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August 21 2012

14:30

Inside the Star Chamber: How PolitiFact tries to find truth in a world of make-believe

PolitiFact editor Bill Adair in the Star Chamber

WASHINGTON — PolitiFact’s “Star Chamber” is like Air Force One: It’s not an actual room, just the name of wherever Bill Adair happens to be sitting when it’s time to break out the Truth-O-Meter and pass judgment on the words of politicians. Today it’s his office.

Three judges preside, usually the same three: Adair, Washington bureau chief of the Tampa Bay (née St. Petersburg) Times; Angie Drobnic Holan, his deputy; and Amy Hollyfield, his boss.

For this ruling — one of four I sat in on over two days last month — Holan and Hollyfield are on the phone. Staff writer Louis Jacobson is sitting in. He is recommending a rating of False for this claim, from Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.), but Hollyfield wants to at least consider something stronger:

83% of doctors have considered leaving the profession because of #Obamacare #repealandreplace

— Jeff Duncan (@Duncan4Congress) July 10, 2012

Hollyfield: Is there any movement for a Pants on Fire?

Adair: I thought about it, but I didn’t feel like it was far enough off to be a Pants on Fire. What did you think, Lou?

Jacobson: I would agree. Basically it was a case I think of his staff blindly taking basically what was in Drudge and Daily Caller. Should they have been more diligent about checking the fine print of the poll? Yes, they should have. Were they being really reckless in what they did? No. It was pretty garden-variety sloppiness, I would say. I don’t think it rises to the level of flagrancy that I would think of a Pants on Fire.

Adair: It’s just not quite ridiculous. It’s definitely false, but I don’t think it’s ridiculous.

This scene has played out 6,000 times before, but not in public view. Like the original Court of Star Chamber, PolitiFact’s Truth-O-Meter rulings have always been secret. The Star Chamber was a symbol of Tudor power, a 15th-century invention of Henry VII to try people he didn’t much care for. While the history is fuzzy, Wikipedia’s synopsis fits the chamber’s present-day reputation: “Court sessions were held in secret, with no indictments, no right of appeal, no juries, and no witnesses.”

PolitiFact turns five on Wednesday. Adair founded the site to cover the 2008 election, but the inspiration came one cycle earlier, when a turncoat Democrat named Zell Miller told tens of thousands of Republicans that Sen. John Kerry had voted to weaken the U.S. military. “Miller was really distorting his record,” Adair says, “and yet I didn’t do anything about it.”

The team won a Pulitzer Prize for the election coverage. The site’s basic idea — rate the veracity of political statements on a six-point scale — has modernized and mainstreamed the old art of fact-checking. The PolitiFact national team just hired its fourth full-time fact checker, and 36 journalists work for PolitiFact’s 11 licensed state sites. This week PolitiFact launches its second, free mobile app for iPhone and Android, “Settle It!,” which provides a clever keyword-based interface to help resolve arguments at the dinner table. (PolitiFact’s original mobile app, at $1.99, has sold more than 24,000 copies.) The site attracts about 100,000 pageviews per day, Adair told me, and that number will certainly rise as the election draws closer and politicians get weirder.

PolitiFact's "I Brake for Pants on Fire" bumper sticker

If your job is to call people liars, and you’re on a roll doing it, you can expect a steady barrage of criticism. PolitiFact has been under fire practically as long as it has existed, but things intensified earlier this year, when Rachel Maddow criticized PolitiFact for, in her view, botching a series of rulings.

In public, Adair responded cooly: “We don’t expect our readers to agree with every ruling we make,” is his refrain. In private, it struck a nerve.

“I think the criticism in January and February, added to some of the criticism we’ve gotten from conservatives over the months, persuaded us that we needed to make some improvements in our process,” Adair told me. “We directed our reporters to slow down and not try to rush fact-checks. We directed all of our reporters and editors to make sure that [they're] clear in the ruling statement.”

Adair made a series of small changes to tighten up the journalism. And for the first time he invited a reporter — me — to watch the truth sausage get made.

The paradox of fact-checking

To understand fact-checking is to accept a paradox: “Words matter,” as PolitiFact’s core principles go, and “context matters.”

Consider this incident recently all over the news: Harry Reid says some guy told him Mitt Romney didn’t pay taxes for 10 years. It’s probably true. Some guy probably did say that to Harry Reid. But we can’t know for sure. To evaluate that statement is almost impossible without cooperative witnesses to the conversation.

Now, is Reid’s implication true? We can’t know that, either, not until someone produces evidence. So how does a fact checker handle this claim?

The Truth-O-Meter gave Reid its harshest ruling, “Pants on Fire,” a PolitiFact trademark reserved for claims it considers not only false but absurd. In the Star Chamber, judges ruled that Reid had no evidence to back up his claim.

“It is now possible to get called a liar by PolitiFact for saying something true,” complained James Poniewozik and others. But True certainly would not have sufficed, here not even Half True.

Maybe the Truth-O-Meter needs an “Unsubstantiated” rating. They considered it, but decided against it, Adair told me, “because of fears that we’d end up rating many, many things ‘unsubstantiated.’”

Whereas truth is complicated, elastic, subjective… the Truth-O-Meter is simple, fixed, unambiguous. In a way, this overly simplistic device embodies the problem PolitiFact is trying to solve.

“The fundamental irony is that the same technological changes and changes in the media system that make organizations like PolitiFact and FactCheck.org possible also make their work less effective, in that we do have this highly fragmented media environment,” said Lucas Graves, who recently defended his dissertation on fact-checking at Columbia University.

So the Truth-O-Meter is the ultimate webby invention: bite-sized, viral-ready. Whether that Pants on Fire for Reid was warranted or not, 4,300 shares on Facebook is pretty good. PolitiFact is not the only fact checker in town, but the Truth-O-Meter is everywhere; the same simplicity in its rating system that opens it to so much criticism also helps it spread, tweet by tweet.

“PolitiFact exists to be cited. It exists to be quoted,” Graves said. “Every Truth-O-Meter piece packages really easily and neatly into a five-minute broadcast segment for CNN or for MSNBC.” (In fact, Adair told me, he has appeared on CNN alone at least 300 times.)

PolitiFact political cartoon

Stories get “chambered,” in PolitiFact parlance, 10-15 times a week. Adair begins by reading the ruling statement — that is, the precise phrase or claim being evaluated — aloud. Then — and this is new, post-criticism — Adair asks four questions, highlighted in bold. (“Sounds like something from Passover, but the four questions really helps get us focused,” he says.)

Adair: We are ready to rule on the Jeff Duncan item. So the ruling statement is: “83 percent of doctors have considered leaving the profession because of ObamaCare.” Lou is recommending a False. Let’s go through the questions.

Is the claim literally true?

Adair: No.

Jacobson: No, using Obamacare.

Is the claim open to interpretation? Is there another way to read the claim?

Jacobson: I don’t think so.

Adair: I don’t think so.

Does the speaker prove the claim to be true?

Adair: No. Did you get in touch with Duncan?

Jacobson: Yes, and his office declined to speak. Politely declined.

Did we check to see how we handled similar claims in the past?

Adair: Yes, we looked at the — and this didn’t actually get included in the item…

Jacobson:The Glenn Beck item.

Adair: Was it Glenn Beck?

Jacobson: Two years ago.

Adair: I thought it was the editorial in the Financial Times or whatever. What was that?

Jacobson: Well, Beck was quoted citing a poll by Investors Business Daily.

Adair: Investors Business Daily, right.

Jacobson: We gave that a False too, I think. But similar issues, basically.

Adair: Okay. So we have checked how we handled similar things in the past. Lou is recommending a false. How do we feel about false?

Angie: I feel good.

Hollyfield: Yup.

Adair: Good. All right, not a lot of discussion on this one!

After briefly considering Pants on Fire, they agree on False.

Question No. 3 — Does the speaker prove the claim to be true? — ensures the reporter always talks to the person who made the statement. Among Maddow’s complaints was that she was never contacted for a False ruling on one of her claims.

Another change in the last year has created a lot of grief for PoitiFact: Fact checkers now lean more heavily on context when politicians appear to take credit or give blame. Which brings us to Rachel Maddow’s complaint. In his 2012 State of the Union address, President Obama said:

In the last 22 months, businesses have created more than 3 million jobs. Last year, they created the most jobs since 2005.

PolitiFact rated that Half True, saying an executive can only take so much credit for job creation. But did he take credit? Would the claim have been 100 percent true if not for the speaker? Under criticism, PolitiFact revised the ruling up to Mostly True. Maddow was not satisfied:

You are a mess! You are fired! You are undermining the definition of the word “fact” in the English language by pretending to it in your name. The English language wants its word back. You are an embarrassment. You sully the reputation of anyone who cites you as an authority on “factishness,” let alone fact. You are fired.

Maddow (in addition to many, many liberals) was already mad about PolitiFact’s pick for 2011 Lie of the Year, that Republicans had voted, through the Ryan budget, to end Medicare. Of course, her criticism then was that PolitiFact was too literal.

“Forget about right or wrong,” Graves said. “There’s no right answer if you define ‘right’ as coming up with a ruling that everybody will agree with, especially when it comes to the question of interpreting things literally or taking an account out of context.” Damned if they do, damned if they don’t.

Graves, who identifies himself as falling “pretty left” on the spectrum, has observed PolitiFact twice: for a week last year and again for a three-day training session with one of PolitiFact’s state sites.

“One of the things that comes through clearest when you spend time with fact checkers…is that they have a very healthy sense that these are imperfect judgments that they’re making, but at the same time they’re going to strive to do them as fairly as possible. It’s a human endeavor. And like all human endeavors, it’s not infallible.”

A real live Truth-O-Meter

The truth is that fact-checking, and fact checkers, are kinda boring. What I witnessed was fair and fastidious; methodical, not mercurial. (That includes the other three (uneventful) rulings I watched.) I could uncover no evidence of PolitiFact’s evil scheme to slander either Republicans or Democrats. Adair says he’s a registered independent. He won’t tell me which candidate he voted for last election, and he protects his staff members’ privacy in the voting booth. In Virginia, where he lives, Adair abstains from open primary elections. Revealing his own politics would “suggest a bias that I don’t think is there,” Adair says.

“In a hyper-partisan world, that information would get distorted, and it would obscure the reality, which is that I think political journalists do a good job of leaving their personal beliefs at home and doing impartial journalism,” he says.

Does all of this effort make a dent in the net truth of the universe? Is moving from he-said-she-said to some form of judgment, simplified as it may be, “working?” Last month, David Brooks wrote:

A few years ago, newspapers and nonprofits set up fact-checking squads, rating campaign statements with Pinocchios and such. The hope was that if nonpartisan outfits exposed campaign deception, the campaigns would be too ashamed to lie so much.

This hope was naive. As John Dickerson of Slate has said, the campaigns want the Pinocchios. They want to show how tough they are.

“I don’t think we were naive. I’ve always said anyone who imagines we can change the behavior of candidates is bound to be disappointed,” said Brooks Jackson, director of FactCheck.org. He was a pioneer of modern political fact-checking for CNN in the 1990s. “I suspect it is a fact that the junior woodchucks on the campaign staffs have now perversely come to value our criticism as some sort of merit badge, as though lying is a virtue, and a recognized lie is a bigger virtue.”

Rarely is there is a high political cost to lying. All the explainers in the world couldn’t completely blunt the impact of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth’s campaign to denigrate John Kerry’s military service. More recently, in July, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee claimed Chinese prostitution money helped finance the campaign of a Republican Congressman in Ohio. PolitiFact rated it Pants on Fire.

That didn’t stop the DCCC from rolling out identical claims in Wisconsin and Tennessee. The DCCC eventually apologized. But which made more of an impression on voters, the original lie or the eventual apology from an amorphous nationwide organization?

Brendan Nyhan, a political science professor at Dartmouth College, has done a lot of research on the effects of fact-checking on the public. As he wrote for CJR:

It is true that corrective information may not change readers’ minds. My research with Georgia State’s Jason Reifler finds that corrections frequently fail to reduce misperceptions among the most vulnerable ideological group and can even make them worse (PDF). Other research has reached similarly discouraging conclusions — at this point, we know much more about what journalists should not do than how they can respond effectively to false statements (PDF).

If the objective of fact-checking is to get politicians to stop lying, then no, fact-checking is not working. “My goal is not to get politicians to stop lying,” is another of Adair’s refrains. “Our goal is…to give people the information they need to make decisions.”

Unlike The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler, who awards Pinocchios for lies, or PolitiFact, which rates claims on a Truth-O-Meter, Jackson’s FactCheck.org doesn’t reduce its findings to a simple measurement. “I think you are telling people we can tell the difference between something that is 45 percent true and 57 percent true — and some negative number,” he said, referring to Pants on Fire. “There isn’t any scientific objective way to measure the degree of mendacity to any particular statement.”

“I think it’s fascinating that they chose to call it a Truth-O-Meter instead of a Truth Meter,” Graves said. Truth-O-Meter sounds like a kitchen gadget, or a toy. “That ‘O’ is sort of acknowledging that this is a human endeavor. There’s no such thing as a machine for perfectly and accurately making judgments of truth.”

Political cartoon by Chip Bok used with permission.

July 26 2012

16:43

How Buzzfeed wants to reinvent wire stories for social media

The wire story is an atomic element of news: It’s the basic material upon which more journalism can be built. But wire stories, as a compact unit for getting out the basics of an updating story, are also a commodity. Thanks to the speed of information and the glut of channels we can access it on, it’s not uncommon to get flooded with the same story when major news breaks. If you were on Twitter or Facebook the day the Supreme Court issued its decision on the Affordable Care Act, you know the signal-to-noise ratio was high on the noise side.

A torrent of repetitive news updates is a problem for readers, and for editors, like BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith, it’s a frustration. Smith was brought on in late 2011 as editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed to develop the company’s journalistic side and has since hired a staff of reporters and built out more news-esque sections for the site. The challenge in all of this is finding a way to graft the sensibilities of a news organization onto BuzzFeed’s fabulous Internet harnessing machine. The principle here is to take whatever it is that makes things like 14 First World Problems From the 90s popular and apply it to stories about Mitt Romney and SEC filings.

One place Smith wants to experiment now: The wire story. When I talked with Smith, he said the idea of the wire story needs to be reworked in the era of social media. This week they took a step towards that goal by hiring a new breaking news reporter for BuzzFeed. Jessica Testa, who previously wrote for BuzzFeed Shift, will be stepping into the breaking news job. Part of her work, as the posting for the job advertised, will be “Creating posts on the stories that are just starting to take off on the social web, with the goal of reinventing the wire story for the social web.”

The old model, where wire stories run 2-8 paragraphs with varying degrees of fresh reporting, doesn’t work when people are exposed to so much information on a continued basis, Smith said. “There’s no audience for ‘Here’s this thing you just heard and I’m going to say again,’” he said.

Journalism has always been about speed and precision, but as the place for that has shifted from stories to blog posts and now social media, Smith said journalists have to be more creative in the ways they deliver vital information. They also have to make better decisions. Living and writing in the current news environment means calculating the costs and benefits of working on a “second-rate aggregated version of what someone wrote 20 minutes ago,” versus pursuing an original story, Smith said.

“I feel in general the 800-1,200 word form of the news article is broken,” he said. “You don’t see people sharing those kind of stories.” Smith’s talking about those daily stories that only seem to provide two paragraphs of new information layered on top of several inches of context. Nothing wrong with context, but explanatory journalism now comes in different forms, not just at the tail end of a story.

The problem lies with the delivery, design, and presentation of stories, he said. Think about the structure of wire stories. Most reporters are taught to put old information, the background stuff, at the bottom of stories, thus leaving room for copy editors to lop things off if necessary. But that assumes two things: The value of longer stories and readers ability to keep reading something once they get past new information.

So instead of pushing out a developing story and leading with headline in a Facebook or Twitter post, Smith wants BuzzFeed to experiment. One example he pointed to was the news North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had been promoted to the highest military rank in the country. Instead of an AP-style news update, BuzzFeed took the vital parts of the story and made it a little more shareable via animated GIFs with “Kim Jong Un Gets A Promotion.”

Smith thinks BuzzFeed is well suited to rework the wire story because it’s a company that is deeply web native. The way BuzzFeed works is by trying to pinpoint what web phenomenon will explode next, whether it’s photos, gifs, or news stories. BuzzFeed staff have to have knowledge of sources, but also of different forms of media, Smith said. That means on any given day news on the site doesn’t have to take a predictable shape. It could be a collection of photos, a dominant photo with links, or a collection of quotes.

“It’s something that does the work of a wire story and informs people about this very important piece of international news in this way that was authentically in the language of the social web,” Smith said.

While Smith wants BuzzFeed to tinker with wire stories and try new ideas, that doesn’t mean the site won’t be producing more traditional looking stories. He told me one reason he wants his reporters to think smarter about wire stories is to free them up for original reporting. But it’s worth noting that when news broke of the movie theater shootings in Aurora, Colo., Testa led BuzzFeed’s coverage with a curated mix of text, images and tweets.

Smith expects there will be a period of trial and error as they see how different ways of delivering wire stories that connect with readers. “We’re trying to find ways to tell (stories) that are more visual and more emotionally direct,” he said.

January 13 2012

16:30

January 09 2012

19:45

Why media outlets team up in an election year

We’ve reached the point in journalism where we barely bat an eye when two news organizations say they’re joining forces. Anything less than a merger is just not an earth mover these days, when egos, brands, unique audiences — all of the guarded, proprietary stuff that kept news companies at opposite ends of the sword — seem to matter less in the face of an uncertain journalism marketplace.

In that way the new partnership between NBC News and Newsweek/The Daily Beast to cover the 2012 election shouldn’t be too surprising. It’s a classic partnership of two organizations looking for a Doublemint effect: Double the resources, double the coverage, double the audience. The plan calls for campaign trail reporting from NBC (and a healthy dose of video) to appear in the pages of Newsweek and online at The Daily Beast. [UPDATE: See correction below.] Call it NBCWeekBeast. (NBeastCWeek?)

But there’s something about politics in particular that seems to bring out the hugging and sharing in news organizations. A presidential election brings out the heavy news artillery, and that means a flurry of scooplets coming from all directions — from the networks, from newspapers national and local, from blogs, from campaigns, and everywhere else. All that firepower pointed in the same direction makes the urge to team up more tempting than ever. (Take for example The New York Times’ Election 2012 iPhone app, which is built more on linking and aggregation than any Times product before it — this, despite the fact that the Times devotes enormous resources to its own coverage.)

History backs this instinct. After all, for years outlets — like the Times and CBS News or ABC News and The Washington Post — have linked up for the purposes of polling. At the same time debates, from the local legislative races up to the president level, have long been collaborations across media, whether it’s the local newspaper and public media, or CNN, Politico, and The Los Angeles Times.

What’s interesting is how many of these partnerships derive from cross-media competitors. Pre-web, The New York Times and CBS News had reporters chasing the same stories — but a broadcast nightly news show and a morning newspaper could comfortably share an audience without excluding either. With everyone competing on the same platforms these days — the web, your smartphone — the calculus is different. And it’s unclear how far these partnerships will extend beyond election season — a beat that is both extended (the presidential election will last a lot longer than mega-events like the Oscars or the Super Bowl) and predictable (that once-every-four-years scheduling means there’s time to align up multiple outlets’ interests).

As indicated by the number of media outlets launching (or relaunching) their politics offerings, we also know it’s an area that can spike pageviews and draw a reliable audience. (The New Yorker’s the latest, just today.) Readers are on the hunt for their election coverage earlier than ever, be it tracking polls, candidate gaffes, new endorsements, or daily overviews, and news organizations are jockeying for position. And it doesn’t hurt that once you have a politics vertical it’s that much easier to take advantage of the spending on political ads. But that underlying tension between the journalist’s desire for exclusivity and the brand’s desire to aggregate content will be something to keep watching from here to election day.

Correction: This piece originally said the sharing would go both ways, from Newsbeast to NBC and from NBC to Newsbeast. In fact, it’s only the latter — NBC content flowing to Newsweek and The Daily Beast. Sorry.

Image by Jiheffe used under a Creative Commons license.

December 08 2011

13:30

Civic journalism 2.0: The Guardian and NYU launch a “citizens agenda” for 2012

Last August, Jay Rosen published a blog post arguing for “a citizens agenda in campaign coverage.” The idea, he wrote, “is to learn from voters what those voters want the campaign to be about, and what they need to hear from the candidates to make a smart decision.” And the method of doing that, he suggested, is simply to ask them: “What do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes in this year’s election?”

Today, that idea gets one step closer to reality. Rosen and Amanda Michel — currently The Guardian US‘s open editor and formerly Rosen’s colleague at HuffPo’s 2008 OffTheBus project — are launching “the Citizens Agenda,” a collaboration between The Guardian and NYU’s Studio 20 program. Though the project will make use of some of the citizen-driven lessons of OffTheBus (and of The Guardian’s multiple experiments in mutualized journalism), the citizens agenda will be above all an experimental space dedicated to determining how to get people’s voices heard in campaigns that, though they purport to be concerned with the people’s interests, all too often ignore them.

The citizens agenda, the pair point out, is not a blanket attempt to end horserace coverage — campaigns are, fundamentally, races, and who’s winning them, you know, matters. Instead, they stress, it’s an attempt to disrupt the horserace as the “master narrative” of political reporting, to inject more perspective (and, for that matter, more data about the demand side of political journalism) into the conversation.

“When people complain about what’s wrong with the coverage, there’s an opportunity to find out…. well, what should the candidates be discussing?”

On the one hand, the citizens agenda is the digital — digitized — heir of civic journalism, the movement that (with Rosen at the helm) came to prominence in the 1990s and attempted to give individual members of communities more agency in the journalism that served them. On the other, though, while the citizen’s agenda is a kind of culmination of that movement — with, today, buy-in from one of the largest news organizations in the world — it’s also something entirely new. It will be, first and foremost, an experiment, Michel told me. They’re starting with an idea; they’re not sure exactly what will come of it. “It’s going to be an iterative process,” she says.

There are two basic goals for the effort, Michel notes: first, the need to understand what people want to learn from and about political candidates — to gain an appreciation, as Michel puts it, of “how the public wants to contextualize the debates and discussion.” Campaigns are notorious for, and in a large sense defined by, their attempts to control narratives; a citizens agenda is in large part an effort to provide a community-driven counter-narrative.

Studio 20′s role in the project, Rosen told me, will be in part to act as an interactive team that will help with the inflow and engagement of users; students in the program will also conduct research and analysis and think through — perhaps even invent — features and tools that can foster that engagement in new ways, testing them out on The Guardian’s U.S. site. (Michel calls the students a kind of “independent brain trust.”)

“We don’t think that the direct way of posing the question, What do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes in 2012?, is always going to work,” Rosen notes. “Some answers to that question might have to come about indirectly: for example, in dissatisfaction with media coverage as it stands.” So “when people complain about what’s wrong with the coverage and campaign dialogue, there’s an opportunity to find out…. well, what should the candidates be discussing as they compete for votes in 2012?”

“I think there is a kind of authority to be won here,” Rosen points out — a kind of permission for reporters to deviate from the expectations of rankings-based, rather than idea-based, coverage. “Of course, you have to be right, you have to be accurate, you have be listening creatively and well,” he says, and “with some subtlety and an awareness that each method has weaknesses and missing data.” Sampling science will certainly come into play. “This isn’t just reading numbers off a chart,” Rosen notes. “There’s a lot of judgment involved, obviously.”

The second goal of the project is to figure out how to translate those findings into political coverage itself. Which is a challenge that could have fascinating implications — and not just for political reporting. Once you know what people want from political journalism, how do you go about creating that journalism? What’s the right balance between competition-based, and issue-based, coverage? What’s the right balance, for that matter, between journalists determining coverage and the public determining it?

Helping to answer those questions will be Jim Brady and the collection of community papers at Digital First Media, which is partnering with the project to tailor the national findings to the local. “The concepts that they’re applying at a national level certainly don’t become less relevant at a local level,” Brady notes. Figuring out what the public wants out of coverage — and then figuring out how to implement it — can be, in fact, particularly powerful in community news. (That’s part of the reason the project is hoping to bring more local collaborators on board.)

“There has to be a way to turn this into a full-circle feedback loop.”

Though much of the Guardian’s experiments will likely involve online conversation tools like hashtags and surveys and the like, “it’s not an online-only feature,” Brady notes. At the local level, in fact, papers may well experiment with a citizens agenda approach in their print products — and with the kind of in-person debates and forums that were a hallmark of the early days of civic journalism. “We’ll use all platforms,” Brady says — “as in everything we do.”

Still, though, there will be strategy involved, Brady points out. You have to be smart about both how you ask questions and how you make use of the answers. “It doesn’t work if it becomes citizens pouring out their hearts about the issues they want to hear about,” he notes, if “we can’t, as journalists, tie that to actual action by the candidates. Otherwise, it’s just like message boards that nobody responds to. There has to be a way to turn this into a full-circle feedback loop.”

Finding that way will be crucial — and it will require, above all, an openness to both the wisdom of crowds and the political agency of average citizens. Which hasn’t always been journalism’s strong suit. The project will be, Rosen puts it, “a creative act of listening.” And it will be, in that, Michel points out, “a fairly dramatic acceptance of the knowledge and expertise that the public has” — not to mention a fairly dramatic act of humility on the part of the journalistic establishment. “The approach,” Michel says, “is to ask the American public: ‘What is it that you need? What can we do to help?’”

Image by SpeakerBoehner used under a Creative Commons license.

July 18 2011

13:00

Pew: Nonprofit journalism doesn’t mean ideology-free

Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism is out with a new study this morning that looks at the new universe of nonprofit journalism — and tries to get beyond the ProPublicas of the world to see who else is producing journalism under the legal structure of a 501(c)3 exemption. After all, remember, “nonprofit” signals a tax status, not a belief system or a commitment to any particular ideals, journalistic or otherwise.

The study found more than a little ideology lurking under that IRS umbrella. Of the 46 sites examined — 39 nonprofit and 7 commercial as a control — around half “produced news coverage that was clearly ideological in nature,” the researchers report.

Pew had the expected nice things to say about the usual nonprofit rock stars, like ProPublica, the Texas Tribune, MinnPost, and California Watch. They’re transparent about their funding sources, which are numerous; their doesn’t skew too far in one political direction; they produce a lot of journalism, compared to their nonprofit peers. But the major national networks of state politics sites — the conservative Watchdog.org sites and the liberal American Independent News Network — don’t reveal much about who’s paying their bills, and their work skews clearly in one direction, both in the topics they cover and the content of individual stories.

(Because it attempted to cover an entire universe of nonprofit outlets, researchers had to limit their targets to a reasonable number. As a result, older news orgs like the Center for Public Integrity and metro-scale outlets like Voice of San Diego were both excluded.)

PEJ does a great job, with this and other studies, of moving past barroom debates and gathering real-world data on the new worlds of journalism. And while this research doesn’t draw explicit moral conclusions, it won’t be hard for others to: These nonprofits aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. They’re not objective; they’re hidden tools of politicos; they’re no replacement for newspapers. Beyond the flagships like ProPublica and Texas Tribune, it’s a mucky world.

And there’s some truth in that! But two points: First, few of even the most ambitious nonprofit outlets consider themselves true replacements for newspapers. The scale just isn’t there; as Pew’s study notes, the median editorial-staff size at the nonprofits they studied was three. (Although those three people are usually more topic-focused than their print peers — a nonprofit site covering a statehouse might be the biggest player in town with three reporters.) Replacement is a straw man; the vast majority of nonprofits, ideological or not, view themselves more as supplements.

Second, a little ideology isn’t such a bad thing. Take the right-of-center Watchdog.org sites, which we wrote about last year. They say their mission is to “promote social welfare and civil betterment by undertaking programs that promote journalism and the education of the public about corruption, incompetence, fraud, or taxpayer abuse by elected officials at all levels of government.” They investigate Democrats a lot more than Republicans, and they’re no great fans of what they see as wasteful big government.

The left-of-center American Independent News Network sites works the other side, saying its reporting “emphasizes the positive role of democratically elected government in securing the common good and social welfare, and the continuing benefits of our founding culture of egalitarian government by the people, for the people.” They take on the GOP more than Democrats, and they write a lot about the environment and labor issues.

Viewed as replacements, they fall short of what we’d expect from a good newspaper. But as supplements, I’m happy that both exist — that in a state with both a Watchdog site and an Independent site, both sides of the aisle will be poked and prodded, and that stories will surface that otherwise wouldn’t. I’d draw a distinction between ideological outlets as drivers of political culture — Fox News being a prime example — and as drivers of new information. The biggest risk posed by the loss of reporting manpower in places like our nation’s statehouses is that real stories will go unreported. Adding ideological outlets to the mix reduces that chance; at least someone will be paying attention to environmental issues or fraud at the DMV. And, unlike with Fox News, the readers of many of these sites tend to be high-information consumers of political news; a statehouse-news-only site isn’t ever going to reach the broader general audience of a newspaper or TV station.

Anyway, that’s just one take on what is a data-rich analysis, a snapshot of an important group of new players in the news world. Go read the full paper.

April 21 2011

14:00

The newsonomics of a single investigative story

Editor’s Note: Each week, Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of news for the Lab.

It’s a week to celebrate great investigative work. ProPublica made some history with its Pulitzer for online-only work about the financial meltdown, and the Los Angeles Times crowned its success with the larger-than-life Bell corruption tale, winning its own top prize. Both well deserved.

Meanwhile, as journalists sat around their terminals awaiting the Pulitzer bulletin, an investigative series broke across California, perhaps reaching more audience more quickly than any previous investigative piece. There were no bodies to count, nor billions or millions of ill-gotten gains to uncover.

Rather, California Watch’s “On Shaky Ground” series is aimed at preventing disaster, getting ahead of the Grim Reaper. The series took a big look at the likely safety issues in the state’s schools when (not if, right?) The Big One hits. It found, not surprisingly, that although state law mandated seismic preparations, all kinds of bureaucratic nonsense has contravened that intent. It found that about 1,100 schools had been red-flagged as in need of repair, with no work done, while tens of thousands of others were in questionable and possibly illegal shape. The so-what: Some of the very institutions providing for the kids of California have a certain likelihood of actually falling on top of them and killing them.

It’s old-fashioned, shoe-leather, box-opening, follow-the-string journalism, and it is well done.

While it’s fun to celebrate great journalism, anytime, it’s vital to look at the newsonomics of this kind of investigative journalism. What did it take to get it done? How much did it cost and who paid for it? And, to look at the plainly fundamental question: How do we get lots more of it done in the future?

The series took more than 20 months to complete. The interactive timeline, “On Shaky Ground: The story behind the story,” tells that tale with tongue in cheek; it’s a great primer for any beginning journalism class. Corey G. Johnson, freshly hired from North Carolina and part of a young reporting contingent that has been mixed and mentored well by veterans like editorial director Mark Katches, stumbles on a list of 7,500 “unsafe schools” as he’s doing a routine story on the 20th anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake.

Along the way, the story grows in import and paperwork. California Watch, the less-than-two-year-old offshoot of the Berkeley-based Center for Investigative Journalism (CIR), adds other staff to the effort, including reporter Erica Perez, public engagement manager Ashley Alvarado, distribution manager Meghann Farnsworth, and director of technology Chase Davis, among other reporters.

In the end, the series rolled out in three parts — with maps, databases, historical photos, its own Twitter hashtag, a “My Quake” iPhone app — and a coloring book (“California Watch finds a new consumer group, kids“), intended to reach kids, the most important subject and object of the reporting. Already, the state legislature has scheduled hearings for April 27.

The reach of the roll-out is one of the new lessons here. Six major dailies ran at least some part of the series. ABC-affiliate broadcasters took the story statewide. Public radio news leaders KQED, in the Bay Area, and KPCC, in L.A. ran with it. KQED-TV. The ethnic press signed on: La Opinion ran two seismic stories Sunday and Monday, while at least two Korean papers, one Chinese paper, and one Chinese TV station included coverage as well. More than 125 Patch sites in the state (California is major Patch turf) participated.

A number of the distributors did more than distribute. They localized, using data from California Watch, and reporting on their local schools’ shape. KQED-TV produced a 30-minute special that is scheduled to air on at least 12 PBS affiliates in the state.

San Francisco Chronicle managing editor Steve Proctor is frank about how priorities and resource use have changed in the age of downsizing. When Proctor came to the paper in 2003, he says, the paper had five to seven people assigned to a full-time investigative team. Now there’s no team per se, with the Chronicle investing investigative resources in an “investigate and publish” strategy, getting stories out to the public more quickly and then following up on public-generated leads they create. It’s an adjustment in strategy and in resource allocation — and the California Watch relationship makes it even more workable. “We’ve been pretty sympatico with them from the beginning,” he said. “We’ve used the majority of what they’ve produced.”

So let’s get deeper into some numbers, informed by this series, and see where this kind of work can go:

  • “On Shaky Ground” cost about $550,000 to produce, most of that in staff time, as the project mushroomed. That’s now a huge sum of money to a newsroom, even a metro-sized one. Ask a publisher whether he or she is willing to spend a half a million on a story, and you know the answer you’ll usually get. It’s a sum few newsrooms can or will invest. Consequently, the economics of getting a well edited, well packaged series for a hundreth of that price is an offer few newsrooms can (or probably should) refuse.
  • California Watch, not yet two years old, runs on a budget of about $2.7 million a year. That budget supports 14 journalists, whose funding takes up about 70 percent of that $2.7 million number. That’s an intriguing percentage in and of itself; most daily newspaper newsrooms make up of 20 percent or less of their company’s overall expenses. So, disproportionately, the money spent on California Watch is spent on journalists — and journalism.

The project is about midway through its funding cycles. The ubiquitous Knight Foundation (which has contributed about $15 million to a number of investigative projects nationwide through its Investigative Reporting Initiative), the Irvine Foundation, and the Hewlett Foundation, all of which have provided million-dollar-plus grants, are reviewing new proposals.

The key word, going forward here, is “sustaining.” Will foundations provide ongoing support of the “public good” of such journalism? There’s lots of talk among foundations, but no clear consensus among journalism-facing ones. “There really isn’t a foundation community that thinks with a common brain — same situation as in the news community,” Knight’s Eric Newton told me this week. “Each foundation makes its own decisions using different criteria. Some foundations see their role as launching new things and letting nature take its course.” CIR executive director Robert Rosenthal is among those trying to find a new course. Although he’s a highly experienced editor, he finds that most of his time is found fund- and friend-raising.

  • California Watch is building a syndication business, feeling its way along. Already, six larger dailies — the San Francisco Chronicle, the Sacramento Bee, the Orange County Register, the San Diego Union-Tribune, the Fresno Bee, and the Bakersfield California — are becoming clients, paying a single price for the all-you-can-eat flow of daily and enterprise stories California Watch produces. They, a number of ABC affiliates (L.A.’s KABC, the Bay Area’s KGO, 10 News San Diego, 10 News Sacramento, KSFN in Fresno), and KQED public radio and TV in the Bay Area are also annual clients pay between $3,000 and $15,000 a year each. A la carte pricing for individual projects can run from $3,000 to $10,000. The California Watch media network, just launched in January, is an important building block of the evolving business model. It is clear that while syndication can be a good support, at those rates, it’s a secondary support.
  • So, if California Watch were to be totally supported by foundation money, it would take an endowment of $54 million to throw off $2.7 million a year, at a five percent spend rate. Now $54 million raised one time isn’t an impossible sum. Consider just one gift: Joan Kroc left NPR more than $200 million eight years ago. Consider that the billionaires’ club started by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett (encouraging their peers to give away half of their wealths) is talking about newly raising a half a trillion dollars for the public good. Last summer, I suggested the group tithe a single percentage point of the club’s treasury for news-as-a-public-good. It seems to me that stories like “On Shaky Ground” make that pivotal education/health/journalism connection; send “Shaky Ground” to your favorite billionaire and urge him to sign on.
  • Let’s do some cost-benefit analysis. How much is a single child’s life worth? How about a school of 250? We could consult a liability lawyer, who undoubtedly would put assign a six- and seven-figure number per life, and then tie up the courts, post-disaster, making the math work. So if California, bereft as it is of capital, were to invest in the infrastructure, per its own laws, wouldn’t it be ultimately cost-effective? Of course it would be, and in this case we see in microcosm, the question of American infrastructure writ large. Are we a country that will let more bridges fall into mighty rivers, more schools fall onto our children and more poor roads cause preventable injury and death? You don’t need my political rant here. Rather, let us just make the point that journalism — old-fashioned journalism, newly digitally enhanced — is a key part of forcing America to face its own issues, whatever the solutions.

In this project and in California Watch generally, we see the reconfiguring of local media. An owner — whether AOL, Hearst, or private equity — can hardly reject the offer of paying one-hundreth of the cost for space-filling, audience-interesting content. Welcome to a new kind of content farm, to use that perjorative for a moment. Yes, California Watch operates on the same Demand Media-like principle of create-once-distribute-many, realizing the digital cost of the second copy is nil. Let’s consider it the organic, cage-free content farm. It makes sense for a state the size of a country (California = Canada); smaller versions of it make equal sense for Ohio, North Carolina, or Illinois.

Older media outsources journalism and in-sources (affordable) passion. There are lots of lessons here (“3 Reasons to Watch California Watch“), but that fundamental rejiggering of who does the work and how it is distributed and customized is a key one. As Mark Katches points out, “They [distributing partners] put their voices on our story.” That’s a new system in the making.

Old(er) editors can learn new tricks. For a good show-and-tell of that principle, check out Rosenthal’s talk to TEDxPresidio two weeks ago. I first saw him give the talk at NewsFoo in Phoenix in December. Amid more tech-oriented talks, his stood out and was much applauded. It’s a clarifying call for real journalism, perfected for the digital age. Share it.

February 22 2011

15:00

Attitudes in the tubes: An Irish site mines Twitter for political trends

Editor’s Note: On Friday, voters in Ireland will go to the polls to elect members of its lower house of Parliament and, by proxy, the Taoiseach, or prime minister.

Since just about any news organization might have reason to cover an election at some point — and since we here in the U.S. are edging closer to our own two-year marathon — we thought it might be useful to look at how one upstart Irish online news outlet, TheJournal.ie, is using social media data to examine the sentiment of the voting public. Irish newspaper and web designer Fergus Kelly reports.

My favorite webpage of the entire election campaign is The Journal’s #ge11 Twitter Tracker, launched earlier this month. It’s brilliant. In essence it presents an analysis of the tweet stream in Ireland, showing which parties and party leaders are being talked about most and the attitude of the public to the party leaders in a very graphic and simple to understand way (much, much simpler than that last sentence). I look at it several times a day, watching for changes in volume of tweets and how people are feeling about the parties.

The Journal’s aim is to innovate in the Irish media sector and to encourage users to be part of the process, a socialization of news that is gathering momentum worldwide. It is now my first port of call for finding news. The Twitter Tracker follows on from interesting ideas like the 9 at 9 (nine things you need to know at 9 a.m.), Take 5 (five things you need to know by 5 p.m.), the Daily Fix (its pick of the highs and lows of the day’s election campaign), and daily polling — delivering bite-sized, curated, interactive, and realtime news.

To help create the tracker, The Journal turned to Clarity, a partnership between University College Dublin, Dublin City University and Tyndall National Institute (TNI) Cork. Adam Bermingham, a Ph.D. researcher with Clarity, told me that it is “aiming to turn raw data from the (usually social) web into meaningful and valuable information which is easily consumed and understood.”

“For the Twitter Tracker project, we have applied the technologies we have developed over the last few years to the political domain to provide analysis, which has been visualised and editorialised by TheJournal.ie,” he said.

That editorialisation and visualisation is pretty good. The best feature of the Twitter Tracker (very graphically) presents the most talked about party leader on Twitter, with the option of analysis of the Last Few Hours, Last Day, or the Whole Campaign. It uses the size-of-head metaphor to graph the data — the biggest head is the most talked about — and it can be most amusing. Sentiment is visualised using something like the Swingometer popularized by the BBC for election coverage.

It also has a graph of the volume and sentiment of tweets about the parties over the past week, showing the most talked-about party. This graph is (only occasionally, unfortunately) annotated with stories from The Journal to explain spikes in the graph, and the dates it covers can be adjusted.

The top trending candidates in the past day or week are also displayed, with a short profile of each to explain who they are.

The top 10 words associated with each leader and party over the past week is also enlightening. For example, at the time of writing, the word most associated with Labour’s Eamon Gilmore was “Taoiseach,” while this was only eighth for Fine Gael’s Enda Kenny. I wonder why?

“The top terms are important terms which have been uniquely mentioned in relation to the leaders or parties in question. In this way we get an idea of what concepts have a strong association that is intrinsically linked to that leader or party,” Bermingham said.

Finally, the tracker looks at the top retweets. This feature is based only on the new Twitter retweet format and therefore may not give a perfect result. Adam told me he had “developed a solution for the old school retweet [RT] but there is inevitably a problem in being able to say for sure where an old school retweet first originated. This remains an exercise for future work!”

The tech

Clarity attempts to provide analysis “beyond simple data such as word clouds and search results.” This idea becomes clear in the sentiment analysis feature of the Twitter Tracker. Clarity has developed methods to create high-quality training data from human input which is then “mined for patterns and used by state-of-the-art machine learning algorithms to identify sentiment in new data.” In other words, once their system has been trained, it can analyze anything — in this case a real-time stream of tweets — and identify attitudes. Its technology is able to do this in less than a minute.

The tracker has been looking at #ge11 on Twitter. I wondered how the central control of social networking accounts, notably by Fine Gael, may skew the analysis.

Adam said: “We don’t skew our analysis towards or away from particular sources/users. While this is possible, and even advisable for certain applications, we felt that for this election, the first general election in Ireland to be influenced by Twitter, it is valuable to present a zeitgeist of the electorate as well as the candidates, parties and party members. What we aim to do is to help people, who may not be familiar with Twitter, understand the fabric of Twitter, as it is being used, by everyone who has something to say about the election.”

The Journal is one of the most innovative news websites in Ireland. Its use of Huffington Post-style aggregation, coupled with internally generated news (with a target of a 50/50 split), broke new ground in Ireland. It’s part of the same group, Distilled Media, that created daft.ie, boards.ie, and adverts.ie and has an advertising-driven business model but currently only carries ads for other companies in the group. With more high-tech partnerships with emerging tech companies, sites like this can only add choice and therefore increase innovation in a behind-the-curve market like Ireland.

A version of this post originally appeared at Fergus’ website.

December 15 2010

16:00

Juanita León on independent journalism and La Silla Vacía, one of Columbia’s first political blogs

Editor’s Note: Our sister publication Nieman Reports is out with its winter issue, which focuses on changes in beat reporting. We’re highlighting a few entries that connect with subjects we follow in the Lab, but we encourage you to read the whole issue. In this piece Juanita León, a 2007 Nieman Fellow, writes about creating a political news blog in Columbia.

I am convinced that the Internet is changing journalism in ways we never could have imagined only a few years ago. The idea of the reported story as being the basic unit of journalism is being shaken by the Web’s way of sharing information, and along with this change comes a rethinking about the concept of the beat itself.

A year and a half ago I set up an investigative political blog called La Silla Vacía (“The Empty Seat”). It is a website dedicated to covering how power is exercised in Colombia and, as such, it serves as a discussion platform about public issues in my country. With a staff of seven — and about 60 unpaid contributors — La Silla Vacía publishes stories that before we existed were not being told. They are the stories that lie behind the news media’s typical daily political reporting.

In the United States, political blogs are too numerous to count. But in Colombia, La Silla Vacía is the first such experiment with sustainable independent journalism. Here, news organizations are concentrated among a few business conglomerates and families with political backgrounds so a news reporting outlet set up by journalists is truly innovative.

Keep reading »

November 10 2010

18:30

Talking Points Memo’s first developer talks startup life, jumping to ProPublica and data journalism

What’s it like being the only in-house techie at a news startup? Talking Points Memo’s first developer Al Shaw says “it’s kind of like being a reporter….you have to be a generalist,” doing everything from ad-side work to election-night interactives.

Shaw was the primary technical force behind most of the bells and whistles that cropped up at TPM over the past two years, including a redesign that lets producers switch up the layout of the homepage, and an array of slick interactives like the real-time election results tracker that made TPM look a lot less like a scrappy startup and more like an establishment outlet on Election Night earlier this month. (Shaw is quick to explain he had some help on the election map from Erik Hinton, TPM’s technical fellow.) He’s also been good about blogging about his technical endeavors in ways that could be useful to his peers at other news organizations.

Shaw announced last month he is leaving TPM to start a new gig at ProPublica, where he’ll keep working on data-driven journalism. On one of his few days off between jobs, I talked with him about what it’s like working for a news startup, what he hopes to accomplish at ProPublica, and where he thinks data journalism is headed. Below is a lightly edited transcript. (Disclosure: I used to work at TPM, before Al started there.)

Laura K. McGann: How did you approach your job at TPM? What did you see as your mission there?

Al Shaw: When I started, I came on as an intern right before the ’08 election. At that point, they didn’t have anyone in house who really knew much about programming or design or software. I came on and I saw an opportunity there because TPM is such a breaking-news site, and their whole goal is to do stuff really fast, that they needed someone to do that, but on the technology side, too.

I had a big role in how we covered the 2008 election. We became able to shift the homepage, rearrange stuff. Being able to really elevate what you can do in blogging software. That was kind of the first foray. Then I started redesigning some of the other sections. But the biggest impact I had was redesigning the homepage. That was about a year ago. I had the same goal of being able to empower the editors and nontechnical types to have a bigger palette of what they can do on the site. I created this kind of meta-CMS on top of the CMS that allowed them to rearrange where columns were and make different sections bigger and smaller without having to get into the code. That really changed the way the homepage works.

There is still Movable Type at the core, but there’s a lot of stuff built up around the sides. When we started to build bigger apps, like the Poll Tracker and election apps, we kind of moved off Movable Type all together and started building in Ruby on Rails and Sinatra. They’re hosted on Amazon EC2, which is a cloud provider.

LKM: What have you built that you’re the most proud of?

AS: Probably the Poll Tracker. It was my first project in Rails. It just had enormous success; it now has 14,000 polls in it. Daily Kos and Andrew Sullivan were using it regularly to embed examples of races they wanted to follow and it really has become a central part of TPM and the biggest poll aggregator on the web now. I worked with an amazing Flash developer, Michiko Swiggs, she did the visual parts of the graph in Flash. I think a lot of it was really new in the way you could manipulate the graph — if you wanted to take out certain pollsters, certain candidates, methods, like telephone or Internet, and then you could see the way the trend lines move. You can embed those custom versions.

I think the election tool was also a huge success [too], both technologically and on the design and journalism side. We got linked to from Daring Fireball. We also got linked to from ReadWriteWeb and a lot of more newsy sites. Andrew Sullivan said it was the best place to watch the elections. Because we took that leap and said we’re not going to use Flash, we got a lot of attention from the technology community. And we got a lot of attention from kind of the more political community because of how useable and engaging the site was. It was kind of a double whammy on that.

LKM: What was your experience working with reporters in the newsroom? TPM is turning ten years old, but it’s still got more of a startup feel than a traditional newspaper.

AS: It’s definitely a startup. I would fade in and out of the newsroom. Sometimes I’d be working on infrastructure projects that dealt with the greater site design or something with the ad side, or something beyond the day-to-day news. But then I’d work with the reporters and editors quite a bit when there was a special project that involved breaking news.

So for example, for the Colbert-Stewart rallies we put up a special Twitter wire where our reporters go out to the rallies and send in tweets and the tweets would get piped into a special wire and they’d go right onto the homepage. I worked with editors on how that wire should feel and how it should work and how reporters should interact with it. I remember one concern was, what if someone accidentally tweets somethng and it ends up on the homepage. How do we delete that? I came up with this system with command hashtags, so a reporter could send in a tweet with a special code on it which would delete a certain tweet and no one else would know about that, except for the reporter.

A lot of the job was figuring out what reporters and editors wanted to do and figuring out how to enable that with the technology we had and with the resources we had.

LKM: I remember an instance in my old newsroom where we had a tweet go up on the front page of another site and the frantic emails trying to get it taken down.

AS: Twitter is such an interesting medium because it’s so immediate, but it’s also permanent. We’re having a lot of fun with it, but we’re still learning how best to do it. We did this thing called multi-wire during the midterms, which was a combination of tweets and blog posts in one stream. There was a lot of experimentation with: When do we tweet as compared to a blog post? Should we restrict it to certain hours? That was a really interesting experiment.

LKM: What emerging trends do you see going on in data-driven or interactive journalism?

AS: It’s really good that a lot of sites are starting to experiment more with data-driven journalism, especially as web frameworks and cheap cloud hosting become more prevalent and you can learn Rails and Django, it’s really easy to get a site up that’s based around data you can collect. I do see two kind of disturbing trends that are also happening. One is the rise of infographics. They may not be as useful as they are pretty. You see that a lot just all over the place now. The other problem you see is the complete opposite of that where you’ll get just a table of data filling up your whole screen. The solution is somewhere in between that. You have a better way of getting into it.

It’s really great that there’s kind of a community forming around people that are both journalists and programmers. There’s this great group called Hacks/Hackers that brings those two cohorts together and lets them learn from each other.

LKM: How about at ProPublica? You mentioned you aren’t sure entirely what you’re going to do, but broadly, what do you hope to accomplish there?

AS: I’m most excited about working more closely with journalists on data sets and finding the best ways of presenting those and turning them into applications. That was one thing I was able to do with Poll Tracker, but it didn’t seem like TPM had as big of a commitment to individual stories that could have side applications. Poll Tracker was more of a long-running project. ProPublica is really into delving deeply onto one subject and finding data that can be turned into an application so the story isn’t just a block of text, there’s another way of getting at it.

One of the other things they’re working on is more tools for crowdsourcing and cultivating sources. I know that they want to start building an app or a series of apps around that. And they’re doing some cool stuff with Amazon Mechanical Turk for kind of normalizing and collecting data. I’m sure there’s going to be a lot more fun stuff to do like that.

November 02 2010

16:00

It’s election night: Here’s what some news orgs (old & new) have planned

It’s election day in the United States, and with election day comes election day coverage. With more media players than ever aiming for their own slice of the audience, here are a few highlights of what they’ve got planned to help you sort through the abundance:

The Washington Post is now the first news organization to purchase a “promoted trend” on Twitter, sponsoring the term #Election. The “promoted trend” will appear at the top of the list of current trends on Twitter with a yellow label clearly marking it as “promoted.” In addition, anyone who does a search for the hashtag will find a tweet from the Post attached to the top of the stream. This is an intriguing and aggressive move for a news organization and it’ll certainly be interesting to see if they can take advantage of the increased election conversation on Twitter to drive traffic.

Twitter is also encouraging its users to report their experience at the polls by using the hashtag #votereport or #NYCvotes for those in New York City. NYC had a lot of trouble in September with the new voting system they unveiled for the primary election. Twitter is pulling together all of this information at TwitterVoteReport.com.

In addition to using Twitter the news startup TBD.com is encouraging its users to help map voting problems by using a piece of software called Crowdmap, as well as through email or submitting a tip directly to their website.

Increasingly social networking sites are creating ways for users to make the act of voting a social activity. Foursquare is offering up an “I Voted” badge for those who check in at their polling place or “shout” that they voted. Foursquare is then visualizing the data in order to “encourage civic participation, increase transparency in the voting process and develop a replicable system for the 2012 Presidential Election.” Twitter is encouraging its users to use the hashtag #ivoted to remind their peers to vote.

Facebook is joining in on the fun as well, reminding users 18 and older to vote today by posting a note in their news feeds and offering a polling place locator.

As usual, The New York Times is going big: Its election maps and charts are elegant, intuitive, and work on the iPad. The Times has also created a neat visualization for exploring election traffic on Twitter. The addition of Nate Silver and his blog FiveThirtyEight to the Times’ politics coverage is sure to be an additional draw to those interested in making sense of all the polling data. Talking Points Memo also has an excellent election results app that’s also not dependent on Flash. This is fitting given that the number of TPM readers on mobile devices is growing.

The Los Angeles Times has an intriguing news application that lets you explore the campaign contributions affiliated with Proposition 19, an initiative in California that would legalize possession and cultivation of marijuana. The app lets you explore the over $4 million in donations and figure out where it all came from.

The Huffington Post is trying to make the midterms even more fun with a “Predict the News” challenge where users can make predictions race by race and then earn points for those they get correct. You can of course challenge your friends through Facebook and Twitter and compare results.

In addition to their homepage, The Wall Street Journal is offering six hours of live video coverage on election night starting at 8 p.m. EST. The coverage will include “real-time news and analysis, live reports from key race locations, interactive maps, and features” and integrate with their iPad app.

And as always there are a wealth of options for election night viewers, especially with many big cable channels and networks supplementing their broadcast coverage with online streaming.

What else is out there? If your news organization has something exciting planned for tonight, let us know about it in the comments.

Photo by John C. Abell used under a Creative Commons license.

October 26 2010

17:50

Will Geo-Location Services Play a Role in Elections?

The experiments that took place with Facebook and Twitter during the 2008 presidential campaign are now viewed as standard operating procedure just two years later. Will the same be said about location-based services come 2012?

Foursquare and Gowalla are the current crowned kings of geo-location and have been getting regular mentions in the tech blogosphere and beyond.



mediashift_politics 2010 small.jpg

Geo-social is very much in its early stages, with smaller adoption rates compared with Twitter and Facebook. But it's still playing a role in this year's elections. Several campaigns have been updating their status with their location in the hope of being seen as on the cutting edge with social media, and as a new way to interact with voters.

The Foursquarian Candidate

Following the news that Chicago Mayor Richard Daley would not seek re-election after more than 20 years in office, digital marketing company Proximity Chicago recently announced a contest to annoint a new mayor using Foursquare.

The Proximity office in downtown Chicago has been dubbed the City of Chicago Mayoral Headquarters. Now people can check in on Foursquare when they are in the vicinity. The more often they check in, the higher they rank. The person with the most check-ins by October 31 becomes the Foursquarian Mayor and receives marketing materials such as logos, slogans, bumper stickers and signage, among other support from Proximity, to actually stage a real run for the job as mayor of Chicago.

The current Foursquarian mayor is Rob Mowry, who over a recent three-day period checked into Proximity's City of Chicago Mayoral Headquarters more than 50 times. Below is a look at some of the tweets and check-ins associated with the contest:

It's a fierce competition and the fact that there are subtle ways of cheating your location means the contest is not without a hat tip to political traditions in Chicago.

"It's still a new enough social media platform that it can be manipulated a little bit," said Kevin Lynch, creative lead at Proximity Chicago, who is heading up the Foursquarian project. "It's not truly a Chicago election without a little bit of controversy. This is in keeping with the established history of the city."

Lynch said in a phone interview that ideally the contest will garner attention for an unknown candidate, or enable a well-known candidate to show constituents they understand how communications work circa 2010. So far Rahm Emanuel and other top tier candidates have not checked in.

The Geo-Social Campaign Toolkit

I Voted Badge.gif

In terms of the larger political season, Foursquare has not released an official badge or program. This is despite an online lobbying effort for the company to develop an "I voted" badge. Gowalla, however, is off to the races with the 2010 campaign toolkit it released in August.

Gowalla's platform was initially adopted by candidates including Charlie Crist, Rick Perry and Jim Ward, with additional candidates jumping on board since.

"It's fun, but also a lot of work," Alejandro Garcia, Gov. Rick Perry's campaign spokesperson, said in a phone interview. "Anything that we feel might be a good tool we try out. It's sometimes hard to pinpoint what works."

The candidates, along with their supporters, can create Gowalla events to check into, including rallies, town halls and other political happenings. Additionally, campaigns can create candidate pages with an open "follow" button on their Gowalla Passports. People that attend fundraisers, meetings and other events receive the candidate's custom passport stamp for their Gowalla passport and an "I Voted" pin on election day.

Despite the buzz around geo-social, there isn't a lot of check-in activity on Crist, Perry and Ward's pages. (Rick Perry currently has 68 Gowalla followers, Charlie Crist has 55 and Jim Ward has 38.) Andy Ellwood, director of business development at Gowalla, said in a phone interview that activity in 2010 might be low, but the potential value for candidates could be significant.

"It's not just an 'I'm at Starbucks in Louisville,' " Ellwood said. "Candidates are pushing these types of initiatives [because] they don't just want their supporters to say they are following them, but to say, 'I've actually decided to use my time and my foot traffic to come out to an event that is specific to the way that I am going to vote in the elections.' "

Some critics argue that it's just too early for geo-social to make a big impact in the 2010 elections, and that the small number of early Foursquare and Gowalla adopters won't likely reach enough voters to justify a campaign's time and money.

All that suggests geo-social could still be a big thing come 2012.

Steven Davy is the web content editor at The World, a BBC,WGBH,PRI co-production. He is also the developer of Exploring Conversations, a multimedia website examining the language of music. He is the politics correspondent for MediaShift.

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October 25 2010

17:12

GOP Beating Democrats with Social Media for Midterm Elections

There is a major shift going on in politics this election cycle, with more candidates and campaigns using social media and technology to boost their chances. From today until the U.S. midterm elections on Nov. 2, MediaShift presents an in-depth special report, PoliticalShift 2010, with data visualizations, analysis, a 5Across video roundtable and live CoverItLive chat on Election Night with special guests. Stay tuned.

If 2008 was the year that social networks like Facebook and Twitter broke through to mainstream America, then 2010 is shaping up to be the election year that's defined by social media.

Consider that three out of five Americans who consider themselves somewhat politically active are members of a social network, and 70 percent of them expect to vote on Nov. 2, according to a recent study from the E-Voter Institute.

mediashift_politics 2010 small.jpg

Meanwhile, a report from the non-partisan HeadCount.org shows Republicans appear to be more engaged online than Democrats in this election cycle. Out of the current crop of Senate candidates, the Republicans have more than 1.4 million friends on Facebook and over 500,000 followers on Twitter.

By contrast, the Democratic Senate candidates have roughly 300,000 friends on Facebook and around 90,000 followers on Twitter as of September 21. Use the interactive chart below to compare the social media clout of current Democratic, Independent and Republican Senate candidates:

Social Media Senate Snapshot
Social Media Senate Snapshot

You can also track Facebook page stats by using the Facebook Page Leaderboard over at AllFacebook.com. The site also provides an interactive 2010 election guide made using Facebook stats. And you can find the top Twitter rankings and stats at Twitaholic.

Republicans On the Rise

Campaign Spending Pie Chart, 99% of ads offline and 1% online

Democrats were early adopters of social media, user-generated content and blogging, but it appears that Republican supporters have caught up with, and in some ways surpassed, their rivals online. In seven of the eight races listed as toss-ups by the New York Times on Oct. 21, the Facebook fan gap has widened over the past month. Also worth watching are the difficult-to-poll three-way race in Alaska and the race in California, which was used by Nate Silver over at FiveThirtyEight as a case study on last-minute comebacks.

In contrast to the 2008 presidential elections, many campaigns are choosing traditional forms of political advertising instead of online ads. "This year, ascendant Republicans are flush with cash," wrote Mike Shields at AdWeek. "So why not spend big on TV and use the web for its free communications platforms." Shields cited a Borrell Associates estimate that about $44 million would be spent on web ads but that would make up a miniscule fraction of total ad spending this year.

Who Are the Social Media Rock Stars?

Use the interactive chart below to see how the most popular politicians and political parties measure up online. How do they compare to other widely followed sometimes controversial public figures?

Who Is A Social Media Rockstar?
Who Is A Social Media Rockstar?

How are voters using social media in 2010 and what do they expect of politicians? Use the interactive chart below to see how the Web is changing politics.

A Look At Voter Participation and Expectations
A Look At Voter Participation and Expectations

Outside of the Senate candidates, the Republicans have several social media rock stars, while the Democrats have just one. Although @barackobama has more online friends and followers than any American politician, several Democratic heavy-hitters are sitting on the sidelines while Republicans are revving up their political base.

Vice President Joe Biden's Twitter account went silent shortly before he was chosen by Obama as a running mate in August 2008. And while Hillary Clinton does not appear to have a working Facebook or Twitter account (outside of occasional quotes on the @StateDept Twitter feed), Sarah Palin tops 2 million fans on Facebook and @SarahPalinUSA has over 280,000 followers

Mitt Romney, the former Governor of Massachusetts, has more Facebook friends than Bill Clinton, the 42nd President of the United States. President Clinton's Twitter account -- assuming it is not a fake -- is set to private and is punching way below its weight.

Senator John McCain has two active Twitter accounts with a combined total over 1.73 million followers. They are @TeamMcCain for his Senate re-election campaign and @SenJohnMcCain.

About the Data

In the interest of openness and transparency, I am making the curated data set available as a public Google Spreadsheet. If you use it, be sure to cite the original sources. The data used in the above visualizations come from several primary sources:

E-Voter Institute -- The E-Voter Institute is a non-partisan trade association founded in 1999 to advance the interests of web publishers and solution providers within the political and advocacy communities. They worked with HCD Research to survey more than 1,500 people on a range of issues related to technology and politics. The Fifth Annual Survey of Voter Expectations was released in September of 2010. You can download a free version of the report: Executive Summary (PDF)

HeadCount -- HeadCount is a nonpartisan 501©(3) organization that registers voters at concerts and works with musicians to promote participation in democracy. Since the HeadCount report was published in late September, the Facebook fan and Twitter follower counts for 10 races and 22 selected politicians, political parties or public figures were updated by hand on Oct. 21. You can download a free copy of the full report: G.O.P. Winning Social Media Battle By Wide Margin (PDF)

Borrell Associates -- The company's 2010 Political Advertising Outlook was widely cited in media reports.

******

Do you think that social media will play a large role in future elections? Does social media engagement translate into volunteer work, campaign contributions and voter turnout? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Anthony Calabrese is journalist based in Washington, D.C., who specializes in data visualization and digital storytelling. He works as a web producer for the State of the USA where he blogs about measuring the nation's progress. Previously, he worked as a data researcher on the Best Colleges and Best Graduate Schools publications at U.S. News & World Report. He holds a master's degree in interactive journalism from American University and is an active member of the Online News Association.

You can connect on LinkedIn, find him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter @2mrw

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August 16 2010

14:30

The Guardian launches governmental pledge-tracking tool

Since it came to office nearly 100 days ago, Britain’s coalition government — a team-up between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats that had the potential to be awkward and ineffective, but has instead (if The Economist’s current cover story is to be believed) emerged as “a radical force” on the world stage — has made 435 pledges, big and small, to its constituents.

In the past, those pledges might have gone the way of so many campaign promises: broken. But no matter — because also largely forgotten.

The Guardian, though, in keeping with its status as a data journalism pioneer, has released a tool that tries to solve the former problem by way of the latter. Its pledge-tracker, a sortable database of the coalition’s various promises, monitors the myriad pledges made according to their individual status of fulfillment: “In Progress,” “In Trouble,” “Kept,” “Not Kept,” etc. The pledges tracked are sortable by topic (civil liberties, education, transport, security, etc.) as well as by the party that initially proposed them. They’re also sortable — intriguingly, from a future-of-context perspective — according to “difficulty level,” with pledges categorized as “difficult,” “straightforward,” or “vague.”

Status is the key metric, though, and assessments of completion are marked visually as well as in text. The “In Progress” note shows up in green, for example; the “Not Kept” shows up in red. Political accountability, meet traffic-light universality.

The tool “needs to be slightly playful,” notes Simon Jeffery, The Guardian’s story producer, who oversaw the tool’s design and implementation. “You need to let the person sitting at the computer actually explore it and look at what they’re interested in — because there are over 400 things in there.”

The idea was inspired, Jeffery wrote in a blog post explaining the tool, by PolitiFact’s Obameter, which uses a similar framework for keeping the American president accountable for individual promises made. Jeffery came up with the idea of a British-government version after May’s general election, which not only gave the U.S.’s election a run for its money in terms of political drama, but also occasioned several interactive projects from the paper’s editorial staff. They wanted to keep that multimedia trajectory going. And when the cobbled-together new government’s manifesto for action — a list of promises agreed to and offered by the coalition — was released as a single document, the journalists had, essentially, an instant data set.

“And the idea just came from there,” Jeffery told me. “It seemed almost like a purpose-made opportunity.”

Jeffery began collecting the data for the pledge-tracker at the beginning of June, cutting and pasting from the joint manifesto’s PDF documents. Yes, manually. (“That was…not much fun.”) In a tool like this — which, like PolitiFact’s work, merges subjective and objective approaches to accountability — context is crucial. Which is why the pledge-tracking tool includes with each pledge a “Context” section: “some room to explain what this all means,” Jeffery says. That allows for a bit of gray (or, since we’re talking about The Guardian, grey) to seep, productively, into the normally black-and-white constraints that define so much data journalism. One health care-related pledge, for example — “a 24/7 urgent care service with a single number for every kind of care” — offers this helpful context: “The Department of Health draft structural reform plan says preparations began in July 2010 and a new 111 number for 24/7 care will be operational in April 2012.” It also offers, for more background, a link to the reform plan.

To aggregate that contextual information, Jeffery consulted with colleagues who, by virtue of daily reporting, are experts on immigration, the economy, and the other topics covered by the manifesto’s pledges. “So I was able to work with them and just say, ‘Do you know about this?’ ‘Do you know about that?’ and follow things up.”

The tool isn’t perfect, Jeffery notes; it’s intended to be “an ongoing thing.” The idea is to provide accountability that is, in particular, dynamic: a mechanism that allows journalists and everyone else to “go back to it on a weekly or fortnightly basis and look at what has been done — and what hasn’t been done.” Metrics may change, he says, as the political situation does. In October, for example, the coalition government will conclude an external spending review that will help crystallize its upcoming budget, and thus political, priorities — a perfect occasion for tracker-based follow-up stories. But the goal for the moment is to gather feedback and work out bugs, “rather than having a perfectly finished product,” Jeffery says. “So it’s a living thing.”

July 30 2010

18:00

WikiLeaks and continuity: What if we had a news outlet exclusively focused on follow-up journalism?

In his assessment of the journalistic implications of the WikiLeaked Afghanistan War Logs earlier this week, Jay Rosen made a provocative prediction:

Reaction will be unbearably lighter than we have a right to expect — not because the story isn’t sensational or troubling enough, but because it’s too troubling, a mess we cannot fix and therefore prefer to forget…. The mental model on which most investigative journalism is based states that explosive revelations lead to public outcry; elites get the message and reform the system. But what if elites believe that reform is impossible because the problems are too big, the sacrifices too great, the public too distractible? What if cognitive dissonance has been insufficiently accounted for in our theories of how great journalism works…and often fails to work?

It’s early still, of course, but it’s all too likely that Rosen’s forecast — the leaked documents, having exploded, dissolving into a system ill-equipped to deal with them — will prove accurate. I hope we’ll be wrong. In the meantime, though, it’s worth adding another layer to Rosen’s analysis: the role of journalists themselves in the leaked documents’ framing and filtering. If, indeed, the massive tree that is WikiLeaks has fallen in an empty forest, that will be so not only because of the dynamic between public opinion and political elites who often evade it; it will also be because of the dynamic between public opinion and those who shape it. It will be because of assumptions (sometimes outdated assumptions) journalists make about their stories’ movement through, and life within, the world. The real challenge we face isn’t an empty forest; it’s a forest so full — so blooming with growth, so booming with noise — that we forget what a toppling tree sounds like in the first place.

Publication, publicity

It used to be that print and broadcast culture, in general, offered journalists a contained — which is to say, automatic — audience for their work. When you have subscribers and regular viewers, their loyalty insured by the narrowness of the media marketplace, you have the luxury of ignoring, essentially, the distribution side of journalism. The corollary being that you also have the luxury of assuming that your journalism, once published, will effect change in the world. Automatically.

And investigative journalism, in particular, whether conducted by Bly or Bernstein or Bogdanich, generally operated under the sunshine-as-Lysol theory of distribution: outrageous discoveries lead to outraged publics lead to chastened power brokers lead to social change. (For more on that, give a listen to the most recent Rebooting the News podcast.) Journalism was a lever of democracy; publication was publicity, and thus, as well, the end of an outlet’s commitment to its coverage. The matter of distribution, of a big story’s movement through the culture, wasn’t generally for journalists to address.

Which was a matter of practicality, sure — as a group, reporters are necessarily obsessed with newness, and have always been stalked by The Next Story — but also one of design. There’s a fine line, the thinking went, between amplification of a story and advocacy of it; the don’t-shoot-the-messenger rhetoric of institutional newsgathering holds up only so long as the messengers in question maintain the appropriate distance from the news they’re delivering. And one way to maintain that distance was a structured separation from stories via a framework of narrative containment. Produce, publish, move on.

The web, though, to repeat its ur-observation, is changing all that. Digital platforms — blogs, most explicitly, but also digital journalism vehicles as a collective — have introduced a more iterative form of storytelling that subtly challenges print and broadcast assumptions of conceptual confinement. For journalists like Josh Marshall and Glenn Greenwald and other modern-day muckrakers, to be a journalist is also, implicitly, to be an advocate. And, so, focusing on the follow-up aspect of journalism — not just starting fires, but keeping them alive — has been foundational to their work. Increasingly, in the digital media economy, good journalists find stories. The better ones keep them going. The best keep them burning.

And yet, to return to the WikiLeaks question, that ethos of continuity hasn’t generally caught on in the culture more broadly — among journalists or their audiences. And one reason for that is the matter of momentum, the editorial challenge of maintaining reader interest in a given subject over a long period of time. Political issues caught in congressional inertias, military campaigns that stretch from months to years, social issues that hide in plain sight — their temporality itself becomes a problem to be solved. There’s a reason why, to take the most infamous example, political campaigns are so often indistinguishable from an episode of “Toddlers and Tiaras“: campaigns being year-long affairs (longer now, actually: Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee are probably digging into Maid-Rite loose-meats as I type), journalists often focus on their trivialities/conflicts/etc. not necessarily because they think that focus leads to good journalism, but because they think, probably correctly, that it sustains their audiences’ attention as election season slogs on.

Which is all to say — and not to put too expansive a point on it, but — time itself poses a challenge to the traditional notion of “the story.” Continuity and containment aren’t logical companions; stories end, but the world they cover goes on. The platform is ill-suited to the project.

Followupstories.org?

While addressing that problem head-on is no easy task — it’s both systemic and cultural, and thus extra-difficult to solve — I’d like to end with a thought experiment (albeit a small, tentative, just-thinking-out-loud one). What if we had an outlet dedicated to continuity journalism — a news organization whose sole purpose was to follow up on stories whose sheer magnitude precludes them from ongoing treatment by our existing media outlets? What if we took the PolitiFact model — a niche outfit dedicated not to a particular topic or region, but to a particular practice — and applied it to following up on facts, rather than checking them? What if we had an outlet dedicated to reporting, aggregating, and analyzing stories that deserve our sustained attention — a team of reporters and researchers and analysts and engagement experts whose entire professional existence is focused on keeping those deserving stories alive in the world?

Sure, you could say, bloggers both professional and amateur already do that kind of follow-up work; legacy news outlets themselves do, too. But: they don’t do it often enough, or systematically enough. (That’s a big reason why it’s so easy to forget that war still rages in Iraq, that 12.6 percent of Americans live below the poverty line, etc.) They often lack incentive to, say, localize a story like the War Logs for their readers. Or to contextualize it. Or to, in general, continue its existence. An independent outlet — and, hey, this being a thought experiment, “independent outlet” could also include a dedicated blog on a legacy outlet’s website — wouldn’t prevent other news shops from doing follow-up work on their own stories or anyone else’s, just as PolitiFact’s presence doesn’t preclude other outlets from engaging in fact-checking. A standalone shop would, however, serve as a kind of social safety net — an insurance policy against apathy.

As Lab contributor C.W. Anderson remarked on Monday: “I wonder what it would take for a story like the ‘War Logs’ bombshell to stick around in the public mind long enough for it to mean something.”

I do, too. I’d love to find out.

Photo of U.S. soldiers in Pana, Afghanistan, by the U.S. Army. Photo of Jay Rosen by Joi Ito. Both used under a Creative Commons license.

June 08 2010

21:00

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

Interesting pitch on Spot.us today:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 03 2010

20:00

Articles of incorporation: Nate Silver and Jim Roberts on the NYT’s absorption of FiveThirtyEight

Big news today: Wonderblog FiveThirtyEight is moving on up, to The New York Times. Later this summer — probably in early August — FTE’s statistictastic posts will be found in the politics section of nytimes.com.

So, yes, blogger-gone-mainstream, in the manner of an Ezra Klein or, at the Times, a Brian Stelter. Except there’s a key difference between the bought-up-blogger phenomenon and Silver’s arrangement with the Times: The paper hasn’t hired Silver, per se. Rather, it’s licensed FiveThirtyEight, the blog — and only temporarily, no less. As Silver put it in a post announcing the acquisition earlier today, “The partnership agreement, which is structured as a license, has a term of three years.”

That agreement makes the terms of deal, even beyond the acquisition itself, a noteworthy thing in a world of ascendant bloggers and portable brands. (The Freakonomics blog, which moved to the Times in 2007 under a similar brand-licensing arrangement, is the clearest analog we could think of, although Andrew Sullivan’s peripatetic blogging also comes to mind.) As Jim Roberts, the Times’s digital editor, puts it: “It is unusual — there’s no question. Certainly, for the newsroom, I can’t think of anything like it.”

And that makes the negotiations involved in the partnership — those that have already occurred, and those still to come, as FiveThirtyEight integrates into the NYT and vice versa — both tricky and, at the same time, rather fascinating. When two brands plan to marry, who determines the rules of engagement?

Negotiating a partnership

On the one hand, “the fact that it’s a licensing agreement reflects the fact that, in the long run, we retain flexibility,” Silver told me. “And in the short run we retain a certain amount of control over voice and the type of content and material that we cover.”

At the same time, though, “I don’t want to convey the impression that we won’t be subject to New York Times editorial standards. It will be different in the sense that their philosophy is that everything that goes up on their website has to be read by another set of eyes — and I don’t count as that set of eyes.”

As Roberts told me: “We are an edited news organization, and so Nate will be edited — and his contributors will be edited, as well.” The details of that are still being worked out, but “it’s not like we’re just pulling this thing over and letting it run. It will be integrated into our political website, it will be integrated into our political voice, and [Silver] will be working with editors on the national desk and our Washington bureau and political operation.”

And the integration works both ways. “I also think that we can help him take his blog to a new level,” Roberts says. “There’s a real startup quality to FiveThirtyEight. And we’ve got a giant infrastructure here of graphics editors, multimedia producers, interactive technologists — a lot of people who are big fans of Nate Silver and FiveThirtyEight, who are really eager to work with him. They’ll make his blog better — and I hope we can incorporate some of his insights in different ways in other parts of the website.”

“It’s significant that we’re organized under News rather than Opinion,” Silver points out. That implies, he says, “that there’s going to be more rather than less integration in terms of the overall voice of what the Times is saying. Rather than being “an island within The New York Times,” Silver says, “I think it’s going to be one of the many stations that people pass through as they commute around the site.”

The partnership, as any good one will, should benefit both parties. FiveThirtyEight has “a devoted following of people who I think are kind of like-minded in terms of their interest in our reporting,” Roberts points out. For Silver’s part, he gets the broad readership of the Times — and prime real estate under the banner of the nation’s paper of record. The three-year term of the arrangement will allow FiveThirtyEight to cover the upcoming elections of 2010 — they’re currently building a new model to try to forecast the House and Senate midterm outcomes, Silver says — and 2012. In the meantime, it will also allow Silver to apply his model-driven approach to sports, pop culture, and other arenas. (His post on KFC’s delightfully disgusting Double Down sandwich is FiveThirtyEight’s most-trafficked post of all time, he told me.) “So I think you might see a different version of the website in 2011 than you do in 2010,” he says. Ultimately, “I think we’ll continue to surprise people and evolve around a number of different dimensions.”

The Amtrak platform in Boston

The partnership began ten weeks ago, when Silver and Times magazine editor Gerry Marzorati ran into each other while waiting for an Amtrak train in Boston; the initial idea was that Silver would write some pieces for the magazine.

“Within the course of a couple of days,” though, says Roberts, “we were thinking much bigger. I don’t know if we knew at that moment that [incorporating FiveThirtyEight] would be the outcome — but…when we met him and saw that there were just some natural fits, it felt really good.”

Still, “it really took a lot of time to hammer this out,” Silver notes. The Times wasn’t his only suitor; there were other offers from other outlets. “It wasn’t an auction; it wasn’t all about the money, or anything like that,” he says. “We had interest from different people, who represent very different kinds of propositions as far as what they think about media.” Though he won’t go into detail, he notes that “the offers were also very different — not just in a quantitative sense, but a qualitative one. So it just took a lot of time to sort through.”

And: “It was a competitive situation up until the very end.”

Now that the deal’s been done, though, the partnership can really begin. “I know they’re excited, and I’m really excited,” Silver says. “So now we get to do the fun stuff: start to work on the design of the blog instead of working out the contractual deals.”

[Image via jdlasica under a Creative Commons license]

May 28 2010

08:53

BBC College of Journalism blog: The problems with reporting a coalition government

The BBC College of Journalism’s Jon Jacob raises some interesting points about journalists’ coverage of the UK’s new coalition government:

  • “The coalition is still in its early days. It’s easy to forget how the business of reporting the coalition agreement has overshadowed the true schedule of government business;”
  • “[S]hould journalists actually continue referencing the government ministers they talk about in their reports – including in vision graphics and on-air announcements - to illustrate how ideologies differ within a coalition government?”

When can the media stop referring to it as a coalition government or is there a danger in doing so?

Full post at this link…

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08:39

April 13 2010

18:46

How #Spill Effect Brought Color, Collaboration to Media Tweets

Twitter distinguished itself as an important new platform for breaking political news in Australia during the Great #Spill of 2009. This is the second installment in a MediaShift series on the "#spill effect." (You can read the first part here.) It draws on a case study of the event and includes online interviews with eight tweeting journalists who are prominent members of the Canberra Press Gallery.

"#Spill" was the hashtag used to amalgamate Twitter coverage of the scalping of federal conservative leader Malcolm Turnbull, and the elevation of Tony Abbott to the leadership of Australia's opposition party, the Liberal-National Coalition. But behind the frenzied tweeting of the spectacular unraveling of the Turnbull leadership was another story -- a story about the coverage itself, which demonstrated the transformative effect this micro-blogging platform is having on Australian political journalism. It's a story that made news again last week when Malcolm Turnbull announced his resignation from politics, via Twitter, of course.

How Twitter Impacts Australian Reporting

I've concluded that Twitter is having a transformative effect on Australian political reporting -- but not all Press Gallery journalists agree. While acknowledging the emergence of journalistic audience engagement via Twitter, Samantha Maiden, the chief online political correspondent for Rupert Murdoch's The Australian, described it as just another reporting platform. She downplayed the impact of the #spill story on political reporting.

"Ultimately, Twitter is just a means...of delivering the news. In that sense it is silly to suggest [the #spill] reinvented the wheel in some way," she said.


Nevertheless, Latika Bourke, a Press Gallery correspondent for national commercial radio, who watched her Twitter followers double during the week-long story (to more than 2,000), said Twitter's role in the coverage proved it's here to stay as a journalistic tool.

"For many of us, Twitter was the aside, or extra-curricular part of our job; but now there will be the expectation that when the big stories are on, we'll be there, tweeting as a priority," Bourke said.

speers.jpg

Sky TV's David Speers -- who demonstrated the central role of Twitter in the coverage of the story by tweeting live to air in the middle of an interview and using his smartphone to read the tweet of a competitor mid-commentary -- said Twitter adds to the value of coverage and the reporting experience, rather than detracting from them.

"Obviously speeches, debates and essays will always be important," he said. "And they will always be there. Twitter isn't taking anything away from traditional political discourse. It's adding something new. And it's fun."

The Need for Speed & Color

Speed was the most commonly described effect of Twitter on the political reporting process. It even out-paced frenetic radio news reporters. "I thought working in radio [that] I knew what 'instant' meant, but that's been completely redefined now that I've covered the spill via Twitter," Bourke observed.

The Age's political correspondent, Mischa Schubert, agreed that Twitter-speed was a factor in the #spill coverage.

"It accelerated the pace of coverage, that's for sure," she said. "Where once a lot of details would have been hoarded for the next day's newspapers, color that wouldn't hold was broadcast instantly in tweets and on [media organizations'] websites."

The benefits of value-adding tweets with "color" was also highlighted by others. "If you took a straw poll on which journalists were the most popular -- and this was debated by Twitter users -- journalists breaking news with a mix of color and telling observation were always in the top three," Maiden said. "Users aren't that interested in someone who just tweets a couple of lines from a doorstop or the Senate debates."

But some political news reporters are "coloring" outside the lines on Twitter. Australian Associated Press's (AAP) Sandra O'Malley said opinion and commentary are seeping into news reporters' tweets.

sandra.jpg"There was...much more opining on the political players than during 'normal,' straight reporting," O'Malley said of the #spill coverage. She highlighted the impact of the clash of the personal and the professional in the space, and the challenge it poses to traditional journalistic values like objectivity, as I've previously reported.

However, Lyndal Curtis, the chief political correspondent of ABC Radio's current affairs programs, said the act of tweeting political news hasn't altered her reporting habits, such as an unbending commitment to fact-checking; but she's pleased to have "another audience to speak to," and she acknowledges the humanizing effect of tweeting.

"It allows me some more latitude to be a person, and an outlet for some humor," she said. The amusement value of Twitter -- and Press Gallery journalists' tendency to merge satire and reportage in the interests of entertaining one another and their new, individual audiences -- was mentioned by several of the interviewees.

The need for even greater multi-tasking by journalists in the age of the real-time web was also noted.

"One observation that amazed me was watching a few people -- @sarahwiley8 @latikambourke @bennpackham -- standing at doorstops with their digital recorder in one hand and single-handedly tweeting with the other!" O'Malley said.

A number of the journalists commented on the fact that Twitter, with its live reporting capacity and its aggregated news feeds, has enabled them to be less tethered to their desks. They can roam to gather information face-to-face and more accurately assess atmospherics, all while staying informed.

karen middleton tweet.jpg

This, in turn, encouraged the journalists to practice what I've observed elsewhere is the tendency to lay bare reporting the process on Twitter by discussing journalistic strategies, dilemmas and difficulties. In the case of the #spill, this was demonstrated by the journalists complaining about efforts to keep them away from the Coalition Party Room, where Malcolm Turnbull's fate was ultimately sealed.

Twitter Collegiality

One of the strongest themes to emerge from my survey of the eight tweeting Press Gallery reporters who covered #spill was a deepening of relationships between journalists from different media organizations. They spoke of the increased camaraderie and collegiality fostered through the sharing of skills and information.

"We all shared information, respected each other's scoops by re-tweeting them, and [as a result] the relationships and trust between journalists deepened," Bourke said.

crabb.jpgSenior Press Gallery journalist Annabel Crabb agreed, noting that, "It brings competitors closer together, in that we read each other's updates. I certainly was glued to @samanthamaiden, @latikambourke and @David_Speers as well as talking to my own colleagues."

Instead of having to finagle details of their competitors' reporting progress and framing of the story, they just watched their tweet streams. This was particularly beneficial to junior Press Gallery reporters like Bourke, who said she was able to break news of the leadership ballots' likely outcome as a direct result of following the very connected Speers' Twitter feed.

"It was like suddenly having all the pieces to a puzzle that I only needed to put together, instead of having just a few, and trying to paint in the blanks," she said.

Speers was unconcerned by this development.

"Journalists usually save any information they have for the stories they're writing," he said. "But on Twitter, political journalists share what they know. I think this is mostly driven by the competitive urge of journalists to be the first to break news, even if it's only a minor development."

Collaborative Storytelling

This collaborative storytelling between journalists from competing outlets is one of the most significant changes in political reporting that has come as a result of Twitter. As Crabb said:

The fracturing media market means that we now assume our readers are shopping around. I think the healthy aspect of this -- and it's a great outcome for consumers -- is that journalists are dropping the traditional and childish approach of pretending that their competitors do not exist -- ignoring a rival's scoop, and so on. I will happily retweet a competitor's update if I think my readers will find it interesting. I think this is an emerging and refreshing trend.

But, as much as Twitter is breaking down old modes of competitiveness in political reporting, it's also fostering a new, sharper edged form of competition for news-breaking.

"Already, newspapers are racing to bring online updates to their websites ahead of their competitors, but Twitter brings a second-by-second competitiveness that is even more challenging," Crabb said.

And this resulted in media outlets like the ABC running an aggregated tweet-stream (via Twitter lists) of Press Gallery journalists' Twitter feeds, including those from rival outlets, on the ABC website. This caused concern within some sections of the ABC News and Current Affairs department, because journalists from competing networks are not bound by the same editorial policies and standards as ABC reporters. There was a feeling that this aggregation threatened the independence and credibility of ABC News' website content. Legal risks associated with carrying competitors' unchecked and unfiltered tweets were also raised.

Consequences of Kicking Down Walls

There's a potentially significant downside to what Crikey's Bernard Keane identified as Twitter's "flattening effect" for commercial media. He fears it will further undermine traditional media business models.

"What's the point of a newspaper site, or even Sky News, if you can get a direct feed virtually from inside the party room?" he said. "It's true that quality political coverage remains one of the few competitive advantages old media has over new media."

In other words, political reporting may be one of the niche beats that is able to justify pay wall protection -- but the unrestrained sharing of information across media stable walls by competing journalists via Twitter may make that unsustainable.

This was also an issue raised by Lyndal Curtis, ABC Radio's chief political correspondent. "I think it's my responsibility to write and file first for the organization that pays me ... and that audience," she said. "So I didn't put anything up of an exclusive scoop nature on Twitter that I hadn't already filed."

But Speers disagrees.

"It's not like journalists are simply giving away their work," he said. "Their tweets often point to a story they've just posted on a website or broadcast on radio or TV. So it can still direct traffic to the outlet paying their salary."

It's also true that, in the social media age where the real-time web reigns supreme and mashing up information from myriad sources seems like an irreversible trend, news organizations will have to come to terms with this sort of content aggregation and amalgamation in a way which best serves their audiences and their bottom lines.

Backlash from the AAP

In fact, in the aftermath of the publication of first installment of this series on MediaShift, Sandra O'Malley's employer, AAP, issued an edict requiring Press Gallery reporters to get permission prior to tweeting about their work -- even from their personal Twitter accounts. The fear was the wire service's journalistic brand and competitive edge would be eroded by reporters' real-time tweeting and cross-stable collaboration.

The AAP crackdown foreshadows the likely development of anachronistic Reuters-style guidelines for tweeting reporters. Censoring journalists' tweets when they've been at it for many months smacks of trying to re-stable a horse that's bolted, and also raises questions about the rights of journalists to free speech. (The subject of a future post.)

However, while some Press Gallery journalists' coverage of the Twitter effect on political reporting highlights residual pockets of change-resistance, proof of its impact came this week in the form of one of the country's most celebrated political reporters, the 9 Network's Laurie Oakes. He became an active tweeter and filed an insightful mainstream TV news report on the "Twitterization" of Australian politics.

In the third and final installment of this MediaShift series, I'll examine the role of citizen tweeters, participatory democracy and audience engagement in coverage of the #spill, along with the political reporters' management of the issues of accuracy and verification, which are so often seen as downsides of Twitter journalism.

More Reading

The #Spill Effect - Twitter Hashtag Upends Australian Political Journalism

Julie Posetti is an award winning journalist and journalism academic who lectures in radio and television reporting at the University of Canberra, Australia. She's been a national political correspondent, a regional news editor, a TV documentary reporter and presenter on radio and television with the Australian national broadcaster, the ABC. Her academic research centers on talk radio, public broadcasting, political reporting and broadcast coverage of Muslims post-9/11. She blogs at J-Scribe and you can follow her on Twitter.

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