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October 06 2010

13:15

Trust, mobile, and money: New focal points (and hints for applicants) for the new Knight News Challenge

For the first time, this year’s Knight News Challenge will be requesting entries in three specific categories: mobile, revenue models, and reputation/credibility. The contest judges won’t be seeking a certain quota of finalists in each category: “It’s much more of a signal to the population at large: These are the areas that need your attention,” Knight consultant Jennifer 8. Lee said on Monday, at a San Francisco information session sponsored by Hacks/Hackers.

Up to now, Lee said the Knight Foundation’s attitude towards the contest has been “we don’t know what news innovation is — you tell us.” But over the past four years, trends have emerged among the contest entries that mirror the broader development of the news business. 2010 was the year of mapping and data visualization projects, Lee said. In 2011, Knight sees innovations in credibility determination, mobile technology, and revenue model generation as key areas of development.

Credibility in the news business used to be based on the brand reputation of large media outlets. But in a world in which anyone can report, and in which, in Lee’s words, rumors can explode and die within a day on Twitter, there’s a need for new ways to measure and establish credibility. For example, Lee said, “How do you know that this person is more serious reporting out of Tehran, or Iran, than that person?” In the world of online media, rumors can gain momentum more quickly and easily than in the traditional media ecosystem. What kinds of tools and filters could be used to combat hoaxes and determine the trustworthiness of online information? That third category is “the one that’s the most vague — and purposefully so,” Lee said.

The mobile and revenue models categories are more straightforward. Last year, the Chicago news site Windy Citizen won $250,000 to develop a software interface to creates “real-time ads” which constantly update with the most recent information from a business’ Twitter feed or Facebook page. Lee said this was a good example of a revenue model project.

The Knight News Challenge is also increasingly open to awarding funding to for-profit companies who want to build open-source projects. Last cycle, one of the grantees was Stamen Design, a top data visualization firm whose founder and employees had a proven commitment to making open source tools in their free time. Knight provided them with $400,000 to dedicate staff hours to projects that they would previously have done on weekends. There are many different ways of making Knight funding viable for for-profit companies, Lee said, so long as the companies can carefully document how the foundation funding is being applied to open-source work. “You can create the open-sourcey version of your project. That part becomes open source, and the other one doesnt,” Lee said. In order to open funding to for-profit companies, “Knight has been really, really creative with the IRS,” Lee said. The foundation has been adapting statutes originally designed to encourage affordable housing development and applying them to open source news projects.

Last year, out of 2,300 initial applications, the Knight Foundation ultimately made 12 grants totaling about $3 million. Lee and two successful News Challenge grantees explained what factors make a project a strong contender—and what pitfalls lead to an early rejection.

— Your project should already have a working prototype. When the creators of Davis Wiki (which the Lab has been following for a while) applied for grant funding to expand their project, they weren’t just pitching a concept. They could point judges to a thriving local website which collects community insight and serves as an open forum for residents to deal with everything from scam artists to lost kittens.

As LocalWiki’s Philip Neustrom explained, one in seven people in Davis, Calif., have contributed material to Davis Wiki, and in a week “basically half” of the city’s residents visit the site. This June, Davis Wiki made The New York Times when residents used the site to assemble information about a local scam artist, the “Crying Girl.”

Neustrom and Mike Ivanov co-founded Davis Wiki in 2004. So by the time they were applying for a 2010 KNC grant, they already had a mature, well-developed site to demonstrate the viability of what they were planning to do.

— Your project should be sustainable. Knight doesn’t want the projects they fund to wither away as soon as the grant money runs out. In the case of LocalWiki, what may be the best proof of their sustainability was actually made after they won Knight funding. Their recent Kickstarter campaign, which closed last month, raised $26,324 for outreach and education work, and 98 percent of that came from Davis community members, Neustrom said. Davis residents helped raise money by organizing a dance party, a silent auction, and fundraising nights at a bar — evidence that future LocalWiki sites will be able to build grassroots support.

— Your project should be catalytic. As a project reviewer, Lee said she looks for ideas that will catalyze development in a larger area. That means not just having a proven concept, but having one that’s scalable and that brings innovation to an area that needs attention.

Out of 2,300 applicants last year, only 500 were asked to provide a full proposal, and 50 of those became finalists. In the final round, Lee said, there was a lot of consensus between the judges about what projects were ultimately promising. The judges were allowed to apportion their votes between different projects, and 28 of the 50 got no votes, Lee said. Among the common problems with proposals:

— Don’t ask Knight to fund content. Lee said the KNC receives many proposals for, say, money to start a hyperlocal blog in North Carolina. But while the idea of a hyperlocal blog was innovative five or six years ago, Lee said, “at this point, it’s no longer cutting edge. The point of the Knight News Challenge is to encourage innovation, creativity.”

— Don’t apply with projects that don’t fit Knight’s mission. As with any contest, some projects try to shoehorn themselves into an inappropriate category for the sake of funding. A grant to do a project using SMS to provide health information in Africa, for example, would be “too specific to be interesting to the Knight News Challenge,” Lee said.

— Don’t be vague. For example: applying to create “a news aggregator.”

— Avoid generic citizen journalism projects. Say a group wanted to take Flip cams and give them to inner city kids as an experiment in citizen journalism. “We’re not totally into the citizen journalism thing anymore,” Lee said. “It has been given its chance to do its thing and kind of didn’t do its thing that well.”

— Have the credibility to make the project work. An applicant may have a good idea for an innovative project, but he or she also has to have the experience and credibility to actually pull it off. One tip-off that credibility is lacking? If he or she asks for an amount of grant funding that’s disproportional to the realistic needs of the project.

[Disclosure: Both Knight Foundation and Lee have been financial supporters of the Lab.]

September 27 2010

16:00

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

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

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

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

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

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

Partnerships

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

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

Audience

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

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

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

Impact

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

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

10:44

Vote for the Best in Nonprofit Taglines – The Taggies

Place your vote today for the 2010 Getting Attention Nonprofit Tagline Awards!

The 70 tagline finalists have been culled from over 2,700 entries in 13 vertical sectors. These orgs have done a fantastic job in putting well-selected words to build their brands. Now it's your turn to select the best. Through voting, you’ll get a stronger sense of what makes messaging work and learn to assess your organization's taglines.

read more

September 15 2010

17:00

Government-free* nonprofit journalism, asterisk included

Here’s a test for nonprofit journalism and its stakeholders.

The following sentence comes from the “Contribute” page of a nonprofit journalism organization. What’s wrong with it?

The [organization] neither accepts nor receives any government or taxpayer-financed grants and relies solely on the generous support of our donors.

The answer is…nothing is wrong.

Ha! It was a trick question. The website belongs to a news organization that says it helps produce independent journalism and doesn’t like the idea of government supporting its work. No problem.

But in the same breath, the organization informs its potential donors: “Your donation…is tax deductible to the fullest extent of the law under Internal Revenue Service Code Section 501(c)(3).”

Now we have a problem.

The organization I am zinging here, the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, believes that tax deductions for donors aren’t the same thing as government support. “Our generous contributors are not funding government support of journalism when they donate to the Franklin Center,” Jason Stverak, the group’s president wrote in an email. (Complete response below.)

Economists disagree. Charitable deductions are known within the realm of economics as “tax expenditures,” and according to Stanley Surrey, the former assistant Treasury secretary who coined the term, they’re no different than direct government spending.

“Whatever their form, these departures from the normative tax structure represent government spending for favored activities or groups, effected through the tax system rather than through direct grants, loans, or other forms of government assistance,” Surrey wrote with coauthor Paul McDaniel (emphasis mine).

The Heritage Foundation offers a similar definition. It says in part: “The word ‘expenditure’ is used to highlight the similarity between the use of the tax code to provide advantages to a select group and the more traditional method of giving the group a slice of the federal budget.”

Last month, I took WikiLeaks to task for promoting itself as a cutting-edge proponent of transparency in government while failing to disclose much of anything about its own funding and expenditures. My gripe, in a nutshell, was that WikiLeaks’ adherence to a double standard undercuts not only its own credibility, but also that of the entire nonprofit sector in journalism.

Like WikiLeaks, the Franklin Center seeks to “advance the cause of transparency in government” while it also withholds information about its own finances. But it slides further down the slippery slope when it condemns the idea of government support for journalism and then makes that condemnation a central selling point in its case for philanthropy — tax-deductible philanthropy, no less.

The Franklin Center isn’t alone. In Idaho, the Idaho Freedom Foundation, publisher of the nonprofit Idaho Reporter says this on its “Donate” page:

The Idaho Freedom Foundation relies solely on the generosity of individuals, foundations, and corporations that share its commitment to freedom. IFF does not accept any government funding. IFF is a tax-exempt organization under section 501c3 of the Internal Revenue Code. U.S. citizens will find their contributions to be tax-deductible to the extent allowable by law.

Some of the biggest names in the world of Washington think-tankdom commit the same offense. They include the Progress and Freedom Foundation and the Heritage Foundation, both of which oppose the idea of government policy changes to support journalism.

I’m not here to flog the Franklin Center or any of these other organizations for their ideology. I know from a decade of reporting on Capitol Hill that it’s darned hard to maintain one’s purity when money is involved. But those who count themselves among the nonprofit sector in journalism should walk their own talk: Tax deductions for donors are government support. Any nonprofit organization that says it “relies solely on the generous support of our donors” while also promoting the charitable tax deduction available to its donors is issuing, at best, what the late Ron Ziegler might have called an inoperative statement.

The fact is, government subsidies for journalism are everywhere. In addition to the charitable tax deduction, they include mechanisms such as favorable postal rates and revenue-producing legal-notice requirements. Geoffrey Cowan and David Westphal of USC identified these government subsidies to journalism in a report earlier this year and argued that they were intended by our founding fathers to help support a vigorous press.

If you don’t buy their argument, another proponent of the view that tax deductions constitute government support is view is Sen. Chuck Grassley. The Iowa Republican has been a tireless watchdog over the nonprofit sector, and the charitable tax deduction has been his entry point to investigations of hospitals, athletic booster clubs and other 501(c)(3)s.

So what to do in a world of ambiguity?

One solution would be for journalism nonprofits that oppose government support to refund the value of donors’ tax deductions to the U.S. Treasury. The Franklin Center recently named an advisory council that includes well-known journalists such as Tucker Carlson, and maybe that body could take up the idea at their next meeting. But I’m not holding my breath for that to happen.

Here’s another scenario: What if Grassley slipped in a legislative rider ending the charitable tax deduction for organizations involved in journalism? I bet the nonprofits mentioned above would howl like holy heck.

Perhaps the best thing would be for these organizations to acknowledge the reality of their dependence on government support and focus instead on journalism. They have a lot to contribute from their point of view, and that should be reason enough for readers to support them. Until then, a little more transparency might be in order. If journalism nonprofits want to denounce government support while promoting tax deductions for donors, they should add an asterisk and a disclaimer to their solicitations for support. It’s the transparent thing to do.

I asked representatives of several journalism nonprofits whether they thought tax deductions constituted government support. Here is the full response I got from Jason Stverak of the Franklin Center.

Our generous contributors are not funding government support of journalism when they donate to the Franklin Center. In fact, the Franklin Center strongly believes that government intervention in media will create greater problems than the struggling newspaper business is currently enduring. If government intervenes in the news industry, journalists will no longer be able to report credibly on stories that matter to the people, but ultimately only on what matters to officials. Journalists may ignore scandal and corruption for fear of losing government funds. They could become political flacks and write to appease government instead of investigating it.

Drawing the conclusion that every donation to a non-profit 501 c3 is supporting the government in some way is incorrect. Tax deductions for gifts to houses of worship are not funding government support of religion and tax deductable donations to health care associations are not supporting government healthcare.

Photo by Jacob Kearns used under a Creative Commons license.

September 10 2010

16:30

Jon Sawyer on what the Pulitzer Center has learned about angel investing in international journalism

[Our sister publication Nieman Reports is out with its latest issue, which focuses on the current state of international reporting. There are lots of interesting articles — check out the whole issue — but we're highlighting a few that line up with our subject matter here at the Lab. Here's Jon Sawyer, director of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, on the lessons his organization has learned about nonprofit journalism. —Josh]

The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting began with a simple idea — that we could leverage small travel grants to journalists to assure multiple voices on big global issues and at the same time help talented individuals sustain careers as foreign correspondents. Five years and some 150 projects later those remain key goals but our mission has expanded — and with it our sense of what is required of nonprofit journalism initiatives like the Pulitzer Center.

Some lessons we’ve learned:

Collaboration: Our best projects have entailed partnerships with multiple organizations and outlets. We developed our expertise on video by producing several dozen short pieces for the now defunct public television program Foreign Exchange With Fareed Zakaria, for example, and we extended our audience by partnering with YouTube on its first video reporting contest. In our project on Sudan we are collaborating with The Washington Post to support the work of journalist/attorney Rebecca Hamilton and funding complementary coverage on PBS NewsHour. We have worked in tandem with NewsHour and National Geographic to promote our common work on the global water crisis. In these and other reporting initiatives we have recruited donors with an interest in raising the visibility of systemic issues — and an appreciation that the journalism cannot succeed unless there is an assurance of absolute independence in our work.

Keep reading at Nieman Reports »

09:38

August 25 2010

13:30

Googling serendipity: How does journalism fare in a world where algorithms trump messy chance?

Twelve years ago, when I was reporting on the pending Microsoft antitrust case, I learned that what was really at stake wasn’t immediately apparent in the legal briefs. It wasn’t the browser market (remember Netscape?) or whether Windows should be able to run somebody else’s word-processing program. Rather, it was how control was exercised over the places where we learned, created, and engaged in critical thought.

One of the best thinkers on the topic was Ben Shneiderman, founding director of the Human-Computer Interaction Lab at the University of Maryland. He told me at the time that the critical question for Microsoft was not whether the company encouraged innovation — it did — but rather how financial pressures dictated which innovations it adopted and which it let wither. The Microsoft software suite, he noted, wasn’t very accessible to people with learning disabilities or those with low incomes.

Fast forward to 2010, and now we hear from Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, another powerful technology company that controls the tools of creativity and expression. Schmidt recently talked to The Wall Street Journal about the potential for applying artificial intelligence to search, suggesting that the search engine of the future would figure out what we meant rather than find what we actually typed.

Schmidt seems to be pushing the idea that the future — or, more accurately, each of our individual futures, interests, and passions — all can be plotted by algorithm from now until our dying day. The role of serendipity in our lives, he said, “can be calculated now. We can actually produce it electronically.”

Really?

According to Webster’s, serendipity is “the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.” So if the essence of serendipity is chance or fortune or chaos, then by definition, anything that a search engine brings to you, even on spec, isn’t serendipitous.

I don’t know whether Schmidt’s comments should be chalked up to blind ambition or to quant-nerd naivete. But it’s troubling that Schmidt seems to discount the role that human nature plays in our everyday lives and, ultimately, in guiding our relationships with technology.

It might be that Schmidt’s vision for the search engine of the future would serve us well in finding a new restaurant, movie or book. But if Google really wants to take the guesswork out of our lives, we should be asking the same question that Shneiderman put to Microsoft. How might financial pressures shape Google’s “serendipity algorithm”? What content — journalism and otherwise — will it push our way that will shape our worldview? And, to Shneiderman’s point, what limits does it impose?

I think it’s safe to say that some good ideas don’t lend themselves to being monetized online — witness the rise of nonprofit startups in bringing us investigative, public affairs, and explanatory journalism. How might they fare in Schmidt’s world order?

I caught up with Shneiderman on Monday, and he agreed that this is one of the key questions that should be debated as we depend more and more on a “recommender system” in which companies like Google or Amazon use massive databases to anticipate our needs and wants. Public interest groups and other nonprofits that can’t afford the right keywords could be most vulnerable in these systems, Shneiderman said. “How far down the list do the concerns of civic groups get pushed?” he asked.

It’s fair to ask companies what considerations and factors might be weighted in their search formulas, Shneiderman said, but it isn’t clear what level of transparency should be expected. “What is a reasonable a request to make without exposing their algorithm and their business practices?” he said.

I can’t say either. But I do think there are some lessons that Google can take from the history that Microsoft has helped write.

One lesson is that what’s good for the bottom line doesn’t always jibe with what’s best for consumers. A dozen years ago, the Netscape browser was regarded by many as more as more functional, but Microsoft saw it as a threat. So it bundled its own Internet Explorer browser in its operating system and effectively pushed Netscape out of existence.

Another lesson is that it isn’t always possible to divine what people will want in the future based on a profile of what they (or people like them) have wanted it the past. Indeed, some of the most successful technology companies — Google included — have succeeded precisely because their vision for the future was radical, new and compelling. Microsoft once played that role to a monolithic IBM. But today, as Microsoft’s market valuation has been eclipsed by that of Apple, it has become debatable whether Microsoft remains a consumer-driven company.

None of this should be interpreted as an anti-capitalistic rant. We’re all better off for Google’s search box, and it’ll be interesting to see where Schmidt’s vision takes the company.

Rather, it is a suggestion that even the most elaborate algorithms and high-touch e-marketing can’t address every human need.

One of the best vacations I ever took was when I pulled out of my driveway in Raleigh in late August 1991 with no particular destination. Two days later, I found myself in North Dakota, discovering places I never would have appreciated based on my past interests or those of my friends and peers. The experience was so compelling to me precisely because it was serendipitous.

That trip has served as an important reminder to me ever since. When we don’t know what we want, sometimes what we really need is to figure it out for ourselves.

August 06 2010

14:30

This Week in Review: Newsweek’s new owner, WikiLeaks and context, and Tumblr’s media trendiness

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

A newbie owner for Newsweek: This week was a big one for Newsweek: After being on the block since May, it was sold to Sidney Harman, a 92-year-old audio equipment mogul who’s married to a Democratic congresswoman and owns no other media properties. The price: $1, plus the responsibility for Newsweek’s liabilities, estimated at about $70 million. The magazine’s editor, Jon Meacham, is leaving with the sale, though he told Yahoo’s Michael Calderone that he had decided in June to leave when Newsweek was sold, no matter who the new owners were. Harman’s age and background and the low sale price made for quite a few biting jokes about the sale on Twitter, dutifully chronicled for us by Slate’s Jack Shafer.

Harman didn’t help himself out much by telling The New York Times he doesn’t have a plan for Newsweek. In a pair of sharp articles, The Daily Beast painted a grim picture of what exactly Harman’s getting himself into: The magazine’s revenue dropped 38 percent from 2007 to 2009, and it’s losing money in all of its core areas. The Beast noted that with no other media properties, Harman doesn’t have the synergy potential that the magazine’s previous owners, The Washington Post Co., said Newsweek would need. So why was he chosen? Apparently, he genuinely cares about the publication, and he’s planning the least number of layoffs. (That, and the other bidders weren’t too attractive, either.) PaidContent reported that his primary goal is to bring the magazine back to stability while he sets up a succession plan.

Everybody has ideas of what Harman should do with his newest plaything: Jack Shafer tells him to treat Newsweek as a magazine to be saved rather than a fun vanity project, and MarketWatch’s Jon Friedman wants to see Newsweek drop the opinion-and-analysis approach that it’s been aping from The Economist, as do several of the observers Politico talked to. (DailyFinance’s Jeff Bercovici just wants Harman to make it a little less excruciatingly dull to read.) Two other Politico sources — new media guru Jeff Jarvis and former Newsweek Tumblr wizard Mark Coatney — want to see Newsweek shift away from a print focus and figure out how to be vital on the web. Media consultant Ken Doctor proposes pushing forward on tablet editions, multimedia and interacting with readers online as the future of the magazine. Jarvis also has some pieces of advice for magazines in general, urging to them to resist the iPad’s siren song and get local, among other things.

Poynter’s Rick Edmonds has the most intriguing idea for a new Newsweek — going nonprofit. That would likely require refining its editorial mission to a narrower focus on national and international affairs, with the pop culture analysis getting cut out, Edmonds says, but he believes Harman might actually be considering a nonprofit approach. Ken Doctor suggests that with Harman’s statements about the relative unimportance of turning a profit from the magazine, he’s already blurring the lines between a for-profit and nonprofit organization.

Meanwhile, others were busy speculating about who might be the editor to lead Newsweek into its next incarnation. Names thrown out included Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakaria, Newsweek.com editor Mark Miller, Slate Group editor Jacob Weisberg, and former Time editor and CNN CEO Walter Isaacson, though Isaacson has taken himself out of consideration.

WikiLeaks and the need for context: WikiLeaks continued to see fallout from its unprecedented leak of 92,000 documents about the war in Afghanistan two weekends ago, with more cries for it to be shut down and its founder, Julian Assange, arrested, largely because its leak revealed the names of numerous Afghan informants to the U.S. Assange expressed regret for those disclosures, and WikiLeaks said it’s even asking for the Pentagon’s help in identifying and redacting names of informants in its next document dump, though the Pentagon said they haven’t heard from WikiLeaks yet. Not that the U.S. government hasn’t been trying to make contact — it demanded the documents be returned(!), and agents detained a WikiLeaks researcher at customs and then tried to talk with him again at a hacking conference this week. An Australian TV station gave a fascinating inside look at Assange’s life on the run, and Slate’s Jack Shafer contrasted Assange’s approach to leaking sensitive documents with the more government-friendly tack of traditional media outlets. WikiLeaks also had some news to report on the business-model side: It will begin collecting online micropayment donations through Flattr.

The ongoing discussion around WikiLeaks this week centered on what to do with the data it released. The Tyndall Report provided a thorough roundup of how TV news organizations responded to the leak, and several others pinned the rather ho-hum public reaction to the documents’ contents on a lack of context provided by news organizations. Former Salon editor Scott Rosenberg said the leak provides a new opportunity to shed an antiquated scoop-based definition of news and bring the reality of the war home to people. In a smart post musing on the structure of the modern news story, the Lab’s Megan Garber proposed an outlet dedicated solely to follow-up journalism, arguing that one of the biggest challenges in modern journalism is giving a sense of continuity to long-running stories. “What results is a flattening: the stories of our day, big and small, silly and significant, are leveled to the same plane, occupying the same space, essentially, in the wobbly little IKEA bookshelf that is the modular news bundle,” she wrote in a follow-up post.

Mashable also examined (in nifty infographic form!) how WikiLeaks changes the whistleblower-journalist relationship, while NPR wondered whether WikiLeaks is on the source or journalist side of equation. And PBS’ Idea Lab had something handy for news orgs: A guide to helping them think about how to handle large-scale document releases.

Tumblr trends upward: The social blogging service Tumblr got the New York Times profile treatment this week, as the paper focused on its growing popularity among news organizations who are trying to jump on it as the next big social media trend — a form of communication somewhere between Twitter and blogging. The article noted that several prominent media brands have Tumblr accounts, though many of them aren’t doing much with theirs. Over at Mediaite, Anthony De Rosa, who runs the Tumblr account for the sports blog network SB Nation, said we can expect to see still more media outlets jump on the Tumblr bandwagon, especially because it rewards smart media companies who have a distinctive voice.

New York’s Nitasha Tiku tried to douse the hype, arguing that Mark Coatney’s often-mentioned Tumblr success for Newsweek “wasn’t thanks to the distribution channel on Tumblr, it was his irreverent, conversational style — and that will be difficult for the fresh-faced interns that old-media publications don’t pay to run their Tumblrs.” And Gawker gave us a graded rundown of traditional news orgs’ Tumblr accounts.

Two Internet freedom scares: From The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times this week came two stories that have had many people concerned about issues of freedom and the web. First, the Journal ran a series on the alarming amount of your online data and behavior that companies track on behalf of advertisers. Cluetrain Manifesto co-author Doc Searls argued that while the long-held ideal of intensely personal advertising is getting closer to reality, “the advertising business is going to crash up against a harsh fact: ‘consumers’ are real people, and most real people are creeped out by this stuff.” Jeff Jarvis was much less moved by the Journal’s reporting, mocking it as scaremongering that tells us nothing new. Salon’s Dan Gillmor fell closer to Searls’ outrage than to Jarvis’ nonchalance, and media consultant Judy Sims said this series is a window into a complex future for display advertising, one that media executives need to become familiar with in a hurry.

Second, the Times unleashed an avalanche of commentary in the tech world with a report that Google and Verizon are moving toward an agreement that would allow companies to pay to get their content to web users more quickly, which would effectively end the passionately held open-Internet principle known as net neutrality. The FCC quickly suspended its closed-door net neutrality meetings, and despite denials from Google and Verizon (which Wired picked apart), a whole lot of whither-the-Internet concern ensued. I’m not going to dig too deeply into this story here (I’d rather wait until we have something concrete to opine about), but here are the best quick guides to what this might mean: J-prof Dan Kennedy, Salon’s Dan Gillmor and ProPublica’s Marian Wang.

Reading roundup: Just a couple of quick items this week:

— Thanks to Poynter, we got glimpses of a couple of softer paid-content options being tried out by GlobalPost and The Spokesman-Review of Spokane, Washington, that might be sprouting up soon elsewhere, too. The Lab’s Megan Garber profiled one of the new companies offering that type of porous paywall, MediaPass, and All Things Digital’s Peter Kafka sifted through survey results to try to divine what The New York Times’ paywall might look like.

— Google’s social media platform Google Wave officially died this week, a little more than a year after it was born. Tech pioneer Dave Winer looked at why it never took off and drew a few lessons, too.

— Finally, the Lab’s Jonathan Stray took a look at some very cool things that The Guardian is doing with data journalism using free web-based tools. It’s a great case study in a blossoming area of journalism.

July 29 2010

14:00

WikiLeaks and a failure of transparency

In all the kerfuffle this week around WikiLeaks and its disclosure of 91,000+ documents in its Afghan War Diary, it seems to me that a fundamental irony has been overlooked: A nonprofit journalism organization dedicated to imposing transparency on reluctant governments seems to think the rules don’t apply at home.

Go to the WikiLeaks “about” page, and you can see what I mean. There’s lots of rah-rah about rooting out corruption freedom of the press and why the site is “so important.” But there’s not a peep about organizational governance, where their money comes from or where it goes.

In some cases, such opacity is by mistake. But in WikiLeaks’ case, it is by design. Just two weeks before Afghan War Diary was released, Wired published an enterprising story on WikiLeaks’ finances. The reporter, Kim Zetter, tracked down a vice president of the Berlin-based Wau Holland Foundation, which apparently handles most contributions to WikiLeaks’ contributions. The story provided some idea as to the scale of the WikiLeaks budget — the group needs about $200,000 a year for basic operations — but the vice president offered only a promise of more disclosure next month. And from WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange? No comment.

I understand the need to protect whistleblowers and other sources. But when it comes to the group’s finances, can’t they cut out all the James Bond stuff? I don’t need names and addresses of donors, but can’t we have a little more transparency and accountability?

This isn’t just a matter of idle curiosity. Love or hate WikiLeaks, the organization is doing more than its share to transform journalism. And it is doing so in dramatic fashion by fully unharnessing the power and creativity of the nonprofit model. As Ruth McCambridge noted in the Nonprofit Quarterly earlier this week, WikiLeaks “may be the soul of nonprofithood.”

If that’s the case, then the stakes involved in WikiLeaks’ own willingness to operate with transparency are quite high.

Perhaps the most-repeated criticism of the nonprofit model in journalism is that an organization that relies in whole or in part on philanthropy will become beholden to its funders and will compromise its journalistic principles in order to ensure continued funding.

That’s simply not the case — not any more than the newsroom of a for-profit newspaper would have a self-imposed ban on negative stories about car dealers, department stores, and other (remaining) major advertisers.

But the secrecy invites speculation. A July 3 post at Cryptome.org from a “WikiLeaks insider” alleges that the organization had become overly dependent on “keep alive donations” from left wing politicians in Iceland. It warns ominously: “Sooner or later it will be payback time. And payback will be in the form of political bias in WIKILEAKS output.”

WikiLeaks does its part to fuel the speculation and undercut its credibility as well. In the Q&A on its “about” page, WikiLeaks raises this question: “Is WikiLeaks a CIA front?” I’ll save you a click back and tell you that the answer is no. But do we really need this kind of drama from an organization that presents itself as an honest broker of information? Of course not. It only serves to undercut WikiLeaks’ credibility.

If WikiLeaks really wants to promote transparency, it should start with its own operations.

June 30 2010

09:03

Enter your Org's Taglines to win a Taggie Award

Taggie Award LogoSince 2008, the Nonprofit Tagline Awards (aka the Taggies) have been rewarding organizations for using strong taglines in their marketing materials. A powerful tagline can be the centerpiece of a strong marketing campaign, and can serve to both clarify and simplify your message. Does your nonprofit have an organizational tagline or a tagline for a campaign, program, or event? If so, enter to win a Taggie Award from Getting Attention.

The Taggie Awards:

The deadline for entering is July 28. The form takes about 3 minutes to fill in, so why not do it right now?

read more

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.

June 17 2010

16:47

Seeking Professional Pro Bono Communications and New Technology Consultant at ESCR-Net

The International Network for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR-Net) is currently looking to partner with a consultant in the area of new technologies and advancing communications for the Network. ESCR-Net is the largest network of groups and individuals from around the world working to secure economic and social justice through human rights. Please help us circulate to anyone who may be interested in taking on some pro bono work in this area.  You can view the announcement and full job description on the ESCR-Net website here: http://www.escr-net.org/about/about_show.htm?doc_id=1256687

June 16 2010

17:34

Attention nonprofits looking to produce video for social media

If your organization is considering producing video as part of a social media intitiative, check out this video.  The information applies whether producing in-house, or hiring an professional company.  Let me know if you find it helpful and if you have any questions or suggestions for future content on the topic.

June 11 2010

14:00

Bill Buzenberg on Center for Public Integrity’s aim to “catalyze impact,” fundraise in a competitive field

Nonprofit news organizations may be all the rage, but they’re not a new animal. Last week, 20-year-old Center for Public Integrity announced a round of recent hires. Since January, CPI has brought on nine new journalists, including reporters, editors and a database expert. For a team of about 50, it’s a significant expansion.

New hires include John Solomon, long-time investigative reporter and the former executive editor of The Washington Times, as “reporter in residence,” Julie Vorman, former Reuters Washington editor as deputy managing editor, and Peter Stone of National Journal.

CPI is known for its investigative projects that appear in major print and broadcast outlets. A recent year-long project on campus sexual assault was picked up by outlets around the country, reaching what CPI said was an audience of 40 million. Last week CPI partnered with The New York Times in publishing Coast Guard logs suggesting authorities knew about the severity of the BP oil spill much sooner than announced. The logs were also published on the Center’s website and were widely used by newspapers across the country.

I spoke with Bill Buzenberg, CPI’s executive director about his expansion and the organization more broadly. Buzenberg says CPI does not fall on one side of the “impact v. audience” question, but acknowledged that their latest strategic plan emphasizes the organization’s desire to “catalyze impact.” He thinks it’s an exciting time for nonprofit journalism, but sees challenges in an increasingly crowded fundraising field. Here’s a lightly edited version of our conversation.

Is this a new team you’re hiring for a specific project or a general expansion of your editorial capacity?

It’s a general expansion of our editorial capacity. We have a very strong push on: The top major newspapers are all using our content, even online at The Huffington Post. The work is being used more than ever. Lots of places want to partner with us. There is so much watchdog work to be done.

Some nonprofits, like MinnPost, are focused on drawing a regular audience to their website. Others are looking for other outlets to pick up their work and reach an audience that way. Could you talk about where Center for Public Integrity fits?

I think from the beginning the Center has had the same trajectory. In the beginning, actually, it did reports, held news conferences and handed out those reports, and they were reported on by other publications. That is still part of our operation. We very much do reporting work — sometimes it’s a year, sometimes it’s months, sometimes its a few days — and we make it available to other organizations very broadly. And it gets used very, very broadly.

One example: We did a project on campus assault, just recently. We worked on it for a year. We collected the data from 160 universities, we did an investigation, we did a lot of FOIAs, which we increasingly do here, we get the documents and the data. Then we did a number of reports. And we look for a specific partner on each platform: online, print, radio, and television. That’s what we’ve done. ABC did a story on it. NPR did a number of reports on it. Huffington Post carried a number of reports. And we made a specific plan to provide a toolkit for campus newspapers: 65 campus newspapers have used that report. We made it available in an ebook. The sum total of that we can now say that 40 million people have heard, watched, seen, or read some part of our campus assault project. It is on our website. And there’s a community interested in this work, that’s concerned about what’s going on with campus assault. So we have a resource on our website. And it’s in the other publications.

So we’re both. We want people to come read it and get our work here, and we love it when it’s published elsewhere and linked back to us. There is always going to be more on our site — more data, more documents, more photographs. We want traffic to our site, as well as have it used elsewhere.

We also run the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. The consortium is 100 journalists in 50 countries. We are working on, right now, three major cross-border investigations. We’ve been working on global tobacco for quite a while and issuing reports. Those reports are running in publications all over the world where those reporters work or have connections. For example, in July we have a project coming out with the BBC. The BBC has planned two documentaries and several programs. They’re using all of the work that we’ve started. We’re all doing it at the same time. It’ll come out the third week in July and it’ll run all over the world. Not just the BBC World Service, but in countries where we’ve been working. So we work internationally. We work in Washington, increasingly covering federal agencies. And we work at the state level, where we’re able to do 50-state projects. So that’s our model. It’s unique in how it operates. We’ve spent 20 years building this up. We’re very much pushing to do more, do it better, and do it widely.

You mention audience — is that how you measure success? There’s this debate happening right now: Is it audience, or is it impact? How do you define success at CPI?

Increasingly, the real way we measure success is impact. That is a huge part of our strategic plan: We want to catalyze impact. That means we want hearings to follow. We want laws to change. We want actions to happen. We are not an advocacy organization. We don’t go out and say “here is what you should do” in any way shape or form. We’re an investigative journalism organization. We do the reporting, but we love to see actions happen because of our reporting. A few years ago, when we reported on all the lobbyist-paid travel, where the records were kept in the basement of Capitol that no one had ever looked at — that took a year to do, with students. [Disclosure: I was one of those students.] But we listed every single trip taken by every single member of Congress for five years, and every staff member of every member of Congress. We showed every trip, every expense. The minute that was published, the travel started down. Then the new Congress came in and said, “oh, we have to close this loophole.” It was a loophole because it was public and transparent. We love that that’s an action that comes out of it.

But of course we like audience and we like engagement. So audience is a part of it. Engagement is increasingly a part of it. Are people writing comments, giving us ideas? How is the audience engaged? I was just up in Minnesota — the university there had just done a day-long session on campus assault, which came out of a public-radio interview they did with our reporter there. That’s an engagement in an issue at a local level that is very important.

[Buzenberg said that CPI's site attracts more than 1 million unique visitors per year, but declined to release exact traffic statistics.]

Nonprofit journalism is a hot topic right now, but there have been outlets like yours for a long time. I’m wondering, in terms of fundraising, does that give you a leg up right now, given that you’re established, or is it becoming difficult in a more crowded field?

I was in public radio for 27 years, both at National Public Radio and local. I was the head of news at national for seven years and then went to Minnesota Public Radio, now called American Public Media nationally. We raised a lot of money in both places. That’s nonprofit journalism with an important audience and it does great work.

Right now, I think, many funders have understood that the watchdog work, the investigative work, it’s expensive, it’s difficult, it’s risky. It’s the first thing often that gets cut when newspapers are declining, or magazines, or television, when they don’t have as many people out doing it. I think it’s been a period in which foundations and individuals have seen the importance of the kind of work that we do and we’ve gotten some strong support to continue to do this work. Yes, it’s competitive. It’s difficult.

We’re raising money in three ways. We do have foundation support. We’re talking with something like 86 foundations, many of whom do support us. We also are raising money from individuals — small donations with membership, much like public radio. Larger donations from people with resources. We do have a strong base of individual donors. And the third way is earned revenue, and we’re working on various scenarios of how we can earn that. We just did research for BBC. We sold our map on the global climate lobby to National Geographic. We’re selling ebooks. We do have various small revenue streams we want to grow. Those are three ways we raise the money to do this work. It’s important work and it’s not free. Public radio’s not free either. They get government resources — a small amount really. But at the Center we don’t take government money, direct corporate money, and we don’t take anonymous money. We make transparent, which is a very important thing, who is supporting us. It’s difficult. It’s not easy. With all the new centers popping up, there’s competition. There’s a lot going on, but I think many foundations, locally and nationally — and increasingly internationally, because we’ve gotten some good international support — have understood that this kind of work needs to be supported.

One thing I wanted to circle back to is your expansion. It seems like your recent expansion is into financial coverage. How did you come to that decision to expand in such a focussed way?

It came when the financial crisis hit the fall of 2008. We felt like no one was really saying who had caused the subprime problems — who was behind that? So we did a project. We started with 350 million mortgages. The mortgages are public information. From that, we named the 7.5 million subprime mortgages and we picked the 25 top lenders. Who they were, who supported them, where they did their lending, at what interest rates. We put it into a report. It took us six months. It’s “Who is behind the financial meltdown?” It still gets traffic. We put it out as an ebook. It’s being used by attorneys general. It’s being used by all sorts of people. No one had done the definitive work. That’s a project I’m really proud of. From that we grew a business and finance area. We thought there was so much more.

We’re tracking financial regulation and financial regulation issues in a way other people aren’t doing. That’s what our three-person team is doing. Financial is one area — money and politics is obviously one area we work in at the state and the national level. I might add when we did the global climate lobby before Coppenhagen, we were working globally. The other area is environment. The stories we’re working on with the BBC are environment. We’re doing a big project on the 10 most toxic workplaces and the 10 most toxic communities in America. It’ll take us six months.

How big are you? How many people work at the Center?

Right now, with the additions, we’re about 40. With fellows, we have 5 fellows and 6 interns, so we’re close to 50 people, if you add in fellowships and interns. It’s a major investment, there’s no question about it. That’s how we’re able to focus on these new projects.

This is a little touchy, but it jumped out at me. When I looked at the press release for the expansion I noticed that the eight new editorial hires are all men, I’m just curious about your struggles with diversity and bringing on women?

Well, first of all, the corrected version of the press release we sent out has Julie Vorman. We hired a deputy managing editor whose name should have been on there and it’s not on there. It’s not all the hires at the center — the six interns we hired, for example, are all women. We had 350 applicants for our internship program and we picked six, the best six. There are women at the Center. If I looked at the overall Center numbers, it is diverse, and it does have women. My COO and the head of development are in there, and on and on. There are many women here. It looked more male than it should have in the latest hires. It’s a fair question, but I think if you look at the overall numbers of the Center both with diversity and women reporters.

[After our conversation, Buzenberg looked up a breakdown of all staff at the Center, finding 43 percent are women and 23 percent are minority. Their staff page, showing individual positions, is here.]

June 08 2010

21:00

MinnPost, The UpTake try Spot.us to raise funds for their coverage of the Minnesota gubernatorial race

Interesting pitch on Spot.us today:

With the cutback of political reporters at every major newspaper in the state, the need for more political coverage is clear, we will have a new Governor come November, and the citizens of Minnesota need to know as much as they can about everyone in the race. This means we need more, more stories written, more video captured and more questions asked.

We’ve decided that our communities who rely on our coverage may also share these goals and we are excited to be using Spot.us to help us crowd-fund this story idea.

The pitch comes from the Minnesota nonprofits MinnPost and the citizen journalism site The UpTake. It’s looking for funding through November. Oh, and it estimates the total cost of the project to be $40,800.

Yes. That’s steep by all accounts — “if I’m realistic, I don’t know if we’re going to hit that,” Spot.us founder Dave Cohn told me — but it’s also based on straightforward estimates of the man-hours both outlets will require to report (MinnPost) and record (The UpTake) information between now and election time this fall — with about a 50/50 split between the two. MinnPost, says Roger Buoen, the managing editor overseeing the site’s coverage, will have a lead journalist backed with, if resources allow, three or four other reporters. And The UpTake, executive director Jason Barnett told me, will hire a professional videographer — again, if resources allow — to be assisted by the outlet’s cadre of citizen volunteers. That’s a commitment. And a costly one. Indeed, the collaborative coverage idea “has been one of the most expensive projects presented to Spot.us,” Barnett notes.

This isn’t the first time media organizations have used the Spot.us platform to solicit donations for reporting — in the past, the community-funding site has hosted pitches from Bay Area news organizations like the Oakland Tribune, San Francisco magazine, the San Francisco Appeal, the Bay Guardian, and Investigate West — but the MinnPost/UpTake partnership represents a significant step forward for the still-fledgling site. Not only are the organizations based in Minnesota — and proposing to produce an ongoing series of stories that are very specific to Minnesota’s interests — but they’re also, together, significantly bigger than most other outlets that have solicited funding through Spot.us.

“MinnPost is arguably the largest nonprofit that we’ve worked with,” Cohn told me. And it’s also “the second in the Investigative News Network that we’ve worked with.” (TheUpTake — “sort of the local C-SPAN,” Buoen puts it — isn’t an INN member, Cohn notes. “But they’re also awesome.”)

The trifecta came about as many such collaborations do: through a casual meeting that became something more. Cohn and Barnett met each other “maybe a year and a half ago,” Cohn recalls, “and we always talked about doing something together.” At the same time, Barnett and his staff had been working with MinnPost, supplying livestreamed video for, among other things, the long saga that was the Al Franken/Norm Coleman Senate runoff. The collaboration — MinnPost supplying the reporting, TheUpTake providing the video — worked so well that they wanted to continue it for other political stories. “Jason and I had been talking for some time about gubernatorial coverage,” Buoen says; the Spot.us pitch was in some ways a logical outcome of that discussion.

So a Kickstarter-esque, all-or-nothing proposition this is not. “Even if we don’t raise a lot of money, we’re going to do a lot of this stuff anyway,” Buoen says. The question is how much reporting they’ll be able to do with whatever funds they’re able to raise. Cohn said that, for Spot.us pitches that don’t reach their fundraising goal, reporters have the option to take the money donated and do the work anyway. And Buoen sees the Spot.us effort as existing separately from MinnPost’s current, three-tiered revenue stream of subscription fees, advertising dollars, and foundation support.

Still, the new-car-worthy ticket price isn’t just a matter of pragmatism, Cohn points out. The high number — which lives, price-tag-like, next to the description of the MinnPost/UpTake reporting project on the Spot.us site — serves as a reminder that good, thorough journalism is, you know, pricey. The Spot.us pitch is an effort to raise money, of course; but it’s also an effort to raise awareness. It’s a way, Barnett says, to “present some of the real costs of journalism.”

June 01 2010

16:00

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 24 2010

14:00

Consumer Reports rolling out paid content mobile strategy, taps potential users to set prices

The journalism world is still grappling with to-charge-or-not-to-charge, but it’s clear charging has the momentum — particularly on mobile devices. The New York Times is moving ahead with its January paywall plans and has put only a limited selection of stories in its iPad app. The Wall Street Journal is hunkering down with its paid-content model. The Washington Post waded in a few months ago with a 99-cent iPhone app. But the decision to charge is really two decisions: whether to charge and, if so, how much to charge.

One longstanding news outlet — Consumer Reports — made the first decision long ago and, true to its roots, keeps doing tests on the second. It accepts no advertising and is funded almost entirely by the sales of its publications and donations. Those funds support a staff of more than 600 people and runs a compound with multiple labs testing everything from cereal to toilets, plus a separate track and offroad track where it tests cars and SUVs. “‘Free’ is something we don’t like to use around here very often,” Jerry Steinbrink, its vice president of publishing, told me. Readers have to cover the cost of producing the content, and no project can operate at a loss, he said.

Strategic pricing

The magazine is strategic about setting prices, often borrowing from its own editorial practices. In determining how to charge for its new mobile website, for example, it ran tests with potential users. The magazine is in the process of testing out pricing plans for its “next-generation” iPhone app, which is still in development. (Their current app provides only limited access to CR content.) One group of app testers will be asked how much they’d pay for the tool; another group will be asked to react to some suggested prices.

“Because we are Consumer Reports, we test everything,” Steinbrink told me. “We depend a lot on focus groups. We’re trying to determine, with user input, what an acceptable price point would be.” Steinbrink wasn’t prepared to give a likely figure for the Consumer Reports iPhone app, but considering its functionality — it allows you to take a picture of any barcode, which will pull up all data Consumer Reports has on the product — and CR’s business model, don’t expect it to be a run-of-the-mill 99-cent app. Steinbrink thinks it might require a subscription fee that is renewed a few times a year, perhaps putting it in the range of their website which costs $26 per year.

Mobile strategy

Their new mobile site, which works on any web-enabled mobile device, lets users look up product information and compare items. (The barcode feature will only be available in the app.) For now, that site costs 99 cents for a 24-hour pass, or $4.99 for a month. Subscribers to the Consumer Reports website ($26 per year) can access the mobile site for free, but magazine subscribers ($29 per year) still must pay for web access, just like non-subscribers. By mid-summer, Consumer Reports expects to eliminate the 99-cent option, and lower the monthly fee to $3.99. Subscriptions are a better model for Consumer Reports, Steinbrink said, because they offer the magazine a more predictable, consistent income.

The choice to build both a mobile site and an app was deliberate, Matthew Goldfeder, director of mobile products told me. “Mobile use is going up, and will only continue to go up,” he said, predicting that some of the “sexyness” of apps may wear off as mobile web browsing improves.

There’s also another strategy at play. Consumer Reports hopes the mobile site will get new users to subscribe to the full website, which has many more features and more information than the mobile version. Both Consumer Reports’ site and the magazine skew older; the typical site user is a white male in his early 50s. They’d like to get younger users — say, recent college graduates buying electronics — to identify with a brand they associate with their parents. When that recent grad eventually buys a first house, hopefully Consumer Reports will come to mind. The magazine wants to give users “the kind of content that goes with their life cycle,” Goldfeder told me.

From niche to news

Consumer Reports is more like some of the niche sites we’ve written about recently than a traditional American newspaper. Sites in the niches offer unique and valued information that a certain readership is willing to pay good money to read.

Duke economist Jay Hamilton divides information into four categories: producer information (info that lets you do your job better), consumer information (info that helps you make a better purchasing decision), entertainment information (fun), and civic information (info to make you a smarter voter and citizen). Hamilton says the first three categories have it relatively easy, but the fourth one will always have trouble charging. Just as The Wall Street Journal fits nicely into Category 1, Consumer Reports slides obviously into Category 2.

Still, Steinbrink said there are some lessons general news publishers could learn from Consumer Reports. Shrinking ad revenue “forces editors to look at their content and produce the kind of quality a user will actually pay for.” Just putting a paywall in front of content that used to be free might not be enough.

May 17 2010

11:20

TechSoup Webinar: Make it Easy to Give By Taking Online Donations

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We will talk about ways to take donations, learn about related products that TechSoup offers, specifically Comodo, and hear about organizations using those tools.

This webinar is ideal for decision makers, development directors, website managers, or anyone interested in learning more about taking online donations.

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May 06 2010

15:00

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 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.

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