalism in a traditional sense. And this gets us to the big existential question: What is journalism, anyway? In a world where the boundaries (rhetorical and structural) around news gathering, filtering, and distributing are becoming increasingly hard to detect, when does information become journalism? It is in this soup of uncertainty and confusion that the Knight Foundation has sought to bring profession-wide change: opening the boundaries of journalism and its own philanthropy to the logic of crowd wisdom, and using its position as a boundary-spanning agent, straddling several fields, as a means of bringing fresh ideas into a field that sorely needs them.

April 20 2010

14:00

“Revenue promiscuity”: The many ways in-depth and investigative reporting will be funded (hopefully)

John Thornton, the chairman of the nonprofit Texas Tribune, has a term he uses to describe how his investigative news venture will stay afloat: revenue promiscuity. “You have to get it everywhere and often,” Thornton told a crowd of journalists this weekend at the Reva and David Logan Investigative Reporting Symposium.

Thorton’s crass imagery was a hit with the crowd and his fellow panelists, who agreed that funding high-quality investigative journalism can’t rely on just one or two sources of cash. The days of advertising and circulation revenue alone is over. We’re looking at a new era of mixed streams of revenue.

A spirited discussion — among The Washington Post’s Len Downie, the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Robert Rosenthal, Bay Citizen CEO Lisa Frazier, Newsosaur Alan Mutter, and Thornton — sketched a picture of a diverse (if uncertain) future for paying for the hardest of hard news. Here are three of the themes that emerged:

Beyond big money: tapping the grassroots

Just two years ago, whether or not foundations would step in to support investigative reporting was a point of discussion at this same seminar. This year, the question shifted to for how long — or for how many dollars — foundations will continue to do so.

Thornton, a venture capitalist who doubts investigative journalism works as a for-profit endeavor, said it’s not enough to think about foundation support. He described the Trib’s a public-radio-style model of tapping into reader donations to cover operating costs. Before The Texas Tribune launched, a splash page enticed 1,600 locals to give money to the site. (Thornton noted that all funding momentum stopped once the site actually launched: “Content is the enemy of conversion.”) Thornton hopes to pull in 10,000 supporters at an average of $100 each across the state over the next year. In three years, he hopes to pull in $3 million from readers, one third of the site’s operating costs. In addition, the Tribune plans to raise money by selling premium content and hosting live events.

For-profit plus

Alan Mutter, the panel’s most vocal proponent of a for-profit approach, argued that a strategy based on multiple revenue streams doesn’t have to exist in a nonprofit environment to work. Mutter proposed a multi-pronged approach, adding diversified revenue streams (from things like helping advertisers with their online presence, along with events and paid content) to more traditional ones — even if profit margins still wouldn’t be what they were in the glory days. Mutter’s pitch was received with some grumbling; Thornton said there’s no way news organizations can staff that kind of operation and still make money, the payoff of each wouldn’t make it profitable.

The future as experimentation

Frazier, of Bay Citizen, made clear that her yet-to-launch organization doesn’t claim to have all the answers, but that testing new ideas will be critical; she repeatedly referred to her operation as “an experiment.” She talked about using technology to make journalism more efficient (a.k.a. cheaper) to produce, but also said she’d be testing money-making models.

Rosenthal shared Frazier’s experimentation mentality, and offered some hope for anyone wondering about increased competition among nonprofits for foundation support. Two years ago Center for Investigative Reporting had a staff of about seven. Today it’s 26. “We’ve been remarkable in raising money.”

Photo by Thomas Hawk used under a Creative Commons license.

April 02 2010

14:00

This Week in Review: The iPad’s skeptics, Murdoch’s first paywall move and a ‘Chatroulette for 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]

The iPad’s fanboys and skeptics: For tech geeks and future-of-journalism types everywhere, the biggest event of the week will undoubtedly come tomorrow, when Apple’s iPad goes on sale. The early reviews (Poynter’s Damon Kiesow has a compilation) have been mostly positive, but many of the folks opining on the iPad’s potential impact on journalism have been quite a bit less enthusiastic. A quick rundown:

— Scott Rosenberg, who’s studied the history of blogging and programming, says the news media’s excitement over the iPad reminds him of the CD-ROM craze of the early 1990s, particularly in its misguided expectation for a new, ill-defined technology to lead us into the future. The lesson we learned then and need to be reminded of now, Rosenberg says, is that “people like to interact with one another more than they like to engage with static information.”

— Business Insider’s Henry Blodget argues that the iPad won’t save media companies because they’re relying on the flawed premise that people want to consume content in a “tightly bound content package produced by a single publisher,” just like they did in print.

— Tech exec Barry Graubart says that while the iPad will be a boon to entertainment companies, it won’t provide the revenue boost news orgs expect it to, largely for two reasons: Its ads can’t draw the number of eyeballs that the standard web can, and many potential news app subscribers will be able to find suitable alternatives for free.

— GigaOm’s Mathew Ingram is not impressed with the iPad apps that news outlets have revealed so far, describing them as boring and unimaginative.

— Poynter’s Damon Kiesow gives us a quick summary of why some publishers thought the iPad might be a savior in the first place. (He doesn’t come down firmly on either side.)

Two other thoughtful pieces worth highlighting: Ken Doctor, a keen observer of the world of online news, asks nine questions about the iPad, and offers a lot of insight in the process. And Poynter’s Steve Myers challenges journalists to go beyond creating “good-enough” journalism for the iPad and produce creative, immersive content that takes full advantage of the device’s strengths.

Murdoch’s paid-content move begins: Rupert Murdoch has been talking for several months about his plans to put up paywalls around all of his news sites, and this week the first of those plans was unveiled. The Times and Sunday Times of London announced that they will begin charging for its site in June — £1 per day or £2 per week. This would be stricter than the metered model that The New York Times has proposed and the Financial Times employs: There are no free articles or limits, just 100% paid content.

The Times and Sunday Times both accompanied the announcement with their own editorials giving a rationale for their decision. The Sunday Times is far more straightforward: “At The Sunday Times we put an enormous amount of money and effort into producing the best journalism we possibly can. If we keep giving it away we will no longer be able to do that.” Some corners of journalism praised the Times’ decision and echoed its reasoning: BBC vet John Humphrys, Texas newspaperman John P. Garrett (though he didn’t mention the Times by name in a post decrying unthinking “have it your way” journalism), and British PR columnist Ian Monk.

The move also drew criticism, most prominently from web journalism guru Jeff Jarvis, who called the paywall “pathetic.” (If you want your paywall-bashing in video form, Sky News has one of Jarvis, too.) Over at True/Slant, Canadian writer Colin Horgan had some intriguing thoughts about why this move could be important: The fact that the Internet is so all-encompassing as a medium has led us to blur together vastly different types on it, Horgan argues. “What Murdoch is trying to do (perhaps unintentionally) is destroy that mental disconnect, and ask us to pay for media within a medium.”

Two other paid-content tidbits worth noting: Christian Science Monitor editor John Yemma told paidContent that news organizations’ future online will come not from “digital razzle dazzle,” but from relevant, meaningful content. And Damon Kiesow plotted paid content on a supply-and-demand curve, concluding that, not surprisingly, we have an oversupply of information.

Chatroulette, serendipity and the news: The random video chat site Chatroulette has drawn gobs of attention from media outlets, so it was probably only a matter of time before some of them applied the concept to online news. Daniel Vydra, a software developer at The Guardian, was among the first this week when he created Random Guardian and New York Times Roulette, two simple programs that take readers to random articles from those newspapers’ websites. Consultant Chris Thorpe explained the thinking behind their development — a Clay Shirky-inspired desire to recapture online the serendipity that a newspaper’s bundle provides.

GigaOm’s Mathew Ingram wrote about the project approvingly, saying he expects creative, open API projects like this to be more successful in the long run than Rupert Murdoch’s paywalls. Also, Publish2’s Ryan Sholin noted that just because everyone’s excited about the moniker “Chatroulette for news” doesn’t mean this concept hasn’t been around for quite a while.

Meanwhile, the idea sparked deeper thoughts from two CUNY j-profs about the concept of serendipity and the news. Here at the Lab, C.W. Anderson argued that true serendipity involves coming across perspectives you don’t agree with, and asked how one might create a true “news serendipity maker” that could take into account your news consumption patterns, then throw you some curveballs. And in a short but smart post, Jeff Jarvis said that serendipity is not mere randomness, but unexpected relevance — “the unknown but now fed curiosity.”

How much slack can nonprofits take up?: Alan Mutter, an expert in the dollars-and-cents world of the news business both traditionally and online, raised a pretty big stink this week with a post decrying the idea that nonprofits can carry the bulk of the load of journalism. The numbers at the core of Mutter’s argument are simple: Newspapers are spending an estimated $4.4 billion annually on newsgathering, and it would take an $88 billion endowment to provide that much money each year. That would be more than a quarter of the $307.7 billion contributed to charity in 2008 — a ridiculously tall order.

Mutter drew a lot of fire in his comment section for attacking a straw man with that argument, as he didn’t cite any specific people who are claiming that nonprofits will, in fact, take over the majority of journalism’s funding. As many of those folks wrote, the nonprofit advocates have always claimed that they’ll be a part of network that makes up journalism’s future, not the network itself. (One of them, Northeastern prof Ben Compaine, had made that exact argument just a few days earlier, and Steve Outing made a similar one in response to Mutter’s post.)

John Thornton, a co-founder of the nonprofit Texas Tribune, wrote the must-read point-by-point response, taking issue with the basis of Mutter’s math and his assumption that market-driven solutions are “inherently superior” to non-market ones. Besides, he argued, serious journalism hasn’t exactly been doing business like gangbusters lately, either: “Expecting investors to continue to fund for-profit, Capital J journalism just ‘cuz:  doesn’t that sound a lot like charity?” Reuters financial blogger Felix Salmon weighed in with similar numbers-based objections, as did David Cay Johnston.

Reading roundup: One mini-debate, and four nifty resources:

Former tech/biz journalist Chris Lynch fired a shot at j-schools in a post arguing that the shrunken (but elite) audiences resulting from widespread news paywalls would cause “most journalism schools to shrink or disappear.” Journalism schools, he said, are teaching an outdated objectivity-based philosophy that doesn’t hold water in the Internet era, when credibility is defined much differently. Gawker’s Ravi Somaiya chimed in with an anti-j-school rant, and North Carolina j-school dean Jean Folkerts and About.com’s Tony Rogers (a community college j-prof) leaped to j-schools’ defense.

Now the four resources:

— Mathew Ingram of GigaOm has a quick but pretty comprehensive explanation of the conundrum newspapers are in and some of the possible ways out. Couldn’t have summed it better myself.

— PBS MediaShift’s Jessica Clark outlines some very cool efforts to map out local news ecosystems. This will be something to keep an eye out for, especially in areas with blossoming hyperlocal news scenes, like Seattle.

— Consider this an addendum to last month’s South by Southwest festival: Ball State professor Brad King has posted more than a dozen short video interviews he conducted there, asking people from all corners of media what the most interesting thing they’re seeing is.

— British j-prof Paul Bradshaw briefly gives three principles for reporters in a networked era. Looks like a pretty good journalists’ mission statement to me.

March 11 2010

15:00

What makes a nonprofit news org legit? Three other questions to separate journalism from advocacy

Last week, Jim Barnett raised a question about nonprofit journalism: What makes it legit? How do we know if a nonprofit news outlet shares the ideals and culture of traditional journalism, and how can we make sure we don’t get fooled by advocacy groups disguised as objective journalists?

It’s a difficult question — the Internet makes publishing wide open to everyone — and at the end of his post, Barnett lays out a list of what he thinks we should use as a starting point when deciding what is and isn’t a legit nonprofit news outlet. He lists various IRS and accounting standards, a number of vague measures of professionalism, and what I’d consider an unfair standard, whether an organization is credentialed by federal or state government.

This is one place where Barnett and I disagree. Before coming to the Lab, I used to edit a nonprofit news site, The Washington Independent, where for two years I dealt with the reality of who gets considered “legit.” If you’re not, you lose out on the privileges given to traditional media outlets. Take Congressional press passes: The Washington Independent was denied admittance to both the daily and periodicals galleries because the site was not chiefly supported by subscriptions or advertising. (Our support came from donors and foundation grants.)

The Independent’s reporters are resourceful, but not having that credential sometimes put stories out of reach. When Republicans released their alternative budget in a credential-required portion of the Capitol, we didn’t get to attend. We were shut out of an event where we would have had access to ask lawmakers direct questions. Congressional credentials are the toughest to get in Washington (compared to White House credentials, or campaign plane credentials, for example) and as such are sometimes used by other groups as the standard for access. For example, when Vice President Dick Cheney spoke at the American Enterprise Institute in 2008, our reporters were not allowed to attend because they didn’t have a Congressional credential.

Legitimacy is a tough word when it comes to journalism; here I’m using it just to refer to the limited set of privileges that come with an external journalistic seal-of-approval. (Legitimate reporting can come from outlets without that seal of approval, of course, and illegitimate work can come from the biggest names in the business.) But as far as organizational legitimacy goes, I’d argue that instead of looking at a nonprofit’s structure, or vague markers of professionalism, we should think about criteria that more directly capture what a nonprofit news outlet should be.

I thought about what I thought made the Independent trustworthy, and what distinguished us from other journalism-like nonprofits that were more like advocacy groups — the ones who might use their access to lawmakers for lobbying. I came up with three questions I think distinguish a nonprofit as a legit news organization:

1. Does the nonprofit create original news or commentary on a regular schedule?

2. Does it directly reach an audience (or does it fuel news outlets)?

3. Does it spend its money on and dedicate the bulk of its resources to journalism?

Producing news

Does your organization produce news and/or commentary daily, weekly, monthly, or in some other regular interval? It’s a simple criteria that weeds out nonprofits that sporadically put out reports. It also excludes transparency groups, many of which do excellent work, but are not in themselves journalists. (To help clarify this point, imagine that instead of transparency, these groups were focused on any other topic. A searchable database is useful and interesting, particularly to journalists. However, providing access to information is not the same as producing news and commentary. It’s a service or a tool provided to allow journalists to build narratives, which is part of a broader strategy of using the media to advance their cause.)

Directly reaching an audience

I struggled to think of how to sift out a phenomenon Mark Bowden took on in The Atlantic last fall: the rise of opposition research disguised as journalism. Oppo-research has been around forever; campaigns leak dirt on the other side to reporters hungry for a quick, easy scoop every cycle. But as Bowden points out in the instance of Sonia Sotomayor, within hours of the announcement of her nomination, videos of her “wise Latina” comment were all over TV news and the Internet. Opposition research wasn’t just behind the story: It was the story. However, the Judicial Confirmation Network doesn’t reach an audience on its own. They function to fuel news organizations and influence coverage; they aren’t a news organization themselves.

I’d distinguish nonprofits like ProPublica and Center for Public Integrity from nonprofits with no direct audience. Both of these groups have established partnerships with other media to reach an audience. A public content agreement is different than leaking a salacious tidbit. And of course having a website with a loyal readership counts, too.

Putting your money where the journalism is

I borrowed this third question from my old boss and publisher of the Independent, David Bennahum. Our efforts to get Senate press credentials were denied because of our funding model of foundation grants and individual donations. Bennahum came up with the interesting idea that perhaps the gallery could look at how an organization’s money is spent, rather than how it is raised. If you’re an advocacy group with a magazine, your tax records will demonstrate that the bulk of your money is going to things other than reporter salaries or other news costs. If you’re a nonprofit dedicated to news, your spending will reflect that.

There are plenty of other questions to ask in thinking about a nonprofits legitimacy, but I think these get the conversation started. What do you think?

Photo by John Abell used under Creative Commons license.

March 04 2010

19:11

A “reporting recipe” to dig up dirt like ProPublica

A core goal of nonprofit news organizations is to create impact. Foundations and donors expect evidence of journalism’s impact in a way that the local department store never did. Jack Shafer wrote a scathing critique of the nonprofit-as-impact driver not long ago, arguing that for-profit media is better insulated against donor whims because the audience is the client:

Nonprofit outlets almost always measure their success in terms of influence, not audience, because their customers are the donors who’ve donated cash to influence politics, promote justice, or otherwise build a better world.

(His view of the nonprofit drive to change the world is more jaded than mine. What for-profit newspaper writer got into the business not to change the world?)

Whatever your stance, the reality is here: Maximizing impact is a key part of nonprofits’ aims. Outlets like the Center for Public IntegrityThe American Independent News Network (where I edited The Washington Independent), ProPublica, and others measure the reach and impact of their work to drum up support. They do this a number of ways. Center for Public Integrity published its work under a Creative Commons license to try to get other publications to reprint it and amplify the message. (They also participate in a young, and struggling, AP-nonprofit distribution program.) The Washington Independent tracks both media pickup and how its work resulted in real change. ProPublica partners with newspapers around the country in printing its stories — all of which is aimed at maximizing their journalism’s impact.

Today ProPublica is unveiling a new approach in increasing impact: a step-by-step reporting guide that shows how its reporters executed a major investigation, with the hopes that state-based reporters and interested citizen journalists will continue their work.

Reporters Charles Ornstein and Tracy Weber have created a guide that reverse-engineers how they reported a year-and-a-half-long investigation on how states handle disciplinary action against nurses. The results of their work were alarming, and its consequences were swift: One day after the Los Angeles Times ran a story on how it took years for the state nursing board to take disciplinary action, while allowing dangerous nurses to keep working, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger removed most members of the state nursing board. Newspapers in several other states have picked up on ProPublica’s work and run their own versions.

It took Ornstein and Weber over a year to research their series, but by making the state-based data available and building a guide on how to do the reporting, they say it should be much simpler and less time-consuming for another reporter to follow in their footsteps. The data alone should at least help “find the smoke” in federal reporting-requirement lapses quickly, so a reporter knows where to invest her time, Weber said. They’re both eager to talk to interested reporters, too. (You can contact them directly, or join in on a conference call that will be scheduled soon.)

“When you called all these different states, you realized you were talking to folks who had never talked to journalists before,” Weber told me. “It made me think it was so ripe for local reporters to take a look at this because, frankly, everyone is touched by a nurse.” The guide lays out seven broad steps for reporting out a regulatory board story, with details under each section, including relevant federal law. It also includes relevant links for certain states.

She added the guide’s methods could be applied to any regulatory board, not just those that govern nurses. “This gives them a map to say, ‘Okay, let’s go take a look at this’…They could maybe change the way these boards are overseen in their state if they find, for instance, they never disciplined anyone, which we found, and that just seems impossible.”

Ornstein told me he hopes this experiment, specifically pointing to the online database of disclosure data, creates real change — and impact. “If somebody has to pay $20 to get a copy of a disciplinary order against a nurse, if they’re looking for a home health nurse, is that something they’re really going to do? Is the state really helping them make a smart choice to protect them? I don’t think so. By pointing this out, we’re really doing a service.”

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