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June 28 2013

14:32

Radio storytelling: When is a story just a story, and when do listeners expect more?

Jay Allison, who produces The Moth Radio Hour and founded Transom.org, once said, ”In public radio, our signature is story.” 

He entered radio in the 1970s, from the theater. “I thought, ‘Wait a minute — it’s exactly the same, because it’s a medium in time.’ In order to hold attention (radio storytelling) must at least recognize theatrical values like rhythm and pace and climax and scene and character, and story,” he now says. “A lot of radio simply didn’t — it adhered to newspaper values, and as a result, I think not that many people listened. Bit by bit, the understanding was that theatrical values — by which I do not mean fiction — were incredibly important to holding attention, even to conveying information, to creating expectation and then to finally creating a memory. All of those scene-painting skills were the very heart of radio.”

And they still are. With so many storytelling shows on the air — The Moth, Radiolab, This American Life and, rising quickly, Snap Judgment — here’s a question that programs have been dealing with lately in the new “golden age” of public radio: What happens when a story turns out not to be true? Or true-ish? What level of accountability do listeners expect? How is the storyteller’s compact with the listener changing?

Allison remembers a radio story whose teller described passing through Customs at a certain Washington, D.C., airport, when in fact that airport had no Customs unit, as a skeptical listener pointed out. The storyteller “did get it wrong, and that mistake seemed to undermine her veracity in the mind of the listener for the entire story,” Allison says, “even though it was just something that happened in the flurry of extemporaneous storytelling.” An egregious example of listener betrayal is, of course, the This American Life excerpt of Mike Daisey’s stage show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, parts of which proved fabricated. Producer Ira Glass devoted an entire show to a retraction, and to understanding why and how the deception happened.

A lesser known example involves Snap Judgment, the Oakland-based NPR show with a stated mission of presenting “compelling personal stories — mixing tall tales with killer beats to produce cinematic, dramatic and kick-ass radio.” The show has taken off, especially among listeners age 33 to 42. Its founding producer is Glynn Washington, himself a riveting storyteller. He came to public radio with a University of Michigan law degree and a background in nonprofits, and last week The Atlantic wrote:

… Washington, a proud student of (Ira) Glass’s, is the next big thing. In its first three years, Snap Judgment, Washington’s fast-paced, music-heavy, ethnically variegated take on the public-radio story hour, has spread like left-end-of-the-dial kudzu. It is on 250 stations, reaching nine of the top 10 public-radio markets, and its podcast is downloaded more than half a million times a month. And while there has long been minority talent on public radio—a realm that includes National Public Radio and other producers of non-commercial radio, like American Public Media and Public Radio International—Washington is the first African American host to swing a big cultural stick, the first who seems likely to become a public-radio superstar on the order of Glass or Garrison Keillor.

A couple of years ago, Snap Judgment aired a segment by Jeff Greenwald, a San Francisco freelance journalist and travel writer who founded a nonprofit called Ethical Traveler. In “On the Road,” Greenwald told the following story: While hitchhiking once, at age 21, he and his girlfriend accepted a ride with a young couple who turned out to be mental-hospital escapees, and murderers. The story hinged emotionally on Greenwald’s incredulity at being left alive, and on his affection for the couple, whose names he believed to be Tony and Sue but that turned out, he said, to be Bella and Sam. (“We loved them,” he told listeners. “We loved those killers. And they loved us.”) You can hear the story here:

Screen Shot 2013-06-23 at 3.32.12 PM

A former Seattle newspaper reporter and blogger named David Quigg heard the story on the radio. As he later wrote in a blog post, the story, to him, did not ring true. Nor did the story feel quite right to another listener a few weeks ago, when a slightly different version aired on a Canadian Broadcasting Corp. show called Definitely Not the Opera. A third version of the story lives in a 2003 Lonely Planet guide called The Kindness of Strangers. After some empty Googling in search of the details, Quigg tweeted at Snap Judgment, asking whether the show could vouch for the piece’s veracity. The show responded: “Vouched.”

“Big, big mistake,” Washington says now. The word ”vouched” implies that the producers had checked out the story and were good with it. They hadn’t. Should they have? When, and to what extent, should storytelling shows verify information, and to what extent do their disclaimers absolve them of such an obligation? Moth Radio Hour airs and stages stories “as remembered and affirmed by the storyteller.” This American Life describes itself as a teller of “mostly true stories of everyday people, though not always. There’s lots more to the show, but it’s sort of hard to describe.”

We chatted with Washington the other day about some of this. He said an intern probably sent the “Vouched” tweet, back when Snap Judgment’s social media controls were looser, and that while the show makes no journalistic claims, the same kind of mistake wouldn’t happen today. Here’s part of the conversation, lightly edited for length:

Washington: The stories on the Snap Judgment show — we’re not reporters; we’re storytellers. We don’t check things the same way. In the course of putting stories together we have our own BS meter and if something doesn’t ring true we’ll put that in the context of the story itself, like, “I don’t know about this.” Our stories are constructed to be true to the person telling them. Like, someone will say their grandmother had magical powers and that she knew that her husband would be flying over her head at a certain time in a field 40 years ago — we’re not gonna fact-check that. We’re not. That’s a tale from that person and we’re gonna accept that as it is. It really is different. For us as a new program, what we don’t wanna do – I think the blogger is correct, because what we don’t want to do is mislead people. If we have dubious content we’ll — I really enjoy, let’s say, a protagonist who has, oh, a precarious relationship with the truth; I have to be sure that in that situation I’m acting as an everyman so that the audience understands to some degree that this is to be taken with a grain of salt. And that was probably the issue with the Jeff Greenwald piece. I think the blogger has a really good point. I mean I think it was a mistake.

Snap Judgment's Glynn Washington

Snap Judgment’s Glynn Washington

How did it happen?

When we were first starting … the controls weren’t in place to stop that sort of thing. And stupid things like this happened. You’re not gonna hear that piece ever again on Snap Judgment in the same context. If we do run that piece we’re gonna put some sort of disclaimer or something on it. I love the piece itself, as a piece of storytelling, but I think the blogger is right. We did not do enough due diligence to present that as straightforwardly as we did.

What would you do differently today?

I think, No. 1, we would ask some more questions. Jeff had been a regular contributor to the program and we probably dropped the ball in not asking the same types of questions as we do to every single person who comes through the door. The same Internet search that the blogger did? I did it too. I did it too late. I did it after the piece had aired. And that’s why we were like, Ugh. We were like, Okay, we’ve got to revise our policies enough to say not just new people but every story, every person, gets the same level of review. That was a change for us. That story was one of the fairly early stories in our program, when we were running around like chickens with our heads cut off. That’s the thing with our show. We want the stories to be true to the person telling them. That’s for sure. Are we gonna fact-check every single thing? No. But if you’re telling me that the killer picked you up on the side of the road, I want to know that the basis of that story happened, or we’ll present it as straight fiction. Whenever we do a story as fiction it’s generally a fantastical story, like, I shot Superman with a God bullet, or something like that.

Greenwald says his brush with killers definitely happened, and that if he had thought he was being held to journalistic standards he might’ve told the story differently, so as to avoid being confronted with listeners’ doubts. “That’s been really thorny,” he says. “And at this point I find myself a bit red-faced. Because I’ve gone through the police records, I’ve looked through the list of hitchhikings and murderers at that time; I have done as much due diligence as I can in my spare time … and I have not come up with a lot of proof for the story.” (On Monday, he began making inquiries to the FBI, for records.)

The hitchhiking happened in 1974, he says, five years before he became a journalist. The killers stole his backpack, which contained his journals recounting the episode, he says; his father, who knew the story, died in the ’80s; Greenwald lost touch with his girlfriend and didn’t track her down before telling the story. “So there’s no documentation,” he says. “People can do with it what they will. I never felt I presented it as a piece of authoritative investigative journalism. I presented it as a story that I remembered.”

He said, “At what point is a story simply allowed to be a story?” A possible answer: When it doesn’t involve real-world events or stakes. A story about a genie popping out of a bottle presumably has zero stakes for the listener, whereas a story about serial killers or a near plane crash does. In the hitchhiker story, a listener might reasonably expect to learn — at the very least — the suspects’ full names and, perhaps also, when the event happened and what became of Tony and Sue.

Greenwald calls this the difference between storytelling and journalism, but not all listeners make the distinction, even when a show signals its intentions:

Washington: There’s definitely a strict line between, say, This American Life and Snap Judgment. Ira Glass is a reporter. He’s the best features reporter in America. And I’m not. I’m not a reporter. Ira uses storytelling tools; I use certain tools of reportage. But we say, “This is not the news; this is storytelling with a beat” for a reason: to set the listener’s expectation of what these are. This is a story. It’s not reportage when you’re having a conversation with your friend or your mother or your spouse or your lover, whatever. It’s a different type of communication, and that’s where we are. But again, where the blogger’s right: We should have done more homework on that piece. Because it’s all about, for me, am I meeting the expectations that the listener has? Generally people get where we’re coming from on this thing, but some of the early episodes we’ve got stuff like genies popping out of things, and people telling that with a straight face. This happened to them; that’s true to them. No one has ever just related in a Vulcan world of straight facts; we relate through narratives, and narratives have beginnings and middles and ends. But like I say: The issue there is expectation. Especially as a newer show, we were in a new kind of dialogue with people as to what to expect from us. In fact it was a big question when we were first starting the show: What do we mean by “truth?” One early idea was to say we didn’t care about truth. But it wasn’t true. We do care about truth. We just think there’s a different way oftentimes at getting at it. That’s the whole basis of the show, is that there’s a different way to get at what happened.

Describe the typical Snap Judgment story.

That’s the whole thing! We can’t be typical! My Snap Judgment stories are generally based upon my own life experiences. Generally every episode or so I’ll tell a story about things that happened to me. It’s interesting, this whole aspect of memoir. I mean Oprah might James Frey me if I sat down on her couch but I’m telling stories of things that happened 30 years ago, and in those stories I’m telling, “She said this, this happened here, that’s the way it went down.” Now, I’m not trying to deceive anybody. Actually it’s kind of funny. I have a close crew of friends. We lived together in Japan — we started there in a program in 1989, so I’ve known these guys for a while. One of them used to say, “I’m gonna catch you in an exaggeration. I’m gonna catch you. I’m gonna do it. Because I know every one of your stories.” And it’s been a long time and he ain’t caught me yet. I mean did so-and-so say things in the order I’m putting them? Probably not. But did the essence of the event happen? Yeah. Absolutely. It’s kind of like an Angela’s Ashes situation, where (Frank) McCourt went in and started putting words in people’s mouths from 50 years ago, back in Ireland. Beautiful piece of work as a type of memoir, but not a piece of reporting.

So, audio memoir.

That’s one way to put it. My pieces are audio memoir. But there are other aspects that go into it. The whole thing about storytelling — this is what we don’t want to do; this is how we actually spend most of our time, as far as fairness is concerned: What I don’t want to do is have a person tell a story that in some way implicates another person in wrongdoing. We have a hard time with this. Fairness ends up being really difficult in storytelling because oftentimes you’re implicating somebody else in your situation. So because of that we will say, like, “the names have been changed,” or “this happened in such and such place.” I’ve started off a story by saying I’ve had to change the details of the story; the basic thing did in fact happen but I don’t want to implicate.

Transparency is often what’s missing in, for example, memoir.

Right, and it ends up being really difficult sometimes. Here’s the thing, too: Journalism 101, for audio journalism, is that you use the sound from the places where you’re doing the story, but you don’t go later on and start adding a bunch of made-up stuff. This is what we do all the time. It ends up being a clue, to some extent, that we’re not gonna be following regular journalistic prohibitions. We soundscape the heck out of pieces, and it’s certainly not sound sound.

Example?

Okay, so there’s a story that I told — I have a goddaughter who was born extremely prematurely. The mother of the baby, her partner was out of the country and she asked me to go to the (neonatal intensive care unit), to see the baby. The hospital had rules that only parents could go into this unit. So I told the hospital that I was the parent. And I went there. And when we were telling this piece we had hospital sounds come in the back. And I say that I saw her and she was hooked to various monitors. And you can hear the monitors. When I picked her up the monitors started going crazy, until they placed … her on my chest, because they said the thing that was good for preemies was skin-to-skin contact. So the whole time there were heartbeat sounds, there were monitor sounds — there was all kind of soundscaping that happened with that piece. It’s the first three minutes of an episode that we did called “Close Knit.” But that’s not reportage. Like, journalism students would be properly aghast if that was passed off as a reporting piece.

What kinds of staff conversations do you have about this kind of thing?

We had them a lot early on because we were defining the show. That sort of Jeff Greenwald issue, I don’t think that would happen today, because a lot of this stuff has been worked out. We ourselves understand our show better than we did when we were starting out. We’re not here to fool anybody. We are setting a different relationship than other NPR programs are setting with their audience. Garrison (Keillor) does the same thing. Not to be too critical, but it seems like there’s a big (David) Sedaris pass that happens. David’s not trying to fool anybody. What did he say — it was something to the effect of somebody asked, “Is this true?” and he said, “True enough.” I mean none of this is hard-and-fast stuff. Look, if David Sedaris were telling me the news on the ground in Baghdad, I’d be upset about it. But if he’s telling me, “This is what happened to me last week,” as a story, I don’t have any problems with that. The closer we get to news, and the closer that things actually matter in a real-world context apart from a personal story, the more careful we have to be. Like recently we were doing a story on a pollution triangle in Louisiana where there’s like a triangle of cancer happening in a certain community, and various chemical companies were suspected of elevating the cancer risks in this area. All of a sudden, yeah, we had to kind of put our reporter hat on and be really damn sure we’re getting our facts right.

Right.

No. 1, I can’t get sued by Dupont.

Yeah, that would be bad.

But in a broader sense, when we’re talking about the news, or newsy topics, we’re talking about something that has relevance beyond a personal story. A lot of our stories are aimed at the heart. A person can find different types of resonance. But when we’re taking a broader look at things we gotta check things out more. This is not the news, but if we’re telling certain stories that have real-world implications, we have to use certain journalistic tools to make sure the integrity of the piece is correct.

NPR, meanwhile, is grappling with these issues on a broader scale.

“All these shows get into a realm of audio storytelling that is fairly new territory for us,” says Eric Nuzum, NPR’s vice president for programming. “…There is no question that there is a rightful expectation of NPR programs that they be truthful. … How do we clearly identify the sourcing of the material, and in a way that doesn’t get in the listener’s way? That’s what these growing pains are addressing. Is Snap Judgment a work of journalism? No. Is it accountable to many NPR standards? Of course.”

In some ways, NPR is navigating its own legacy. “One of the issues is that these things are appearing within the context of public radio, which achieved its stripes in news and journalism,” as Allison puts it, “so that the audience starts to feel that everything they hear on public radio must be journalism. That’s a misapprehension.”

He says, “I mean, my big interest is this: You don’t want to inhibit the great art of storytelling with people just slavishly adhering to facts and details where they don’t matter and where they have no potential to create harm or even a misimpression. If it all becomes about that, then the focus on the remembering and the retelling may become inhibited by people becoming almost frightened that they’re gonna be taken to task. Now that’s different from, obviously, making up a story or changing major details, especially details that potentially affect the lives of others. That’s a whole different phenomenon. Everybody needs to guard against that.”

Check back soon for Part 2 of our conversation with Washington. Discussed: how growing up in a cult influenced his storytelling, the traits of great storytelling, aiming at the heart, and “seeing your own narrative.”    

 

June 17 2013

09:48

Monday Q&A: Designer David Wright, departing NPR for Twitter, has just one favor to ask

David Wright is an award-winning designer who, in his time at NPR, worked on everything from their mobile music platform to NPR’s homepage design. Wright has spent a lot of time sharing his design philosophy with the news world, trying to explain how he built what he built, but also trying to make news managers understand the importance of making design a priority early on.

But now, Wright is leaving the news world behind — sort of. He’ll be moving over to Twitter, to work with what he considers an all-star team of web platform designers. (He joins API whiz Daniel Jacobson, now at Netflix, as NPR talent to move to prominent positions in the technology world — not the most common path.) Though not entirely sure what projects he’ll be working on, Wright says he has a lot of big ideas for simplifying Twitter and making it a bigger part of a variety of websites. And while he won’t be working in a newsroom anymore, Wright predicts he’ll learn a lot about how people are sharing and consuming information that could, down the road, be of great value to publishers.

Days before his final departure, we chatted about building platforms for distribution of audio, narrowcasting, Twitter on steroids, and World War II-era telephone operators.

O’Donovan: So! Obviously, there’s a lot of exciting stuff going on for you. How does it feel to be packing up and heading out of NPR?
Wright: I think that I have not yet realized how hard it will be for me to walk out of this building on Friday afternoon.

There’s a lot of really amazing stuff going on here, and it’s bittersweet because I’ve been really excited about what we’ve done here, and I don’t know if I really realize what it will be like to leave some of this amazing work unfinished.

O’Donovan: What are some of the bigger projects that are hanging out there, that you’re passing on? How do you and with whom do you hope to see them completed?
Wright: Well, that they will be completed is not really a question. They will be. The big ones that are going on right now are — the most obvious one is we’re in the midst of a fully responsive redesign of NPR.org that we began last fall and are picking away at, section by section. We’ve recently launched the small screen version of a redesigned and rethought homepage, and soon we’ll be releasing that to more viewports and moving on to the rest of the important pages, not just NPR.org. So that’s exciting. And I think in many ways the team is moving at a breakneck pace and I’ll be excited when the whole site kind of is finally launched in this unified rethought visual vocabulary. It’s amazing work, I”m super proud of it and the team that’s in the trench right now.

The other one that’s cool is one we haven’t really launched publicly yet, but we’re thinking a lot about what a reimagined kind of radio experience would feel like — taking some of the best of on-demand pieces that we know and love from services like Rdio and Spotify and Pandora and thinking about how public radio fits into that picture. So a lot of experiments that we’re taking small steps with. It’ll make me sad to not really be as involved with those anymore.

O’Donovan: The last couple years, you’ve spoken a lot about how you think about design and the fact that it’s different from storytelling. Can you talk a little about how — and I know it’s obviously been a dynamic experience — how your philosophy there has changed over time and if there are any big elements of it that have changed since you started?
Wright: I think that obviously the more that I’ve worked with what has become here, over the time that I’ve worked at NPR, the product team has really become a — I thought we were pretty high performing when I got here, but the kind of talent that we’ve been able to add to the team, and the methods and the processes that we use to create digital products has become more and more refined over time. I think that it’s fair to say that any of my thoughts that I’ve shared publicly are certainly the synthesis of my ideas, but they’re so greatly informed by the amazing people that I’ve worked with here.

So I think as we’ve gotten better at making stuff, my thoughts and how we could refine the process has really gotten a bit more sharp. But I think what’s most fascinating, and maybe what I’m most proud of leaving this building, is to be able to look back and see what an important part design has been able to play in the making of products here. I think it’s easy for lots of people to recognize that it is an important ingredient, but sometimes it’s hard to get an organization to understand why that is, and I’m really fortunate to have had a lot of really willing people here at NPR who’ve heard that message and have really embraced it. I think that’s changed a lot as we’ve sort of matured on our own, and our own understanding of what makes good products, we’ve really been able to convince a lot of folks here that design is really at the core of helping us figure out what problems to solve and how to solve them and most importantly how to solve them well.

O’Donovan: One of the questions I had for you was: How do you explain to management or people who are really editorially focused the importance of design? You’ve said that it’s the number one problem journalism is facing. Do you still feel that way? And for people who are struggling to make that clear, how would you advise them?
Wright: I think without calling out any specific products that are out there, I think we can all say that we’ve used and experienced journalism on platforms and in different situations that were less than satisfying, and I think just being pretty unbiased about what we think makes a good experience and what we think makes a great experience and what we think makes a terrible experience. They’re easy cases to show. Do we want to be more like this, or do we want to be like this? Nobody argues with the fact that everybody wants to create a good experience, but I think the most important thing that we as design thinkers can do is help explain how design is not really something that is an option.

If you want to create a good product, it can’t be a condition — it has to be something that is an absolute. You must include it, in order to create efficiencies, in your process, and make things that are fantastic and meaningful to people and beautiful and useful. It’s really about calling out these examples and saying: Here’s a perfect case where work design was involved from the beginning and it made this product better. And whether you’re editorial, or you’re a manager or a coder or a designer, you can look at those and from a pretty unbiased point of view say, Yes, you’re right, that’s better because design was involved.

O’Donovan: So, and you can explain to me the extent to which this is accurate, but assuming that you’re taking a step away from designing for news, as you look farther down the road, for people who are still in it, what are the next major hurdles? If you were still working for NPR, what would be the next areas you wanted to tackle?
Wright: I think NPR is a bit of an interesting animal, only because the kind of content that we deal with is a little bit different given how audio-centric much of what we do is. But I think it’s going to be really interesting for organizations who are wrestling with really getting their content to appear how they want to on many different platforms. I think that’s crucial. If a news organization is really not thinking beyond — I’m stating the obvious here  — if a news organization is not thinking beyond the desktop browser, I think that’s going to become much more problematic in the next coming years.

We’ve been really good at building stories and trying to express what I like to call editorial intention in what viewport size on the desktop. We can go to any one of our home pages, anybody in the news business, you can go to a homepage when it’s a papal conclave story or a Boston marathon or an election night, we know those patterns and we’re good at them. We can reflect them well on the desktop.

I think we have a harder time thinking about how to take what editors can do, what news professionals do, how they express themselves in other places, and separating them from the desktop page. So figuring out ways — news professionals need to express hierarchy and importance of stories and that this one is louder than this one — figuring out ways to make sure that works everywhere, I think is going to be a really big challenge for a lot of organizations, but a very important one to solve.

O’Donovan: You said at one point, I think, that you expected to see NPR rather quickly have a larger audience on mobile than they did for desktop. How close are you to that?
Wright: I think, as far as numbers go, we’re not there yet. But a little bit of that is from the hip and it will be interesting to see if history agrees with my proclamation there. I think there are actually more and more organizations who are being, and I can’t really name any off the top of my head, that have definitely read anecdotally about how mobile traffic is something that is catching up for everyone a lot faster than anyone really would have thought. There’s really no surprise in that. I think that should really be expected. If anyone’s paying any attention to any of our competitors in this space, which they all should be, that’s not a big surprise.

But yeah, I think we’re close — I think that every month we’re really seeing traffic growth across the board and most of our platforms and, on the desktop for sure it’s incremental, but it’s really quite a bit more pronounced on the mobile web for us. And I think it can only continue, given the number of devices and potential people that we can reach.

O’Donovan: You mentioned how NPR has a unique situation because of being predominantly audio focused. But I’ve heard from at least a handful of people that there are people out there who really think that it’s going to become a much more important part of everyone’s strategy, in the same way that we talk about video. But there are definitely people who say that audio will become increasingly important. Do you think that there are in your mind any big design takeaways that people who might be looking to get more into the audio game would want to know about?
Wright: Yeah! I think that. I would certainly not claim that NPR has solved every problem in this space, and in fact, I think if you asked a lot of people here, we still have some pretty major problems to solve in terms of how we distribute audio effectively.

I think that SoundCloud is doing a great job of creating some really interesting innovations in the space. Anybody could look at them and say that seems like a really solid platform for audio distribution. I think, for us, the most important thing is to think about why — the distribution could be anybody’s game and I think that, especially for organizations who aren’t very well resourced, nobody wants to. Just like we don’t all want to rebuild the exact same CMS at great expense and very little gain, I don’t know that everybody just wants to invest in building audio delivery platforms.

But I would say that I think it’s so important ot understand why people gravitate toward audio, the same way they gravitate toward video or photography. What is the recipe, or the formula, that goes into creating compelling audio that matters? I think it has much less to do with design of the experience right now and much more to do with what makes great audio great audio. I think we’ve all been fans of podcasts that are amazing, and there are certainly lots and lots of things not produced by a public radio community that are amazing and that we love. There are lots of things that public radio creates that are amazing and we love. But that has a whole lot more to do with the content than the presentation and delivery. There’s lots of room for innovation there. My best advice to anybody who wanted to get into that game, is to really think a lot about why people love it.

O’Donovan: I was looking over some presentations you’ve given in the past, and one of the things that you emphasize is that, while you haven’t served as a storyteller or journalist at NPR, you have taken away from working around journalists not only the importance but the ease with which it is possible to ask questions and get out there and talk to people about the things you want to know about. So I want to move into talking about your next step at Twitter, and how you see that playing into the rest of your career.
Wright: Anybody who wants to be successful at making products has to be able to draw on all of the places where we are when we’re making things. Often the most important person whose voice is the most important part of your team is the user. We have a lot of really great ethnologists and design thinkers and people who are creating content, but the people who are consuming it are often absent from that conversation. So it’s less about “is this a good idea” or not. I think it’s almost always a good idea at some stage in the process to really incorporate users and listeners into what w’ere making.

Journalists, if they’re not doing it, they should be, because they’re already really good at that. They’re good at talking to people and asking hard questions and figuring out how to get somebody to say something meaningful, even if it’s hard to coax it out of them. It’s a natural fit. So if you’re trying to convince journalists and news organizations that talking to people about what you make is a good idea, it’s easy to tell them by saying, you’ve already done this. You already do this.

As far as the next phase in my career, I’ve fortunately had the great pleasure of working shoulder to shoulder with some really amazing journalists and some really amazing storytellers and some really great reporters, and people who know how to chase stories, and I think I’ll always feel in some way like I’d like to try to harness what I’ve witnessed, a lot of what these talented people do. In my own practice, whether it’s outside of a newsroom or in newsroom, I’d always like to channel that as best I can.

You know, What would David Gilkey do in this scenario? He wouldn’t be shy about approaching this curmudgeonly user? No, he wouldn’t.

O’Donovan: How do you approach the curmudgeonly user? How do you go about getting that opinion?
Wright: At NPR — there’s a million ways that organizations do it, but at NPR we use a mix of what I might really consider three major kinds of audience feedback.

The first one is really kind of faceless and it’s field surveys. We do this the most infrequently, but basically we’ll say we really need to get a handle right now on how we think people are consuming digital news of this sort. We’ll put together a fairly lengthy survey and field it with the understanding that by the time we process the results, they’ll already be a little bit dated. But it gives us a really good snapshot of the time of how many people really listen to NPR, how many people are looking at news sites, how many people are reading newspapers, how many people are watching TV news — getting demographic information about that. We do that pretty infrequently, but it gives us pretty low resolution blocks of people we need to be thinking about and it helps us figure out where opportunities are.

The second kind of testing or conversation that we have really has to do with our ability to have long-term conversations with people about stuff that we make. So existing users of products — we have opportunities that are much more regular than large surveys — opportunities to reach out to people that are on our listener panel, or other people that we can intercept or make callouts in social media and say, “Take five minutes and tell us what you think of this particular feature.” We can ask questions that way. It certainly puts more of a face on things and we can get very specific about product features.

And then the most specific thing we try to do is actually bring real life users into our world and sit down with them and lead them through testing that says, “Hey, we made this thing, it’s kind of half baked, and we want you to use it and tell us what you think about it.” Pretty standard user testing.

O’Donovan: I do want to talk about what’s coming up for you. How much do you know about what you’re doing there, what are you really excited about, what do you hope to see come out of it?
Wright: I wish that I had a lot more information — well, no, I’m fine having a vague sense of what’s going on, but, you know, we know what Twitter is and what Twitter does and it was really exciting for me to be able to visit with that team and learn about the kinds of things that they’re tackling and the things they’ve built and some of the plans they have for the future.

To the extent that I can be specific about what I’ll be working on, what I do know is that I’ll be focused at first on a platform team. I’ll be working with the Twitter for websites team, figuring out interesting ways to make Twitter appear in more places than it does today. The thing that I think I’m most excited about is that I feel like I work with a very talented team at NPR and I know it will be true about the team I’ll be working with at Twitter — just a lot of really smart people that, as a designer, I’ve just really respected and followed a lot in my design career.

To have so many of those people — like Doug Bowman and Mike Davidson, founder of Newsvine — just really smart, smart thinkers who, like I said, are respected web design heroes of mine. I’m really excited to be able to go and solve problems with them, to get up in the morning and go to work and try to figure out how to make Twitter better, which is great. I think that the other part that is a huge selling point for me is, there’s lots of reasons that my family wanted to get to California and be there and be a part of the amazing community that’s happening, and the amazing design community that is part and parcel of the Bay Area.

But for me to leave news is hard. It’s really hard. But what’s interesting is that while I feel like I’ll be leaving journalism, going to work at Twitter, I don’t have to squint very hard to see how involved I still will be in news. I think it’s a really fascinating platform for me to be able, as a user and an observer and a guy who spent a lot of time in newsrooms, who watch what I think this platform could do.

O’Donovan: In the future, how do you see people, specifically journalists but also more broadly, using Twitter differently than they do now? What would you like to build for, for what kind of usage?
Wright: That’s something I’m really looking forward to learning more about as a person on the inside, because I think that even though I’ve spent a considerable amount of time talking with folks there about what they’re trying to build and what they need help building, I still don’t think I have a full enough picture to really know what is even in the realm of possibility. I have lots of sort of fantastic dreams about what could happen, what sort of the Twitter-on-steroids might look like — and maybe even a simpler version of Twitter. I think there are many things. It’s probably too much for me to speculate right now.
O’Donovan: Well, give us one fantasy. What’s the craziest Twitter-on-steroids fantasy?
Wright: Wow.

I think that there’s something fascinating to me about the range of information that you can get from Twitter. We often talk a lot at NPR about making sure that people get their vegetables and also get really delicious pieces of candy that we can distribute through the radio. What I love about Twitter is that, in a combined stream, I can see this heartbreaking story or updates from people who are literally fighting for their lives in Egypt as they are in the midst of the revolution, and then, you know, followed by an update from somebody who’s, you know, explaining how hungover they are because they were at their favorite bar. I think that, as a medium, like, what else does that? That is never part of the presentation that happens on our broadcast news.

This is certainly not a Twitter-on-steroids idea, but, in terms of being able to harness the ability for people be able to narrowcast to them in really specific ways, I think has such a reach potential. That my mom can find value in that, in a way that manifests itself very differently from the way that I would, but we can find the same value out of it with very different content. I think that the challenge of kind of wrestling with: How do you create an experience that will be as useful for my mom as it will be for me, using the same basic parts and concepts but obviously delivering very different content? That’s a fascinating problem to solve, and I’m excited to roll my sleeves up and give it a go.

O’Donovan: Was it you who was tweeting about explaining Twitter to your grandmother recently?
Wright: It was. Absolutely it was. I believe the thing I said after that was if she gets sudden onset dementia, I’m going to feel partially responsible.

Yeah, the thing that’s cool though, is, her story is great. She was a telephone operator back in the day, where, we’ve all seen the photos of people plugging all the lines into one of the boards. One of my favorite stories that she told me was she was manning a board the night that it was V-E Day, and as soon as the word got to the United States via the phones, that victory in Europe had happened, she said the board lit up!

So I was trying to tell her: This is what we do now. We don’t use phones anymore — this is what we do. The fact that Twitter would blow up with this information is how we know it. She said, “I think I understand.” I said, “All right, well, it’s the same thing.”

O’Donovan: I guess it’s not altogether entirely undigestible.
Wright: Yeah, there was part of it she thought was pretty cool.
O’Donovan: We talked a little bit at the beginning about designing for audio, and I’d be curious to know if you think those skills will come into play.
Wright: We haven’t talked specifically about audio, but we had a lot of really great conversations about the experiences that I’ve had designing for news organizations and bringing with me information about how publishers specifically are using lots of different tools, Twitter included.

I’ve built really — I wouldn’t call them large muscles, I’d call them interesting muscles over the last 12 years, thinking a lot about these problems. I think it would be really hard for me to not apply some of those skills. It’s become such a part of my DNA that I’m interested in seeing, How do those skills fit and work? How are those patterns applied out of a newsroom?

O’Donovan: I would imagine you also bring some insight about what publishers want or what they think they want from ads. I don’t know if you have thoughts about Twitter’s different advertising strategies lately, but you’ve said in the past that you think publishers need to be thinking really differently about advertising.
Wright: What I said in my conversations with people at Twitter was, if you’re looking for a client services manager to go to newsrooms and write down the requirements of what would make Twitter great on news websites — I’ve been pretty vocal about some of the things news organizations aren’t doing as well as I wish they were, or things I wish they were doing differently — but I was pretty clear that I might not be the best guy to come in and take those kinds of requirements down.

So I’ve been critical about some of the things publishers have done and ads are chief among them. I think display advertising as we know it is in many cases a race to the bottom and is in many ways unsustainable. What I’m excited to learn more about is advertising models that are so native to the platform — and Twitter is a good example of that, I think the best is obviously Google’s AdWords, AdSense — and just feel like part of the experience. I won’t have a ton of good things to bring along with me from the point of view of what I think digital news design is doing in general. I think it will be more of the other way around, where I eventually might be able to bring some of the information and things I’ve learned working with a company like Twitter to help publishers figure out how to think differently about how they’re doing things. I expect it might go the other way.

O’Donovan: So, let’s say you’re leaving NPR and the whole news world throws you a party. And they say, What’s the one thing we can do for you while you’re gone? What would you want them to do?
Wright: Oh! This is easy. My one wish is for every news org, to really understand the importance of having — it doesn’t have to be a visual designer, but to have design thinkers have a seat at the table. It’s not about deciding what work gets done or how it gets done but it’s really about making design as important an ingredient in what we make as editorial, as reporters, writers, photographers, and technologists. Designers bring such a unique value to the table and can just help solve so many interesting problems in really thoughtful ways. The best presents the news community could give me is to say, Everybody, designers are always at the table.

Photo by Casey Capachi via the ONA.

May 29 2013

10:38

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

ZeegaSFMoMA_24.gif

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

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

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

make a zeega

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

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

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

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

August 23 2012

14:17

August 03 2012

06:22

NPR gets $1.5m for race, ethnicity coverage

Associated Press | NPR :: National Public Radio, criticized in recent years over diversity of its staff and coverage, is using a $1.5 million grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to put together a six-person team to report stories on race, ethnicity and culture. The national radio program producer and digital news provider was accepting the two-year grant Thursday at UNITY 2012 Convention in Las Vegas

A report by Associated Press, www.npr.org

Tags: NPR

August 01 2012

17:30

Highlight reel: Some of the best from this year’s International Symposium on Online Journalism

Back in April, we went down to Austin for this year’s International Symposium on Online Journalism. As far as journalism conferences go, this is one of the special ones — highly recommended.

We’ve already written about much of what was covered there, like smart-fridge strategies, O Globo’s crazy-engaging tablet-only evening edition, an examination of journalistic behaviors on Twitter, and a study that pinpointed the most likely demographic to pay for the news. (Check out our roundup of lessons learned from the symposium.)

Now, ISOJ has posted a complete collection of video from the conference. Watch them all. Here’s a smattering to get you started:

Welsh: Let’s get to work

The Los Angeles Times’ Ben Welsh will make you love robots. He’ll also effectively shut down anyone who’s still arguing that computer-assisted reporting is somehow inherently bad for the industry. He’s genuinely passionate, and that’s just fun to watch.

Highlight: Skip to 11:08 to watch a minute-long crescendo that ends with the best F-bomb of the conference.

Boyer: News is a craft, not purely an art

Brian Boyer, who this summer joined NPR’s news apps team, wants you to think about news function. “Data visualizations are not on their own useful,” Boyer says. “If we only make art, we are doing our audience a disservice.”

Highlight: Skip to 3:03 to hear Boyer break down why journalists, engineers, and designers need to learn from one another.

Brown: Don’t fight the audience

University of Memphis journalism assistant professor Carrie Brown-Smith tracked the use of #Memstorm on Twitter during severe weather in her region. She examined the use of hashtags in centralizing real-time news. She also explored what kinds of information was shared, and how journalists’ coverage of the storm fit in. One key lesson for newsrooms: If your audience starts doing something cool, join in.

Highlight: Skip to 3:37 to watch her account of what happened when a local Fox affiliate tried to change the hashtag.

Doria: Make something beautiful

The iPad is special. That’s why Pedro Doria, digital platforms editor for Brazilian newspaper O Globo, wanted to give readers an iPad app that was specially made for the device. Doria felt that the paper’s basic mobile app wasn’t making full use of the platform. (Read our article about the app.)

Highlight: Skip to 8:14 to see Doria break down the numbers about engagement with the app, which jumped from an average of 26 minutes to a mind-boggling 77 minutes.

Gingras: There’s too much news

Anyone else feel like Google’s Richard Gingras is everywhere these days? It’s likely you’re familiar with his views by now. Bottom line, Gingras says, “we have to rethink it all.” To him, print is nothing more than a “derivative mechanism” and the big problem in news is that “there’s too much of it.”

Highlight: Skip to 7:45 to hear someone challenge Gingras on the idea that there are no gatekeepers anymore. Who gets to decide who a news organization is and is not? Audience member: “You do.”

Whurley: You already have the answers

“I don’t do slides, ever,” said Whurley, general manager of Chaotic Moon Labs. So instead, he opted to crowdsource his slides — asking journalists to shout out questions that he addressed later in the presentation.

Highlight: Skip to 6:12 to hear Whurley sum up his experience coding and developing The Daily, and what it demonstrated to him about the fundamental problem in journalism: “What they did is fantastic for one reason, and the reason that we participated was one reason: Nobody wants to be the first.”

May 04 2012

07:11

Millennials or 'digital natives' and print newspapers: A surprising story

For now ...

NPR :: Reports on the media habits of Millennials, those "digital natives", have given some the impression that young people never read newspapers. However, survey evidence stubbornly insists that they do. NPR Research has access to GfK MRI's nationwide data, collected through extensive in-person surveys, which indicates that newspaper readership is even more widespread among young adults than these statistics suggest.

Continue to read Katy Pape, www.npr.org

Tags: NPR Study

April 28 2012

14:40

Agile, social, cheap: The new way NPR is trying to make radio

Niemanlab :: NPR is taking another stab at creating new radio programming, but the approach looks quite different than before. Its newest show, TED Radio Hour (hosted by Alison Stewart, formerly BPP’s co-host), debuts today in at least seven markets. Ask Me Another, a prerecorded live game show for puzzle types, begins airing next weekend in at least six markets, including Boston, Philadelphia, and Cleveland. And John Wesley Harding’s Cabinet of Wonders, which I guess is a variety show for hipsters, debuts Memorial Day weekend.

What’s different this time?

Continue to read Andrew Phelps, www.niemanlab.org

Tags: NPR

April 27 2012

15:30

Agile, social, cheap: The new way NPR is trying to make radio

Old radio

The last time NPR launched a show was five years ago. It was the Bryant Park Project, a morning newsmagazine aimed at younger listeners. The network developed the show in secret and beefed up its New York bureau with reporters, producers, and editors. The budget for its first year was more than $2 million.

BPP was cancelled after 10 months, having reached just 13 markets. The underdeveloped show could never compete with Morning Edition, whose national listenership is topped only by Rush Limbaugh. A few months later, NPR cancelled two more news programs, Day to Day and News and Notes, blaming a disastrous budget gap.

Now NPR is taking another stab at creating new programming, but the approach looks quite different. Its newest show, TED Radio Hour (hosted by Alison Stewart, formerly BPP’s co-host), debuts today in at least seven markets. Ask Me Another, a prerecorded live game show for puzzle types, begins airing next weekend in at least six markets, including Boston, Philadelphia, and Cleveland. And John Wesley Harding’s Cabinet of Wonders, which I guess is a variety show for hipsters, debuts later this year.

What’s different this time? The network seems to be taking a page from agile software development, the philosophy that products should be released early and iterated often. The shows are live (cheap) and/or adaptations of existing shows (easy), all produced in six- or 10- or 13-episode pilot runs instead of as permanent offerings. Listeners and local program directors are invited to help shape the sound of the programs, making it something of a public beta.

“We’ve had successful shows that have been around for decades, and the newest ones that are reaching big audiences — even those are a decade old.”

Ask Me Another, for example, is perfectly designed for social media (which, remember, barely existed when Bryant Park Project began). Because it’s a live show, every member of the audience is a potential Twitter or Facebook connection.

Word of the show spread on social media — which is how I found out about it — so NPR PR has a head start. The network says 4,000 people have already attended the live shows, pre-launch. The shows are being fed to member stations free of charge.

“Historically, the way that NPR and others in public radio have produced big programming is we come up with an idea we think is really good, we hire a staff, we keep all this very cloak-and-dagger secret, and then we try to make a big launch with it, and we end up with 30 stations and then over time more stations add to it,” Eric Nuzum, NPR’s newly promoted vice president of programming, told me.

“Using that process, it takes years to determine years if something is going to be a hit or not. And that involves millions and millions of dollars.”

In other words, failure is a much bigger fail. If Ask Me Another doesn’t take off, hey, it was still a relatively cheap experiment. Nuzum says the weak economy is driving in the new strategy. (NPR would not tell me how much money is budgeted for the programs, but it’s safe to say none of them costs $2 million.)

Two years ago, NPR conducted an “audience opportunity study” that found listeners wanted more shows that sound like them. A lighter approach, more humor. Shows like Ask Me Another could be the hook that casual listeners need to discover other radio programming, Nuzum said. Some of the most successful public radio shows, after all, are weekend shows — This American Life, Car Talk, Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!

“It’s much easier to describe this when I’m in person with someone, so I apologize if some of this seems vague, because I actually draw when I’m talking about this,” Nuzum said.

Don’t worry, Eric Nuzum, we got this. Here is an interpretation of what his drawing might look like, by Lisa Tobin:

Circles

“Imagine there’s a circle, and the circle’s really dark, and that circle is our current audience. And it’s dark because there are so many people — there’s like a gravitational force — that are all kind of brought together. Then imagine a much larger ring around that circle, and that’s our potential audience. What we’re trying to do is bring that audience towards that center, trying to bring them more towards our programming.

“What we did before was we were just creating shows that occupied space in that larger circle without really paying attention to how well it connected to the inner circle. These shows are much more an attempt to have something that connects both to the larger circle and the inner circle as well.”

Nuzum said he is emulating HBO’s iterative approach to programming. He’s not the first to make the comparison. Cambridge-based PRX has experimented with new programming and distribution for five years, including with Marc Maron’s podcast WTF and The Moth Radio Hour. Jake Shapiro, the executive director of PRX, has long proposed a “public radio pilot season.”

“We’ve had successful shows that have been around for decades, and the newest ones that are reaching big audiences — even those are a decade old,” he told me. “We had a really good experiment with something similar, which was Public Radio Talent Quest, but that was more focused on hosts and new voices.”

Glynn Washington, one of the two Talent Quest winners, would go on to host NPR’s Snap Judgment. But the five dozen other people seen as serious competitors were largely forgotten. Shapiro says there’s a big ecosystem of podcasters and aspiring podcasters who would jump at the chance to be a part of public radio.

“It revealed that there’s a way to take some of what is the chaotic but very effective commercial television season dance and translate it into public radio terms, where essentially we collaborate with stations to introduce new show concepts, on air and online, in a very visible, very vocal way,” he said.

Nuzum said the nimble approach to programming is more or less the new normal at NPR. “Whether [these shows] have a future or not, I’m really proud of what we’ve come up with,” he said. “The bigger experiment is the process…This wouldn’t have been possible a couple of years ago.”

Photo of an old radio by santibon used under a Creative Commons license.

April 19 2012

13:17

The newsonomics of risking it all

Alfredo Corchado was used to getting mortal threats.

He received three in Mexico, but now he was in a Laredo bar, north of the border.

You better stop what you’re doing, or you’ll end with a bullet in your head and your body in a vat of acid, he was told. And then we’ll deliver the bones to your family in El Paso.

It was a chilling warning, or at least we’d expect it to put a chill into Corchado. An investigative reporter for the Dallas Morning News (and a former Nieman Fellow), he’s been covering the ravages of drug trafficking for years, much to the concern of his parents living, as the traffickers plainly know, in El Paso. Yet Corchado goes on with his work — as do Adela Navarro Bello of Tijuana’s Zeta news magazine, Jerry Mitchell of the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., and Ramita Navai of the U.K.’s Channel 4. As Navarro Bello explained of her paper’s coverage of the drug trafficking that has consumed at 50,000 Mexican lives, “If we don’t publish this information, we are part of the problem.” (Filmmaker Bernardo Ruiz has captured Zeta’s struggle — including the murder of two of its journalists — with a new movie.)

Each is an investigative reporter who put their lives on the line to reveal stories they think readers must know about. They spoke on the “When the Story Bites Back” panel this weekend, at UC Berkeley, part of the sixth annual Reva and David Logan Investigative Reporting Symposium (live blogging of the conference, here, with a #Logan12 Twitter feed).

That panel and the entire spirited weekend, organized and led by esteemed investigative producer Lowell Bergman, tells us a fair amount about the business of journalism. Though it is not — like most of my work — concerned with the dollars and cents of the business, in its very essence, it describes why the current crazy-quilt economics of the business matters. Funding the journalism business isn’t like funding Sears and Kodak (“The newsonomics of the long good-bye”) or other fading institutions. It’s not even about saving a perhaps-vital American industry, like the auto industry.

It’s about keeping a lifeline of funding open so that our best reporters can do their jobs.

I’ll call it the newsonomics of risking it all because that’s what these reporters do. Many of the other Logan participants and attendees, thankfully, do less life-threatening work. Yet those represented at the conference — from ProPublica, the Washington Post, and New York Times to ABC, NBC, and NPR — are among the cream of the crop of investigative work and produce work with real public interest impact.

As we endlessly debate pay models, whether or not to work with Facebook, how to deal with Apple and Amazon and multi-platform journalism, the Logan Symposium is good tonic — certainly for those of us who attended, but really for all of us who know why this business matters to democracy. Whether and how the economics of the new news business work out isn’t an arcane question; it’s central to our collective future. The value of good, deep reporting is truly priceless.

So what about the state of investigative reporting? Look at the glass as half full and half cloudy.

What emerged from the conference, surprising to some, is that national investigative reporting is keeping its head above water. Both NBC and ABC talked about their expansions in the investigative area, while companies like NPR and Bloomberg have put new resources in as well. Units at the Post, L.A. Times, and New York Times may not be growing much, but seem to be sustaining themselves, for now.

“For now” is an important qualifier, and New York Times managing editor Dean Baquet’s opening interview at Logan, in its over-the-top self-assurance, bothered many of the conference participants with whom I talked.

Washington Post investigative editor Jeff Leen suggested that there were 200 investigative reporters paid by news media in the U.S., which I calculate as one for every 1.5 million Americans. That’s not a ratio that’s going to hold many big institutions — government, business, labor — to account. Maybe that’s why as Logan participant and new-media vet Neil Budde tweeted, “How many times will ‘existential’ be used this weekend? I think count is six so far.”

Importantly, it is largely the largest news media — mainly national and global ones — that continue to put money into investigative work; these are the Digital Dozen companies I identified in my Newsonomics book. For them, as NBC senior executive producer David Corvo put it, investigative work is a “differentiator,” important to distinguishing big news brands from one another in the digital age.

What’s going on regionally is more of a patchwork.

Dozens of people like the Logan family are using their wealth to fund investigative enterprises from coast to coast, most with little fanfare. The Knight Foundation, represented at the conference by its senior advisor and grant-giver extraordinaire Eric Newton, has put $20 million into investigative journalism. With the decline in newspaper budgets, and thus in funding of investigative teams at many regional papers, such private funding has been a lifeline, though there’s a profound sense that significantly less in-depth work is being done at former powerhouse regional papers.

This Logan conference lacked the always-odd spontaneity of a Julian Assange appearance, but it offered intriguing emphases:

  • Front and center, though not appearing in person was Rupert Murdoch. After screening “Murdoch’s Scandal,” Bergman’s Frontline documentary that aired March 27, “The Murdoch Effect: News At Any Price,” made for a raucous panel. Milly Dowler attorney Mark Lewis told how the phone hacking scandal had consumed his life and spoke of the “commercial despotism of Murdochracy” in the U.K., given the News Corp. CEO’s multi-party, decades-long influence. Big questions: What next, and if and how this tale plays out in the U.S.
  • “If it’s not on TV, the American public doesn’t know it,” observed Diana Henriques, the New York Times financial investigative reporter. Yes, we may be on the brink of this multi-platform age, where old newspapers like the Times and the Journal do video alongside print, but still — in terms of notice and public action — there’s nothing like the impact of TV documentary.
  • This is a generational challenge. Journalism has always had its challenges, but never has there been more uncertainty about how one generation can pass along its best practices to the next. Through that foundation funding, a couple of dozen younger journalists and students had their way paid into the conference. Surveying the group on the last day, Robert Rosenthal, executive director of the Center for Investigative Reporting and California Watch, summed his baby-boomer generation’s role: “I’m a bridge — we’re all bridges to the future.”

Bridging is, in part, what Lowell Bergman’s program does. UC Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program is a partner in the new Collaboration Central project, along with PBS MediaShift. With new funding, IRP will soon move into a new permanent office. It provides lots of training and fellowships, bringing along new generations to work alongside people like the Pulitzer Prize-winning Bergman, whose career has spanned from early Ramparts through CBS, The New York Times, and Frontline, and who was played by Al Pacino in the tobacco industry exposé The Insider.

Bergman paid tribute to his one-time CBS colleague Mike Wallace, underscoring Wallace’s storied tenacity. That tenacity, based on Wallace’s fierce journalistic power (highlighted at CBS, in story and video), is what it took a non-journalist to highlight in Berkeley.

Jules Kroll, who led the invention of the modern intelligence and security industry, gave the trade good, pointed advice. Saying he had heard a lot of journalists talking about how beleaguered they are, he noted, “You have a big impact.” His shared his inside view of the power of a good investigation. Colloquial translation: Stop whining and get on with it.

And that’s always good advice. As ProPublica managing editor Steve Engelberg aptly said, “They were whining in 1989, when times were good.” That’s true. There may be more to whine about these days than in 1989, but the power of great public service work, sometimes when lives are on the line, is one of the things that must propel the trade forward.

Photo of Alfredo Corchado by the U.S. embassy in Paraguay used under a Creative Commons license.

April 12 2012

06:13

Center for Investigative Reporting to launch a curated YouTube channel

Niemanlab :: The Center for Investigative Reporting announced today that it’s launching a YouTube channel to showcase investigative reporting — from longstanding institutions like NPR and The New York Times, from nonprofit outlets like the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, and even from independent filmmakers from around the globe — all in one common home.

Hat tip: Paul Bradshaw

Continue to read Adrienne LaFrance, www.niemanlab.org

March 28 2012

14:00

Best Practices for Collaborative Investigative Reporting

My first professional job out of college was surprisingly relevant to what I've been doing of late. I started as a program analyst at the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Inspector General in the Office of Evaluation and Inspections. In federal government parlance, that would be the OEI in the OIG at DHHS.

Our mandate was to identify "fraud, waste and abuse" within the department's programs. With unfettered access to vast data sets, we conducted national studies to evaluate various regulations and the ways they were being applied. We were data reporters without my knowing what a data reporter was. It was a lot like investigative journalism, but with bigger budgets and a dress code. It was also a lot like identifying best practices for collaborative investigative reporting.

"Best practices" is a highfalutin' term we used in our proposal to the Knight Foundation just as our office, the Investigative Reporting Program at U.C. Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism (IRP), was about to launch into "Post Mortem," a collaboration about death investigation in America with PBS Frontline, ProPublica and NPR. In retrospect, "blueprint" would have been a better term to use than "best practices," since we all know that there's rarely one draft of a blueprint.

Documenting Collaboration

When "Post Mortem" launched in the spring of 2010, the combination of partners -- national public television, national public radio and a nonprofit digital publication -- was a first, to the best of my knowledge, and we guessed we'd learn much from this ambitious undertaking. When I've described the project to other editors and reporters over the last year, some have voiced skepticism about how "Post Mortem" reflects other collaborations cropping up around the country. Of course Frontline, NPR and ProPublica can pull off a collaboration like "Post Mortem," the skeptics have said, but how does that experience relate to media organizations collaborating at the state or local level?

The answer is that while investigative collaborations vary, a number of decisions and sticking points remain constant, regardless of the organizations involved.

We learned, for example, that collaboration impacts each phase of the reporting process -- from planning and reporting to publication; sometimes the impact of collaboration is obvious, sometimes not. Our Knight Foundation funding provided for an embedded reporter (me) to cover the collaboration; this was an evaluator's dream, giving us the ability to document the process as it unfolded. After all, if you're a journalist in the midst of a collaboration, your goal is not to understand or refine the process of collaborating -- it's to report and publish or broadcast your story. (Though, based on my experience with "Post Mortem," I'd recommend that those spearheading journalistic collaborations do take the time to document the process to some extent, because the unexpected always happens, and there are good lessons in the unexpected.)

Lessons in the Unexpected

In "Post Mortem" there were plenty of revelations. Everyone involved in the project had a basic understanding of television, radio and the web. But when you report for multiple platforms simultaneously, each medium's differences rise to the surface. It was challenging, for example, to get the project's television correspondent to ask questions of subjects that would evoke answers that translated well for both television and radio.

Other challenges were fairly straightforward, like figuring out how to describe the collaboration within the PBS Frontline documentary. NPR and ProPublica reporters weren't on camera, so how could we introduce them in a visual medium?FL_PM.jpg We also couldn't anticipate the possibility that an event like the Arab Spring would bump an NPR "Post Mortem" story for good.

The best practices (PDF) that we at the IRP have drafted are drawn from our own lessons learned, as well as input from others in the field who've tackled collaborative work. Many of the document's observations come straight from the mouths of the "Post Mortem" collaborators, whom I interviewed during and after the project. It's all good stuff, but the ultimate value of these best practices will be if we view them as a collaborative, open-source document: a starting point for more formalized and smoother collaborating.

The Non-Negotiables

Here are a few of the lessons included in our best practices that I think are especially worthy of emphasis:

  • Plan, plan, plan. You can read my recent post about planning on Collaboration Central. I'll say it again. Plan.
  • Take the time to understand your partner's requirements: What do they need to produce the best possible stories for their media? Where might there be conflicting needs, and how can those conflicts be addressed?
  • Understand your partners' organizational culture and structure. This will help throughout the process and at least offer some insight into burning questions like: Why can't they commit to a publication date? Can we get something in writing? And how much time do we need for the editorial process?
  • Finally, whether you're collaborating with other media outfits or working within your own newsroom, a focus on teamwork and leadership skills is imperative to fostering a culture that can sustain collaborative work; without it, people will burn out and collaboration will falter. Journalism professors Jonathan Groves and Carrie Brown-Smith wrote in a recent Neiman Journalism Lab article: "Changing a culture is not a top-down or bottom-up proposition: It's a dance between leaders and their organizations." I couldn't agree more. Let's dance.

Take a look at the best practices (PDF) we wrote and share your tips, thoughts and ideas about working collectively.

Carrie Lozano is a Bay-Area based journalist and documentary filmmaker. She is currently the project director for "Collective Work" a Knight-funded project about collaborative, multiplatform investigative reporting at the Investigative Reporting Program, UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She is also directing and producing a documentary film with Charlotte Lagarde about jazz pianist and composer Fred Hersch. You can follow her at @carrielozano or reach her at clozano at berkeley.edu.

"Collective Work" is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Copyright 2012, The University of California at Berkeley.

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February 28 2012

06:44

The power of news brands: NPR And The New York Times bottom line impact on book sales

Business Insider :: Goodreads is a site where people list the books they are reading or would like to read. Check out how much a book's listings spike after it's mentioned by NPR or the New York Times.

Chart Of The Day by Jon Terbush, www.businessinsider.com

February 10 2012

19:30

How NPR drove traffic to a local station by geotargeting stories on Facebook

NPR Facebook screen shot

Editor’s note: Our friends at NPR Digital Services, Eric Athas and Keith Hopper, wrote about an experiment of theirs using Facebook’s geotargeting features on the Digital Services blog. We thought their findings were interesting — geotargeting’s a tool not a lot of news organizations use — so they’ve kindly agreed to let us cross-post their story here.

NPR’s Facebook page and its 2.3 million-like audience is made up of users from thousands of cities across the world. We wondered: What if we focused on just one city?

The question arose after identifying a somewhat obscure Facebook feature that allows anyone with a Facebook page to customize posts by location. This means, for example, that you can post a story about Boston and modify it so that only users in Boston will see it in their Facebook feed.

Last October NPR Digital Services and Digital Media used this tool to launch an experiment with member station KPLU, in which we shared selected KPLU.org content on NPR’s Facebook page, but only for the eyes of the Seattle region (KPLU’s market). Four months into this experiment, we’ve made some unexpected discoveries around Facebook communities and the power of localization on a national platform.

How it works

From a technical standpoint, geofocusing page posts on Facebook is easy — just click the Public button next to Post prior to publishing. But before launching into this experiment — which is ongoing — we outlined how it would work, what it would look like and how we’d measure it.

The coffee shop test

We work with KPLU’s Online Managing Editor Jake Ellison each day to determine which KPLU.org story we’ll post. It must pass what we call the content coffee shop test: the conversation-style that NPR’s Social Media Desk has developed, mixed with a splash of local flavor. We want stories that will raise curiosity and be talked about in a Seattle coffee shop. Jake works with reporters to produce stories that will hit this sweet spot. If it does, Digital Services posts it to NPR’s Facebook page. If you live in the Seattle region and like NPR’s Facebook page, you may have noticed more Seattle-oriented stories from NPR, linking to KPLU.org. If you live outside of Seattle, this experiment hasn’t touched you.

Pacing

NPR’s Social Media Desk has a steady cadence — about every hour or so — for its Facebook posts. In a given day you may only see 10-12 NPR posts in your Facebook news feed. We don’t want to disrupt this pace and overflow Seattle users with too many stories, so we only post up to one KPLU story on NPR’s Facebook page per day.

Measurement

To our knowledge, no other news organization has used Facebook to geofocus content in quite this way. So before diving in we needed a way to closely measure the experiment. We wanted to know how this test would impact KPLU.org’s audience growth. For this we decided on campaign tracking — tacking a unique tag onto the end of each link we post. We also wanted to monitor engagement on Facebook to determine how users would interact with these local stories and whether or not the number of likes, shares and comments would differ from globally shared posts. For this we dug into Facebook Insights.

Audience growth

We knew posting a KPLU story to NPR’s Facebook page would result in a traffic bump to KPLU.org, even if only a small piece of the 2.3 million audience would see it. But we didn’t know how big of a boost this would give the site.

As it turns out, a big one. During the first four months of this experiment, we posted about 50 geofocused KPLU links — a fraction of all KPLU content — on NPR’s Facebook page. These posts accounted for 12 percent of KPLU.org’s sitewide visits during this four-month period. The test helped KPLU achieve three milestones: record traffic for a single day (January 19), second-highest traffic for a single month (October 2011) and the highest traffic for a single month (January).

High engagement

When a story is posted to NPR’s Facebook page the usual way (globally visible), the result is an instant flurry of likes, shares and comments from across the world. When a Seattle-targeted story is posted, it gets a high volume of likes, shares and comments, but usually fewer than a global post. This of course is because only a fraction of the NPR Facebook audience can actually see it.

Using data from Facebook Insights we were able to measure the relative engagement of stories, allowing for an apples-to-apples comparison. In other words, we looked at the number of likes, shares and comments on a Facebook post as a percentage of the number of unique people who viewed it. We call this a post’s engagement rate — of the people seeing it, how many likes, shares and comments are they generating.

We found that geofocused posts to the Seattle region usually had a much higher engagement rate than links shared to the global NPR Facebook audience.

For example, the KPLU story “Is Seattle a great but lonely place to live?” was posted to NPR’s Facebook page on January 6 to a geofocused Seattle audience. This story achieved relatively high levels of engagement compared to other local posts.

The NPR story “The Public Respects Civility, But Rewards Rudeness” achieved relatively high levels of engagement compared to other global posts and was posted to NPR’s Facebook page on January 26 to the entire global audience.

As is clear for these specific stories, the local post outperformed the global post in relative engagement across likes, shares and comments. After noticing this same trend for other individual posts, we wanted to know if this was the case more generally across local posts, so we rounded up the full body of posts and did the math. We found that during the first four months of this experiment, the average engagement rate across all geofocused post was six times higher than all global posts.

Throughout the course of this test we’ve had a lot of conversations about possible explanations for why this is happening. One concern we kept a lookout for was the possibility of confusion over where the content originated and where it linked to. However, steady growth in engagement throughout the experiment coupled with a lack of curious comments in the story threads seem to suggest that this is likely not a problem.

Community-driven conversations

Just a few days into this experiment, we noticed something different was happening. It was after we posted a KPLU story about Amanda Knox — a Seattle native — being flown back to her home town after Italian authorities freed her. The story focused on how SeaTac Airport was dealing with the media hysteria that would likely ensue.

Facebook screen grab

This story sparked the normal gut-reaction comments, but the users also reacted to how the story related to them — the Seattle resident. They began talking to one another, sharing information as local residents.

“Would have been a lot smarter to SAY they were flying into Sea-Tac, but instead, arrive in Portland and drive up I-5 to get home.”

“Glad I’m flying in tomorrow.”

“It’s kind of like when it snows here. Everyone freaks out over 3 inches, schools close, nobody can drive, and the east coast sits back laughing at us.”

We saw this trend continue throughout the experiment and develop as the content became more pointedly about Seattle. For example, one KPLU story tackled a question Seattleites know well: Why don’t people in Seattle use umbrellas?

Residents of New York, Boston, or D.C. wouldn’t have much to contribute to a conversation around this question — or even understand why the question was being posed. But Seattle users — the only ones who saw this post on NPR’s Facebook page — had a lot to say.

Facebook screen grab

“Because we spend more on rain gear than most people spend on computers.”

“It never rains hard enough to run makeup….you just get a misty glow. And umbrellas are for quitters ;)”

“Because it’s hard to open and close an umbrella with Coffee in your hand.”

What it all means

We’ve told you a lot about what we know from this experiment, but there are plenty of things we’re still investigating. We’re curious if this can be replicated in other markets and are exploring options for scaling it to more member stations. Some questions about this test will be answered when the experiment grows — something we’re looking to pursue. Although we’re still analyzing the results, we’re confident about the potential of this as a powerful journalism tool.

February 03 2012

18:16

Audio danger: NPR’s Kelly McEvers on trauma and the calculus of risk

[The second installment in an ongoing series of posts by Julia Barton about audio narratives. –Ed.]

The title of this series, “Audio danger,” is mostly tongue-in-cheek. But not in the case of Kelly McEvers. McEvers now works as one of NPR’s correspondents in the Middle East, and she’s opened the network’s first bureau in Beirut. But I first ran across her name in 2006, when she was a freelance journalist in Russia on an International Reporting Project fellowship. McEvers had been detained in Dagestan, a rough part of the North Caucasus along the Caspian Sea. Local officials with the FSB, the federal security services, accused her of traveling in neighboring Chechnya.

“They interrogated me for like 14 hours a day, and then at night they’d say, ‘You’re free to go,’ but they had my passport. And then they would follow me home. The car would stay parked out front for a few hours, and then they would call the next morning and say, ‘It’s time to go.’ ”

McEvers didn’t suffer any violence during the four-day ordeal, but the threat of it was very real. (She also had to surrender all of her notes and equipment before she was allowed to leave Dagestan).

These days, McEvers interviews many people who’ve been through horrible experiences: child brides who’ve survived rape in Yemen; protesters tortured in Syria. McEvers lets their stories unfold with an understanding of the way real danger – unlike the kind we often see in the movies – has deep effects that can make it hard to talk about.

“I can see when someone has experienced trauma,” McEvers says. “I think I’m able to empathize a lot more with people because I have been through some of this stuff.  Nothing like what they’ve been through – I mean, people aren’t cutting my relatives into pieces. But I know what it’s like to just be numb, or to blame yourself.”

McEvers’ patience paid off last year with this feature she pursued for months in Iraq. It introduces us to Uhud, a 19-year-old woman from a tribal area of Diyala, northeast of Baghdad. Uhud fell prey to a sex-trafficking scam, the details of which we will never figure out. That confusion, in fact, is central to the story.

“Some of what we’re about to tell you might not actually be true,” McEvers says at the very top of the piece. “The reasons for this will become clear as the story unfolds.”

According to Uhud’s convoluted account, she was kidnapped at gunpoint while out shopping, then beaten and later taken to Irbil, in Kurdistan. There she says she worked in a Christian-owned café somehow affiliated with a brothel. A famous soccer player later rescued her, Uhud says, and a few months later she ended up back home in Diyala.

“When she first came, the whole family had one thing in mind: We assumed she had been raped. So we thought of killing her,” one male relative tells McEvers in a matter-of-fact way, via an interpreter. “She has a brother who would kill her as easily as drinking a glass of water. But then we calmed things down.”

Sort of. When we revisit Uhud a few months later, she’s basically living under family house arrest. She says an uncle spits on her whenever he sees her and threatens to slit her throat if her story doesn’t check out. As McEvers leaves Uhud, she’s up on the roof setting pet pigeons free. “They fly in the sky for a while, then they come back home,” McEvers translates for Uhud over the sound of flapping wings.

We’ll never know Uhud’s real story, but of course that’s not the point: By living with her for seven minutes, we viscerally feel the way shame and sex-trafficking thrive off one another.

Foreign correspondents for radio face special hurdles. The people they interview often don’t speak English, so we lose the direct narrative force that propels so many audio stories. And most of us have never been to places like war-torn Iraq, so even with great descriptive copy, our minds still tend to fill in the background with stereotypical images from TV news or “National Geographic”: deserts, burqas, bullet-pocked walls.

Of course, correspondents can’t only focus on personal narratives, and McEvers does her share of big-picture, geopolitical reporting. But stories like Uhud’s are one way to slice through the obstacle of listener confusion (and, let’s face it, indifference) when it comes to reports from abroad.

“I try to make those personal stories have a larger point, but just to reach that point through personal narratives. People in Dubuque are going to remember that more than a talking head,” McEvers says.

And radio has one major advantage when it comes to McEvers’ frequent focus on the plight of women in the Middle East.

“A microphone is so much easier than a camera,” she says. “You never get to take pictures of these women. Never. Especially those women with a shameful story.” McEvers sometimes spends a lot of time explaining to her sources how they will sound on the other end in America. “You know, ‘It’s just your voice – it’s going to be dubbed into English.’ I draw pictures of what it’s going to sound like, (their voices) fading under (the translation).”  Sometimes reluctant sources will agree to whisper, or speak broken English, to hide their identities further.

But especially as the Arab world changes so rapidly, McEvers says she can face a different problem – people so desperate for someone to hear their stories, they won’t let her leave. “In Iraq, there are so many widows, or mothers who’ve lost children. No one’s listening to them.”

These days McEvers’ own personal narrative is affecting the way she thinks about trauma and danger in her profession. She now has a 2-year-old daughter. Questions about her ordeal seven years ago in Dagestan elicit a snort.

“It should’ve been instructive, but it’s not. I didn’t learn my lesson,” she says. “But none of us do.” It’s something few foreign correspondents talk about openly, McEvers says: Simply put, editors – and by proxy, the rest of us – too often reward them for putting their lives at risk in pursuit of the story.

“When you have little children, you think a lot about positive and negative reinforcement,” she says. “And we foreign correspondents are positively reinforced for bad behavior.”

Julia Barton (@bartona104) is an editor, media trainer, producer and writer who spearheads the “Audio danger” series on Storyboard.

January 10 2012

17:07

January 04 2012

17:51

Audio danger: stories from the edge of listening

[As part of our mission to look at storytelling in every medium, Storyboard is pleased to introduce Julia Barton, who will bring us several posts in 2012 focused on developments in and examples from the world of audio narratives. –Ed.]

Writers and video producers live in dread of the wandering eye. Audio producers live for it. That’s what makes us, in our secret hearts, troublemakers. We want you to lose sight of everything in front of your face: to stare through that dish in your hand, ignore your children, drop into a glazed-over trance of our making. Maybe don’t drive off the road, but please do miss a few exits or get stuck in your car. Good audio should be dangerous that way.

But it’s very hard to accomplish, especially these days, when more and more audio comes to us via that distraction machine, the Web. Hence these posts. In the Storyboard spirit, I’ll be talking with audio producers and editors about how they accomplish their best stories, what obstacles they’ve overcome and the strategies they’ve learned along the way. I should point out that conversations about audio craft have long been underway on sites like Transom and airmedia.org. And there’s a great new podcast, “How Sound,” from longtime audio instructor Rob Rosenthal, who also interviews intrepid producers. In the posts I’ll be doing for Storyboard, I’ll simply be adding to (and sometimes echoing) all those worthy explorations.

I got my start in radio in 1995, while pursuing a master’s degree in nonfiction writing at the University of Iowa. Doing airshifts at WSUI, the university’s then-analog AM public radio station, was for me just an amusing side trip on the way to a blurry future in magazine writing. But then we started airing a new show, “This American Life,” at 6 a.m. on my Sunday shift. I had a huge list of things to do during that hour, but I kept forgetting about my impending newscast and listening to the radio instead. The stories, at once mesmerizing and funny and surprising, actually endangered my work. So I had to start putting TAL on cassettes to hear later, like a portable, or pocket – or what’s the word? – cast.

Since those days, I’ve been a radio reporter, an editor, and contributor to such programs as PRI’s “Studio 360” and “The World.” Still, every time I sit down to craft a new audio feature, it feels almost as hard as the first time. Every piece is its own hellish puzzle.

That said, audio – especially broadcast radio – is a pretty conservative medium. Listeners appreciate familiarity and tend to punish experimentation (see below for one example). On the upside, I really don’t have to try anything new. On the downside: well, not to offend anyone, but there are plenty of places on the low FM band where, format wise, it remains 1979. That’s fine for many; I don’t want it to be fine for me.

So I sometimes go in search of the subtle shifts that amount to major trends in our hidebound world of audio storytelling. To that end, I talked with two people with their ears especially open: Julie Shapiro, head of the Third Coast International Audio Festival (TCIAF) in Chicago, and Roman Mars, who was a judge for TCIAF’s awards competition this year – and who produces a successful and innovative podcast of his own, “99% Invisible,” about design. (Full disclosure: I’ve edited Roman’s work and also did a story for him).

Hundreds of aspiring Next-Big-Thing audio producers submit their best work to TCIAF from around the world. When I asked Shapiro and Mars what trends they’re hearing, most of their answers fell under one surprisingly simple category: the “Radiolab” Effect. WNYC’s “Radiolab,” in case you haven’t heard it, is an occasional broadcast and regular podcast about science, and it’s as highly produced as anything on the radio. Most “Radiolab” stories are crafted from hundreds of hours of audio, a ratio that that’s hard for even the most accomplished programs to pull off. Ira Glass recently confessed in Transom, “If they could do an hour of this every week, I think I’d have to quit radio.”

So Shapiro and Mars aren’t hearing a replication of of Radiolab’s labor-intensive production values, but they are hearing another trademark of the show, its conversational style. You’d think, since the talk radio format is mostly talk, that this would be a given. But radio evolved in the age of oratory, when a stentorian delivery helped pierce the broadcast static, and that’s what listeners still expect.

In the age of HD and earbuds, though, producers are finding they can sound more like themselves. “Radiolab” co-hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich break down complicated stories through a relaxed Socratic dialogue, an approach that’s also been popularized by NPR’s “Planet Money” and APM’s “Freakonomics.”

“People are starting to recognize you can have fun and talk about interesting things as well,” Shapiro says. Or as Mars puts it, “In America, we explain things a lot. So much that we need two people.”

Shapiro and Mars also hear a big “Radiolab” Effect in the deeper integration of music and storytelling, far beyond the musical scoring that’s a hallmark of “This American Life.” You can hear Jad Abumrad’s Oberlin music composition degree in the show’s use of original music to explain concepts (this segment from the episode “Loops” is a good example). That technique is showing up in more TCIAF award winners, like this independent piece, “Kohn,” about a man with a disability that causes him to speak slowly but also causes his brain to hear himself as speaking like everyone else. Producer Andy Mills reached out to the band Hudson Branch to compose a song about Kohn’s brain, and the spoken story acts almost as a setup for the performance.

TCIAF’s winning story this year, “The Wisdom of Jay Thunderbolt,” takes the musical approach a step further, remixing whole swaths of an interview with an underworld character who runs (or ran) a strip club out of his Detroit home. The nervous, disorienting result crystallizes at the point when Thunderbolt pulls a gun on his interviewers.

“None of us could stop listening,” Mars says of the piece. “It solved problems in really creative ways. Almost every step was chancy.”

“Chancy,” of course, thrills the veteran producers behind TCIAF, and it’s their job to reward it. Yet flagship programs such as NPR’s “All Things Considered” get a lot of flack when they showcase even mildly risky work. So it’s to the show’s credit that it teamed up with the independent producers at Long Haul Productions to air their story about the relationship between hydraulic fracking and earthquakes in rural Arkansas. The piece breaks many formats: it’s non-narrated, meaning interviewees and “found sound” do all the talking; and it features a commissioned song interwoven among the interviews. Listeners were quick to vent their fury at NPR. “I don’t want artsy, stylistic reporting; I want factual reporting,” said one.

“How Sound” podcaster Rob Rosenthal later interviewed the producers, Dan Collison and Elizabeth Meister, about the experience. The upshot? It sucked, but ATC’s editors are standing by the team, and maybe next time they’ll make more effort to explain experimental formats ahead of time.

At least the angry ATC listeners were, well, listening. And maybe catching a whiff of how dangerous that can be.

December 27 2011

15:20

If We Were Starting NPR's Project Argo in 2012

For the past two years, I've been working on Project Argo -- a collaboration among NPR and 12 member stations in which the stations launched 12 niche websites on a platform we developed (built on WordPress), each putting their own spin on a common editorial model. As the pilot phase of Argo comes to a close, and we turn our attention to spreading and operationalizing what we've learned more broadly throughout the public media system, the question I get more than any other is, "If you were to start back at the beginning, what would you do differently?"
argo_promo_sites_sm.jpg

I'd reframe the question slightly. If you work in digital media, you know how much this world is still in flux. The pace of change means that trends, tenets and ideas can spring up, calcify into conventional wisdom, and fade away all in the span of two years or less. So instead, I'll lay out a few things we might change if we were starting the pilot in January 2012, and some of the ideas that we hope to push on in our work with stations over the next year.

1. PLAY MORE WITH LENGTH AND FREQUENCY

Although we emphasized the importance of a considered take from the get-go with Argo, we also stressed that the bread-and-butter of blogging is writing short and often. But as many have remarked, the quickest of quick takes have migrated into status updates on Facebook and Twitter, or blips on Tumblr. And alongside that migration, we've seen blogs become less about the instant and more about the Instapaper. A steady rise in popularity for Argo's highest-trafficked site, MindShift, accompanied its move to less-frequent, longer-form blogging. CommonHealth, another of the network's most popular sites, has scored some of its biggest audience hits with 4,000-word opuses like this one.

2. FIND PARTNERS AND BUILD TEAMS

Part of the Argo team's aim was to replicate a pattern we'd seen again and again in our combined decades of working in independent and commercial news organizations: A single person with a singular vision builds a sizable community around a topic from the ground up. And we saw plenty of that this year. But several of our stations also tweaked the model of the single, full-time blogger that we began with, splitting the position between two part-time bloggers, or augmenting the site with contributions from freelancers. And by and large, this has worked quite well for the stations that have taken this approach. In the meantime, we've seen several popular veteran bloggers expand their operations into teams. Ezra Klein's eponymous one-man operation at the Washington Post became the four-person micro-site Wonkblog. Politico's legendary Ben Smith added Dylan Byers to his roster (very shortly before announcing a move to Buzzfeed). And, of course, "Andrew Sullivan" has been the euphemism for a multi-headed team of collaborators for some years now.

That single person with a singular vision can still make a hell of a splash, of course. (Obligatory year-end reflection shoutout to my colleague @acarvin and my daily inspiration, Maria Popova.) And it's easy to convince yourself you're actually collaborating when all you're doing is sharing one another's widgets. But among the things we'll be looking for in 2012 are opportunities to foment genuine, effective partnerships.

3. LOOK FOR EDITORS

When we were hiring our set of reporter-bloggers for Argo, we stressed that it was vital to hire rock stars to helm these sites. In their quest to find rock stars, hiring managers asked variants on one question over and over -- "Is it more important to hire someone with strong, proven reporting chops, or native bloggers who live and breathe the medium?" (Understanding, of course, that it's not a dichotomy. Plenty of folks have both traits.) Today, though, the advice I'd give is, "Find folks who could be awesome editors." As I told Andrew Phelps at the Nieman Journalism Lab, I shifted from calling our site hosts "reporter-bloggers" at the outset of the project to calling them "reporter-editors."* They do have to be strong, speedy writers. And they must be able to report. But the qualities that lift the best blogs to a higher plane are news judgment, pattern recognition, and an instinct for planning and programming -- the hallmarks, in short, of terrific editors.

When I look at the amazing strides the Atlantic has accomplished online over the last few years, I suspect that much of it comes from having a masthead of double-threats who edit as well as they write -- folks like Alexis Madrigal (and very soon -- permit me a squeal -- Megan Garber).**

4. TREAT CONTEXT AS CONTENT

The three people who paid attention to what I was writing and thinking about just before I started working on Argo probably got some severe whiplash as I took on this role. One of my passions in journalism as far back as I can remember -- the thing I spent a year at the Reynolds Journalism Institute studying -- has been context. For years, I'd been writing about the need to invent a timeless journalism, deeply embedded in context, that eschewed the hyperactive, short-term-obsessed imperatives of news and took advantage of the web's capacity to unite episodic and systemic information. Suddenly, these lofty thoughts gave way to paeans to the listicle and headline-writing tips. I'm happy to trace for you how this effort relates to that larger quest, but I can't deny that the future-of-context mantra has been on the back burner during this effort to build successful niche communities.

This is why it makes me so thrilled to see Argo's sister project, StateImpact, double down on context in their approach to blogging. They are proving that marrying well-tended topic page overviews with regular blog posts can be a formula for success. While Argo's prominent "skybox" promotion modules highlight blog posts, a similar convention in the StateImpact design is engineered to highlight topic pages instead. StateImpact reporters take care in producing these pages, writing authoritative, attention-grabbing headlines for them, promoting them with strong thumbnail images, and treating them, generally, as content (not merely as archives, sidebars, or after-matter for users who want to know more). Partly as a result, the topic pages have become some of the most popular material on the StateImpact sites. And instead of fading away once the initial rush of interest in a story is over, these pages grow more valuable over time.

StateImpact joins sites like Salon and SBNation in starting to blur the line between stories and topic pages. And I like it. I don't think we have a silver-bullet successor to "the article" yet, but I'm eager to move this vein of experimentation forward.

5. THINK BEYOND THE RIGHT RAIL

The "right rail" or "sidebar" has been a mainstay of the news story page for years. Often-automated, haphazardly programmed, it tends to be the dumping ground for material that organizational politics and wishful thinking deem to be essential. Over the years, that space has gotten freighted with more and more stuff -- random widgets, text ads, house promos -- further subdividing the thin trickle of attention that usually accrues to it.

When we started the Argo sites, we tried to keep the right rail on our pages fairly tight. But as time went on, that space began to sprawl (as it's wont to do on every website). We stuck widgets there; stations added their own widgets; partnerships yielded new widgets; all despite scant evidence that the space was capturing much user interest.

Now, with mobile devices on the uptick, we can no longer take for granted that the right rail gets even a token eye fixation from users. And designers have been quietly snuffing it out. When NPR redesigned its Shots blog earlier in 2011, the right rail became a much more minimalist enterprise, both on the front page and on story pages. (The redesign has correlated with a healthy uptick in all our favorite metrics for the blog.) Adweek's gorgeous story page design integrates sidebar material much more organically throughout the page. Recently launched tech site The Verge is doing something altogether different with the concept of the story page, and the right rail is not a part of it.

CONCLUSION

Again, not all of these thoughts would have led us down a different path in 2010, when we launched Argo. But they point towards some differences in the type of project we'd launch today. I ran this list by my confreres Joel Sucherman and Wes Lindamood, and they liked it, but I'm sure they'd each pick a different set of points.

A consistently astonishing aspect of working in digital journalism is that you always feel like you're at the beginning of something. And in a way, you always are. May our world shift even more in the year to come.

* Yes. I know. And I agree. "Reporter-bloggers" pains me as a term; it risks reinforcing the false dichotomy between "bloggers" and "journalists" that drives all sensible people crazy. But many folks still need reassurances that even we Micro-Aggregated Cyberpeople place great value on reporting, and if a little hyphenation can spare me from having to engage with a 12-year-old stereotype involving pajamas, so be it.

** Alexis himself reminds us all once a week on Twitter that the secret sauce behind the Atlantic's steady march of awesomeness online is actually J.J. Gould and Bob Cohn.

15:20

Public Media: A Wish List for 2012

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

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

Here's a selection of the responses I received:

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

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

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Need for Resources

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tech Not Always the Driver

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

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

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

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

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

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

What risks will you be taking in the new year?

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

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

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

December 21 2011

09:16

Marcus Brauchli and Post loyalists discuss the current state of the Washington Post

Huffington Post :: The Washington Post newsroom has changed dramatically in recent years, with hundreds of staffers leaving in a series of buyouts and numerous star reporters and editors decamping to established competitors, such as the New York Times, or starting their own, like Politico. Just this past week, four Post staffers left the paper's National desk for other news organizations, including Reuters, NPR and NBC News.

But there are still a few drops of institutional memory in the Post reservoir, into which executive editor Marcus Brauchli recently tried to tap, in order to squeeze out ideas for using the paper's past to improve its future. On Dec. 4, Brauchli, who arrived at the Post only three years ago, invited a half-dozen Post loyalists for lunch at his home to discuss the current state of the paper and how they might contribute more in 2012, according to sources with knowledge of the meeting.

Continue to read Michael Calderone, www.huffingtonpost.com

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