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June 28 2013

14:00

ProPublica introduces a magazine to reach new readers on mobile

propublicamagProPublica wants to get in the magazine business.

The investigative news nonprofit is launching a monthly digital magazine for iOS devices that will collect the best of its reporting on current topics in the news. The first issue of ProPublica The Magazine, “In the Crosshairs,” is focused on war and gun violence, with stories on drone strikes and the Guatemalan civil war.

ProPublica The Magazine is free and will be delivered via Apple’s Newsstand. And that, more than developing a new line of revenue, is the point for ProPublica: finding a new avenue to reach readers. Specifically, as ProPublica president Dick Tofel told me, to get mobile readers.

“The real point is this puts us in the Newsstand, that pushes us to people, which we hope is a big plus,” he said.

As a news organization, ProPublica has always used partnerships with others to spread its work to new readers. But as the site has matured, staffers have invested more time in building their own audience. A big area of desired growth, Tofel told me, is in mobile, and on iOS devices in particular.

The way Tofel sees it, the magazine is like a monthly version of ProPublica’s work packaging stories for ebooks. But the magazine will allow ProPublica to be a little more timely, while also being thematic around issues that are important to readers. Or, Tofel puts it another way, “It’s a little like This American Life, where he does those multi-story episodes.”

ProPublica is not alone in wanting to develop a product that can repackage reporting and is a good fit for mobile devices. Earlier in June, The Atlantic introduced The Atlantic Weekly, which collects the work of The Atlantic, The Atlantic Wire, and The Atlantic Cities for $2.99 a month. ProPublica partnered with 29th Street Publishing to create the magazine. The company, which has also helped publishers like The Awl create magazines for iOS, uses a relatively lightweight CMS that makes it easy for publishers to transform existing stories into mobile-friendly reads.

Since ProPublica isn’t bringing on additional staff to produce the monthly magazine, they needed something easy to use, said Krista Kjellman Schmidt, ProPublica’s deputy news apps editor. Schmidt will be responsible for preparing the magazine each month, working with other editors to identify a theme and combing through ProPublica’s archive to select the best stories. Schmidt said she’s already at work on the second issue, which looks at race and housing in America. “These stories we’re trying to patch together in a new way so readers can see the long arc of an investigation,” she said.

Schmidt said the magazine is an experiment for ProPublica. While they have an iPhone app, many readers also prefer reading the site on a mobile browser. The magazine puts ProPublica into another venue on iOS devices in Newsstand, setting it up to be discovered by new readers. The richer magazine-like design encourages publishers to find new ways to curate stories and push users to read deeply, she said. Schmidt said they decided to deliver the magazine monthly to gauge reader interest and how the production process fits into their other routines. She said they’ll evaluate the project over the course of the next year.

June 26 2013

18:43

Three lessons from ProPublica on how to run a successful journalism Kickstarter

ProPublica’s Blair Hickman writes about what the news nonprofit learned running its first Kickstarter project. (At this writing, with 18 hours left to go, it’s just $521 short of its $22,000 goal, making funding almost certain.)

Twenty-nine days ago, ProPublica launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to hire an intern to help us investigate unpaid internships — an issue that has regained national attention with a flurry of new lawsuits following a key ruling against Fox Searchlight Pictures.

If our Kickstarter succeeds, our intern will spend the fall semester traveling around the country, tracking these cases and documenting interns’ stories for a microsite on the intern economy. They’ll blog about their journey, the investigative process and their learning experience as an intern — a unique opportunity for our newsroom, and this intern.

We’ll know tomorrow at 9:32 AM ET whether our campaign was a success — as of this writing, we are just over $3,000 away from meeting our goal, and per Kickstarter’s rules, we have to raise the full $22,000, or we get nothing.

Regardless of the outcome, we’ve learned a lot through our first foray into project-based crowdfunding. Here’s some of what we’ve learned:

Your project should be creative and well defined

ProPublica has pondered Kickstarter crowdfunding for years. One of our biggest hurdles is that Kickstarter campaigns work best for concrete, defined projects – a documentary, another season of a podcast or a new level of a video game.

But investigative journalists often don’t know what their reporting will yield. We’re sifting through more than 360 detailed tips from interns or people whose career plans changed because they couldn’t afford to take an unpaid internship, but we don’t yet know exactly what our stories will be.

We were fortunate that for this particular investigation, a substantial piece of the story is hidden in plain sight. Millions of Americans have completed internships, many of which were unpaid. We think capturing their stories and voices through an interactive microsite gives us a tangible way to define the project for our Kickstarter backers and add impact to our overall investigation.

It’s also been tough for us to pitch the internship as an all-or-nothing project — a key Kickstarter funding factor — because we are committed to reporting this story, even if we don’t get to hire our intern. But it’s a Catch-22 we can live with.

(For some other great examples of successful journalism projects, check out Roman Mars’ 99% Invisible, Decode DC and Matter.)

Creative rewards and crunching the numbers

Donor rewards are a crucial part of Kickstarter’s model, and we tried to be creative and strategic about what we offered at different levels. Think $25: get a T-shirt. $50: get early access to a podcast. $5,000: get a project-related celebrity to speak at an event.

The best rewards make backers feel like they’ve benefited from a project they helped make possible. For journalism projects, this could include access to the editorial process, tote bags or t-shirts with custom project designs or special, real-time updates on the reporting.

But you need to make sure to figure out how you’ll pay for your rewards. Does your marketing budget cover them, or will your Kickstarter funds need to cover those costs?

Once you set your fundraising goal, make sure the cost of your rewards fit within your overall budget. If you’re going to offer a T-shirt or a postcard, figure out how much that will cost, including shipping. (We were a bit surprised at how much shipping increased the cost.)

Then compare that unit cost to income projections, and an estimated number of backers. We found it useful to compile all of this in a spreadsheet that let us tweak rewar costs until it fit our budget (we set a limit of 10 percent to be spent on rewards).

Mobilize your readers and networks

How are you going to raise awareness about your Kickstarter campaign? Our game plan included social networking, email outreach and pitching our story as widely as possible. Nearly 90 percent of our donations came from outside the Kickstarter platform, and we had articles or coverage appear in New York Magazine, The Week, Business Insider, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Wire and more.

We sent a minimum of one, if not two project updates via our social media accounts every day. We emailed all of our existing listservs, crafted project updates for our Kickstarter backers and emailed organizations with an interest in the issue asking if they might be willing to share our project with their listservs.

In short: Marketing a Kickstarter is a close to full-time job, so make sure to budget the time.

Fresh stories were also incredibly helpful for building momentum around the Kickstarter campaign. During the past month, we produced seven pieces on internships, linking to the Kickstarter and encouraging people to back the campaign in each.

In the end, our own site was the third-highest source of donations after Twitter and direct referrals.

Based on our experience, Kickstarter can be a great tool for creative, unique projects, but also tricky for those designed around story-driven projects. But if your newsroom has the time, resources and smart idea, it’s definitely worth an experiment.

A huge thank you to everyone who has donated to our Kickstarter so far. If you’ve ever known, or been, an unpaid intern, we’re sure you can appreciate its importance. And if you haven’t already, please donate in the final stretch to help us achieve our goal!

A big thanks to our Kickstarter team, which included News Apps Fellow Jeremy Merrill, Senior Engagement Editor Amanda Zamora, News Applications Director Scott Klein, ProPublica President Richard Tofel and Explainer Music.

May 29 2013

18:17

It’s time to talk about interns

It’s graduation season, and the end of the academic year means thousands of college students and grads are headed off to their summer internships. Just in time for their departure, David Dennis wrote a piece for The Guardian exhorting the journalism industry to end its reliance on the unpaid intern industry, which Dennis says prevents low and middle-class students from ever achieving media careers, thereby disenfranchising wide swaths of the population.

At the same time, ProPublica has launched Investigating Internships, a crowd funding effort to help pay the salary of an intern who will, in turn, use their time there to “tell the stories of the millions of interns across the U.S.”

We plan to send our intern to college campuses across the country, collecting intern stories in a visual way (think video, animation, graphics). We will be closely involved from ProPublica HQ, training our intern in multimedia, reporting and editing skills while they’re on the road.

These stories are a vital part of this investigation. While our reporters will focus on deep dive watchdog reporting, our intern will help highlight the human side of the issue in a visual, creative way.

However, if we don’t raise the money to cover the salary, travel and production costs, we won’t be able to hire someone.

So if you’re moved by Dennis’s arguments, you can do your part by helping at least one journalism intern get paid this summer.

May 10 2013

17:51

ProPublica to make data on Medicare drug program searchable

ProPublica will launch Prescriber Checkup on Saturday, a database that, as if guided by an occult hand, allows users to search which doctors are prescribing what drugs through Medicare. This comes on the heels of yesterday’s launch of the Nonprofit Explorer, a database that makes tax return information from nearly 616,000 nonprofit organizations searchable.

In 2010 alone, doctors wrote over one billion prescriptions to Medicare patients. Further exploration of the rapidly expanding Medicare drug system will dovetail nicely with ProPublica’s Dollars for Docs project, which tracks how much private doctors earn from pharmaceutical companies.

April 01 2013

18:12

For watchdog stories, ‘who pays?’ is the wrong question

Former Wall Street Journal Managing Editor Paul Steiger said that before he retired the paper in late 2007, each investigative story cost up to $500,000. Figuring out how to foot that bill is important, but so is thinking about how to reduce it in the first place. Read More »

August 22 2012

20:13

Coming in the side door: The value of homepages is shifting from traffic-driver to brand

Moving on from newspapers, journalism industry soothsayers are now predicting the decline of something much younger: the homepage.

As with newspapers — which haven’t so much disappeared as been pushed off center stage — few are saying that homepages will disappear completely. But as more people enter news sites sideways — via search engines, links they see in emails, or via Facebook and Twitter — newsrooms are finding their homepages aren’t the starting points they once were. And the propulsive growth of mobile devices has accustomed news sites to presenting more than one face to the digital audience, through some mix of mobile-optimized sites, native apps, and responsive design. (You now have news outlets talking about their desktop sites almost as an afterthought to mobile-first development.)

(I’m willing to bet that you got to this very article through some non-homepage channel; less than 7 percent of visits to Nieman Lab start on our homepage.)

At the same time, traffic patterns seem quite divided between those who dive deep into social media and those who still head for news orgs’ front doors. Just 9 percent of Americans reported getting news through Facebook or Twitter “very often,” according to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism’s 2012 State of the News Media Report.

Earlier this summer, we reached out to a number of news organizations to see what they’ve been seeing in recent months. Take The New York Times, for instance. In early 2011, the Times was typically seeing 50 to 60 percent of its visits come from people starting at the homepage of nytimes.com. More recently, that number had dropped a bit, with 48.6 percent of site visits starting there in March. Search engines drove 17.1 percent of traffic to the newspaper, and social is still just a blip: 3.1 percent of New York Times traffic came from Facebook, and 1 percent from Twitter.

But for brands that don’t have the history of the Times, the side door can be more important. At Buzzfeed, a whopping 37 percent of traffic comes from social networks and 17 percent from search, a spokeswoman told me. Of course, Buzzfeed makes virality a key tenet of news production — even if it means hooking readers with tacky celebrity photos and tags like “interspecies cuddling” — so it makes sense that social would be a significant part of how Buzzfeed distributes content. On the more muted side of the news, ProPublica tells me it gets “a lot more” traffic through search, social, and email than from direct-to-homepage visits.

Google’s Richard Gingras has argued that shifts in audience flow mean that we ought to be reconsidering “the very definition of a website,” and the possibility that it’s time to put “dramatically more focus on the story page” rather than the homepage. In a piece for Folio, Atlantic Digital editor Bob Cohn wrote that the homepage serves an important purpose as the “ultimate brand statement,” but isn’t nearly as important as a place to drive traffic.

In fact, a remarkable 88 percent of traffic to The Atlantic comes in sideways, meaning just 12 percent of site visits begin on the homepage. When I spoke with Cohn, he echoed Gingras on the importance of story pages, and said the homepage is a place to glean “the sensibility and the content areas of the site.”

“The trick is not to worry about where they’re coming from — the trick is what are they doing after they come.”

“The article page is now the principal way that people arrive at The Atlantic,” Cohn said. “The old mantra that every page needs to be a homepage has never been more true. People come for the article, and the goal is to give them a clean and interesting reading experience for the article — elegant, not too crowded, some art, a pull quote if the piece is long enough — and beyond that to make sure that we are giving the reader a sense of what else is on our site.”

Revisiting a series of questions Josh posed back in March 2011, I asked about a dozen news organizations for data detailing the following over the course of a recent 30-day period:

1. What percentage of your traffic comes from search engines?
2. What percentage of your traffic comes from facebook.com?
3. What percentage of your traffic comes from twitter.com?
4. What percentage of your site’s visits begin on your front page?

Only a handful gave me exact figures. But others were willing to speak generally about how traffic habits are changing, and what their organizations are (and should be) doing about it.

Raju Narisetti, managing editor of The Wall Street Journal Digital Network, says the shift away from the homepage is clear but that subscribers and non-subscribers frequent the homepage at different rates. (Narisetti broadly discussed traffic numbers in an interview, but The Wall Street Journal declined to provide specific percentages.)

“Sixty percent of our audience is not coming through the homepage, so already the majority is not experiencing the homepage,” Narisetti told me. “I’m more focused on the behavior of our subs versus our non-subs. Our subs come to the homepage in big numbers because they pay for it — they bookmark it. The non-subs tend to find out about our stories through other ways, so they come in sideways.”

He says social media traffic to the site accounts for anywhere from 6 to 10 percent. On the day after President Barack Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage, for example, social traffic was on the high end. (Narisetti attributes that spike in part to a Wall Street Journal Storify detailing Twitter reaction to the news.) But even as social grows, and people find their way to Journal stories without ever laying eyes on the homepage, Narisetti says it remains a critical area for editors to convey their news judgement.

“Ultimately, the curated aspect of the homepage brings people to big brands, right?” he said. “The trick is not to worry about where they’re coming from — the trick is what are they doing after they come. If they come sideways, can I get them to actually go to the homepage? That won’t happen if I diminish the value of homepage internally. I still need to make sure the homepage is engaging — just not get too hung up on people coming there first…It’s more of an engagement play than a front-door-audience play these days.”

“Anything we can do besides just words is something I’m thinking a lot about, and I think matters. We’re probably not doing it as fast as we should.”

Narisetti says the Wall Street Journal’s numbers are comparable with other big papers like The New York Times. His previous employer, The Washington Post, declined to share their traffic percentages. Its Beltway rival Politico would only provide wide ranges of traffic percentages. It said between 35 percent and 50 percent of its traffic begins at the homepage, for example. The Los Angeles Times was similarly cagey.

At a smaller outfit, ProPublica news apps editor Scott Klein, says publishing frequency affects readers’ traffic habits.

“ProPublica’s kind of the Galápagos Islands of news organizations,” he said. “We have very different species here. For most news websites, the homepage — because it changes so often throughout the news day and because so much of what they do is about what’s happening at this very moment — their homepages are where users tend to start. At ProPublica, we get a lot more traffic from social, search, links, and our email than we do through the homepage. But the homepage provides a crucial function, which is that it expresses the editor’s vision of the organization. And for somebody who doesn’t know who we are, it explains who we are, what we do, and how we do it.”

Klein said he wasn’t able to determine how many ProPublica readers start at the homepage, but that about 24 percent of traffic comes through search engines, 9 percent through Facebook and Twitter, and 8 percent via links in ProPublica’s email newsletters.

Everyone I interviewed agreed: The homepage can and should stay. But what needs to be done about story pages now that more and more readers are starting there? The Atlantic’s Cohn says one key is to bring in more photos and images.

“Less text and more visuals are going to help on most of our pages,” he said. “We’re not the text-heaviest site out there, but larger photos, better photos, more energetic ways of teasing other content. Headline fonts that convey the sensibility and the energy of the site. Anything we can do besides just words is something I’m thinking a lot about and I think matters. We’re probably not doing it as fast as we should.”

So when’s the redesign? “Calling it a redesign is too formal, too print-like,” Cohn said. “We’re constantly tweaking.”

Note: Data is from a variety of periods, varying by news site, in the first half of 2012. ProPublica couldn’t provide traffic data related to visits that begin on the homepage.

We’d love to know about traffic patterns to your site. If you’re willing to share, please leave answers to our four questions in the comments section. For some more guidance, check out this earlier post.

August 09 2012

12:19

Two reasons why every journalist should know about scraping (cross-posted)

This was originally published on Journalism.co.uk – cross-posted here for convenience.

Journalists rely on two sources of competitive advantage: being able to work faster than others, and being able to get more information than others. For both of these reasons, I  love scraping: it is both a great time-saver, and a great source of stories no one else has.

Scraping is, simply, getting a computer to capture information from online sources. They might be a collection of webpages, or even just one. They might be spreadsheets or documents which would otherwise take hours to sift through. In some cases, it might even be information on your own newspaper website (I know of at least one journalist who has resorted to this as the quickest way of getting information that the newspaper has compiled).

In May, for example, I scraped over 6,000 nomination stories from the official Olympic torch relay website. It allowed me to quickly find both local feelgood stories and rather less positive national angles. Continuing to scrape also led me to a number of stories which were being hidden, while having the dataset to hand meant I could instantly pull together the picture of a single day on which one unsuccessful nominee would have run, and I could test the promises made by organisers.

ProPublica scraped payments to doctors by pharma companies; the Ottawa Citizen ran stories based on its scrape of health inspection reports. In Tampa Bay they run an automatically updated page on mugshots. And it’s not just about the stories: last month local reporter David Elks was using Google spreadsheets to compile a table from a Word document of turbine applications for a story which, he says, “helped save the journalist probably four or five hours of manual cutting and pasting.”

The problem is that most people imagine that you need to learn a programming language to start scraping - but that’s not true. It can help - especially if the problem is complicated. But for simple scrapers, something as easy as Google Docs will work just fine.

I tried an experiment with this recently at the News:Rewired conference. With just 20 minutes to introduce a room full of journalists to the complexities of scraping, and get them producing instant results, I used some simple Google Docs functions. Incredibly, it worked: by the end The Independent’s Jack Riley was already scraping headlines (the same process is outlined in the sample chapter from Scraping for Journalists).

And Google Docs isn’t the only tool. Outwit Hub is a must-have Firefox plugin which can scrape through thousands of pages of tables, and even Google Refine can grab webpages too. Database scraping tool Needlebase was recently bought by Google, too, while Datatracker is set to launch in an attempt to grab its former users. Here are some more.

What’s great about these simple techniques, however, is that they can also introduce you to concepts which come into play with faster and more powerfulscraping tools like Scraperwiki. Once you’ve become comfortable with Google spreadsheet functions (if you’ve ever used =SUM in a spreadsheet, you’ve used a function) then you can start to understand how functions work in a programming language like Python. Once you’ve identified the structure of some data on a page so that Outwit Hub could scrape it, you can start to understand how to do the same in Scraperwiki. Once you’ve adapted someone else’s Google Docs spreadsheet formula, then you can adapt someone else’s scraper.

I’m saying all this because I wrote a book about it. But, honestly, I wrote a book about this so that I could say it: if you’ve ever struggled with scraping or programming, and given up on it because you didn’t get results quickly enough, try again. Scraping is faster than FOI, can provide more detailed and structured results than a PR request – and allows you to grab data that organisations would rather you didn’t have. If information is a journalist’s lifeblood, then scraping is becoming an increasingly key tool to get the answers that a journalist needs, not just the story that someone else wants to tell.

12:19

Two reasons why every journalist should know about scraping (cross-posted)

This was originally published on Journalism.co.uk – cross-posted here for convenience.

Journalists rely on two sources of competitive advantage: being able to work faster than others, and being able to get more information than others. For both of these reasons, I  love scraping: it is both a great time-saver, and a great source of stories no one else has.

Scraping is, simply, getting a computer to capture information from online sources. They might be a collection of webpages, or even just one. They might be spreadsheets or documents which would otherwise take hours to sift through. In some cases, it might even be information on your own newspaper website (I know of at least one journalist who has resorted to this as the quickest way of getting information that the newspaper has compiled).

In May, for example, I scraped over 6,000 nomination stories from the official Olympic torch relay website. It allowed me to quickly find both local feelgood stories and rather less positive national angles. Continuing to scrape also led me to a number of stories which were being hidden, while having the dataset to hand meant I could instantly pull together the picture of a single day on which one unsuccessful nominee would have run, and I could test the promises made by organisers.

ProPublica scraped payments to doctors by pharma companies; the Ottawa Citizen ran stories based on its scrape of health inspection reports. In Tampa Bay they run an automatically updated page on mugshots. And it’s not just about the stories: last month local reporter David Elks was using Google spreadsheets to compile a table from a Word document of turbine applications for a story which, he says, “helped save the journalist probably four or five hours of manual cutting and pasting.”

The problem is that most people imagine that you need to learn a programming language to start scraping - but that’s not true. It can help - especially if the problem is complicated. But for simple scrapers, something as easy as Google Docs will work just fine.

I tried an experiment with this recently at the News:Rewired conference. With just 20 minutes to introduce a room full of journalists to the complexities of scraping, and get them producing instant results, I used some simple Google Docs functions. Incredibly, it worked: by the end The Independent’s Jack Riley was already scraping headlines (the same process is outlined in the sample chapter from Scraping for Journalists).

And Google Docs isn’t the only tool. Outwit Hub is a must-have Firefox plugin which can scrape through thousands of pages of tables, and even Google Refine can grab webpages too. Database scraping tool Needlebase was recently bought by Google, too, while Datatracker is set to launch in an attempt to grab its former users. Here are some more.

What’s great about these simple techniques, however, is that they can also introduce you to concepts which come into play with faster and more powerfulscraping tools like Scraperwiki. Once you’ve become comfortable with Google spreadsheet functions (if you’ve ever used =SUM in a spreadsheet, you’ve used a function) then you can start to understand how functions work in a programming language like Python. Once you’ve identified the structure of some data on a page so that Outwit Hub could scrape it, you can start to understand how to do the same in Scraperwiki. Once you’ve adapted someone else’s Google Docs spreadsheet formula, then you can adapt someone else’s scraper.

I’m saying all this because I wrote a book about it. But, honestly, I wrote a book about this so that I could say it: if you’ve ever struggled with scraping or programming, and given up on it because you didn’t get results quickly enough, try again. Scraping is faster than FOI, can provide more detailed and structured results than a PR request – and allows you to grab data that organisations would rather you didn’t have. If information is a journalist’s lifeblood, then scraping is becoming an increasingly key tool to get the answers that a journalist needs, not just the story that someone else wants to tell.

August 02 2012

14:41

Hate transcribing audio? Crowdsource it instead

For journalists who don't mind getting their hands dirty, Amazon's Mechanical Turk service can be a cost-effective way to avoid one of the least thrilling parts of the reporting process: transcribing. Read More »

April 20 2012

13:27

Catalysts of Collaboration: What Motivates New Journalism Partnerships

The shift from competition to collaboration in the American newsroom has been so profound that in 2009 the Columbia Journalism Review published an article on "Journalism's collaborative future," arguing that "there is something fundamental under way." That same year, Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger wrote, "I've seen the future, and it's mutual." The trend is clear, and by all accounts collaborations are expanding and maturing, but do we have a clear enough understanding of what motivates these collaborative efforts? What are the factors inside and outside the newsroom that are inspiring this great collaborative shift?

At MIT's Center for Civic Media in 2010 Scott Rosenberg, executive editor of Grist and Salon co-founder, commented:

There is a professional transition in the field from an environment where competition was the dominant mode of interacting with other organizations to an era where dividing labor and sharing might serve the public better.

The past few years have created a perfect storm of economic crisis, technological transition, and cultural change that have combined to help inspire many journalists to explore news partnerships. Below, I explore three factors that are motivating journalists to work together.

Rapid Technological Change

Journalism practice has always been tied to technological development. In their book, "Four Theories of the Press," Fred Siebert, Theodore Peterson and Wilbur Schramm argue, "The press always takes on the form and coloration of the social and political structures within which it operates." Historically, we've seen this as the telegraph led to the development of the inverted pyramid, the telephone begat the phone interview, and the always-on cable news channels resulted in the 24-hour news cycle.

telegraph.jpg

One thing that differentiates the current batch of technological changes and their impact on journalism is the profound pace of that change. Now, the Internet, mobile devices and new digital tools are prompting the profession of journalism to become more collaborative, by fostering interaction with the public and with other news organizations.

Platforms like Publish2, a content-management system; Stroome, a browser-based video editing platform; and DocumentCloud, a repository for primary documents -- among many others -- are helping to lower the costs of reporting and publishing and connecting individual journalists and newsrooms around shared resources. One of the most ambitious of these projects is the Public Media Platform, which former NPR CEO Vivian Schiller said would "allow all of the content from [various public media] entities -- whether news or cultural products -- to flow freely among the partners and member stations, and, ultimately, also to other publishers, other not-for-profits and software developers who will invent wonderful new products that we can't even imagine."

In addition, collaboration between newsrooms and the public is growing. Examples include CNN's iReport, Huffington Post's OffTheBus and various crowdsourcing projects from ProPublica and others. As a society we are witnessing a technologically driven resurgence in all kinds of sharing, and journalism organizations are a key part of that development.

Economic Factors

This new era of collaboration is not just a function of shiny new gadgets, platforms or programs. It's impossible to ignore the effect the economic recession has had in prompting collaboration. We're living through one of the most difficult periods in the history of the news business (albeit, one of the most exciting), where sharp budget reductions, shrinking ad revenues, dramatic shifts in audiences' media consumption habits, and a range of self-inflicted wounds (from media consolidation to unhealthy debt loads) have upended news organizations' longstanding business models and sparked an age of reinvention and experimentation.

nothiring.jpg

Indeed, many collaborative journalism projects have either been started or are staffed by some of the 30,000-plus people who lost newsroom jobs over the last four years. Esther Kaplan of the Nation Investigative Fund, which "incubates and supports" investigative stories and journalists until the stories are published across a network of magazines like the Atlantic and Mother Jones, has called her effort a "social safety net" for laid-off reporters.

Journalism collaborations present opportunities to share resources and costs, allowing media outlets -- especially independent ones -- to maximize their dwindling budgets. Examples include the Investigative News Network and the Media Consortium, which help independent news organizations with things like back office support, fundraising, and the facilitation of editorial collaborations. In its big-picture report "The Big Thaw," the Media Consortium suggests that the rise of collaboration represents a shift toward a human-centered "alternative economy" that puts community impact and engagement at the center of journalism.

Finally, the economics of collaboration are not only driven by what has been lost, but also by what has been gained as foundations focus on expanding their impact by supporting collaborative projects across organizations. According to J-Lab at American University, foundations have spent upwards of $143 million since 2005 to support new journalism projects, many with collaborative elements. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) provided $1 million in mid-2010 for the new Public Media Platform initiative that hopes to create a shared API for community and public media. CPB and the Knight Foundation have also funded regional collaborative journalism ventures between local public TV and radio stations around the country.

Better Journalism

Not all of the factors driving collaboration are external to the work of journalism itself. Many early converts to collaborative journalism argue that it produces a superior product. Spot.Us founder David Cohn has said, on more than one occasion, that if content is king, collaboration is queen. Through collaboration you can tap into skills and expertise outside your organization (such as multimedia production), uncover new story angles, bring in diverse perspectives, and extend the reach and influence of your work.

In the Columbia Journalism Review editorial mentioned above, the editors write:

From foreign capitals to U.S. statehouses, [journalism collaboration] is a way to extend our shrinking newsrooms, begin to rebuild public trust and ensure that the standards of the professional press help shape the development of new journalistic endeavors.

awards.jpg

In recent years, collaborative journalism projects have been earning significant awards. ProPublica has won numerous awards for its collaborations with NPR and other new organizations. The California HealthCare Foundation Center for Health Reporting and the Chico Enterprise-Record won an award from the Association of Health Care Journalists for their joint reporting on woodstove smoke pollution. And the Tiziano Project won a community collaboration award from the Online News Association for its work promoting collaborative journalism in Iraq.

While the other factors above provide external pressure on journalists, most wouldn't embrace collaboration if it wasn't helping them do better journalism.

From Safety in Numbers to Strength in Numbers

Regardless of the catalyst for collaboration, there is a growing sense in the news business that we are all in this together.

The magnitude of this shift toward working together, not just across newsrooms but across the profession as a whole, is perhaps best epitomized by the widespread adoption of a "Show Your Work" ethos. The credo, which encourages journalists and programmers to be transparent with the work they do and share the lessons of their work with the field, was first promoted by the Chicago Tribune apps team last year, and has also been embraced by ProPublica -- but the mantra has spread well beyond these two newsrooms. Dan Sinker, head of the Knight-Mozilla News Technology Partnership, called Show Your Work "perhaps the biggest thing to affect journalism development" of 2011.

Show Your Work is a great example of how collaboration can turn safety in numbers into strength in numbers. Instead of collaborating simply because everyone around you is trying to do more with less, this approach suggests that by working together, we can all achieve more with more. We can build on each other's work, failures and successes to help build better journalism together.

What other motivations and external factors drive journalism collaborations, and how does understanding these catalysts help us better facilitate news partnerships?

Matt Schafer contributed additional research and reporting for this post.

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Josh Stearns is a journalist, organizer and community strategist. He is Journalism and Public Media Campaign Director for Free Press, a national, non-partisan, non-profit organization working to reform the media through education, organizing and advocacy. He was a co-author of "Saving the News: Toward a national journalism strategy," "Outsourcing the News: How covert consolidation is destroying newsrooms and circumventing media ownership rules," and "On the Chopping Block: State budget battles and the future of public media." Find him on Twitter at @jcstearns.

Photos above by Flickr users Chris Willis, Bart Heird, and Rob n' Renee.

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April 19 2012

13:17

The newsonomics of risking it all

Alfredo Corchado was used to getting mortal threats.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 13 2012

14:00

Top 5 Tech Ideas for Creating Better Explanatory Journalism

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How can technology help journalists make sense of complex issues and explain them to the public in a clear, understandable manner?

Last year, Jay Rosen's journalism students spent an entire semester researching and making explanations in partnership with ProPublica, a non-profit newsroom which focuses on investigative journalism. The class did amazing work to highlight notable examples and develop their own "explainers," essential background knowledge to help people follow events and trends in the news. One of my favorite examples is this project from 2011, where students redesigned the same ProPublica background article as a video, a podcast, and an FAQ.

NYU's Explainer class focused especially on two things: presentation and conversation. They talked to cognitive psychologists like George Lakoff to learn how audiences take in what we read. They highlighted numerous presentation examples -- videos, timelines, infographics, mini-sites, aggregators, podcasts, interactive guides, flowcharts, and even a picture book by Google! The class at NYU also pointed out that explaining is often a conversation. In their journalist's guide to developing FAQs, the class suggests techniques for discovering what people need to know. I loved their advice on listening to readers.

Where can we innovate?

This term, I'm taking Ethan Zuckerman's Participatory News class from the point of view of a technology designer who wants to build tools to support great journalism. As we write stories and review other people's work, we're keeping our eyes open for parts of the process which technology can improve. As a startup guy, I also keep an eye open for alternative business models. Here are my top tech recommendations for supporting better explainers:

1. Peer Production

Jay points out in his "National Explainer" essay that it's OK to start with the clueless journalist. When learning how to explain something, our initial ignorance helps us appreciate where our audiences are coming from. This approach assumes that a professional journalist is doing the work; where else might we find uninformed, capable people to develop explainers?

I think we should take inspiration from Wikipedia to develop strategies for peer production of explanatory journalism, especially for issues that journalists can't or don't cover. Online communities like Metafilter have proven their ability to cooperate on investigations on occasion. How can we extend that to explanations? We could also draw inspiration from Instructables and CommonCraft, online communities of people who share video instructions and explanations.

Building online communities is hard. Instead of developing an "explainer" community, I would build a toolkit which existing communities can use when they feel the need to investigate and explain an issue.

2. Finding Voices

Many of the explainers in Jay's class involve narrative. "The Giant Pool of Money" succeeded because This American Life found the right cast of characters to illustrate a complex issue. But finding the right people is really hard, especially if you're not a mainstream media organization. Source databases such as The Public Insight Network can help, but it's a closed system unavailable outside of newsrooms. Social media networks through groups like Global Voices get us part of the way, but only as far as the people who might know those we're looking for.

I'm not sure the crowd can help here. In many cases, the people you want to interview might not be outspoken online. Instead, I would develop tools and research practices for individuals or small teams to find representative voices. Perhaps the tool could offer encouragement and ideas for following the trail from an effect to an individual.

We could support one workflow in particular. Given a set of articles which are already about a topic, we could automatically extract the names of the organizations and individuals who are quoted and referred to, creating a quick map of the issue in the media. A canny storyteller might be able to spot gaps in the story or simply remix existing material into an explainer.

3. Organizing Research

Explainers are by definition hard to organize and research. They're the messy, complicated issues that don't appear to make much sense. Often the story arc isn't apparent until partway through the project. It can become easy to get lost in the forest of information. As the pile of research grows, it can be difficult to follow the structure of a complex system or pull together the information you need for that next interview.

The most widely used writing tools are terrible at helping people organize and understand their information. I have written elsewhere about my use of software like Eastgate's Tinderbox to organize research around a complex issue. I think we need more of that kind of software (James Fallows' article on "Mac Programs that Come with Thinking Caps On" is a great place to start).

4. Rhetorical Forms

All storytelling on computers is in its early stages; we haven't agreed on very many common literary forms. Beyond the FAQ, the Timeline, and the illustrated lecture, most explainers require a custom rhetorical form. That's bad for anyone who wants to put a deadline on a project.

That's why I love The Explainer Awards that Jay and his students held. Awards are a great way to create norms and highlight innovation -- they have been an effective model as far back as 5th century Athens. But we need to take this further. An effective awards program would bring together finalists in each category to discuss common challenges and build technologies to solve those problems.

5. Conversation

Why not re-imagine explaining as a social movement rather than content production? Some of the best explaining comes from a two-way conversation, not a piece of content. We could start a service called Meet the News, a geolocated service which invites anyone to have coffee with someone affected by a news story. Participants could pay for the coffee and might be expected to contribute back to the community with a few paragraphs about the conversation, just like couch-surfing reviews. It could be a human library for the news.

Do you have more tech ideas for explanatory journalism? Let us know in the comments!

A version of this post first appeared on MIT Civic Media Center's blog.

March 29 2012

15:00

The newsonomics of 100 products a year

Try this: Call up your local newspaper or online news organization. Tell them you want to buy something and ask them what they can sell you? Of course, at first, they’d be non-plussed: Sell you something? Then, after giving it some thought, they’d say you can buy a newspaper or a subscription or a membership — or, maybe, an ad? Would you like one of those?

Those days — mark it — are coming to an end. We’re on the brink of news companies producing hundreds of products for sale each year. While digital technology hath taketh (the easy ability to make money on news distribution), digital technology also giveth back, with the ability to create hundreds and thousands of newsy products at small incremental costs. The bonus: News organizations will be able to satisfy groups of readers and advertisers (often disguised thinly as sponsors) better than ever before. Double bonus: The let-a-hundred-products-bloom revolution fits neatly with the all-out embrace of all-access circulation initiatives, which news companies in North America, Europe, and Asia now can’t seem to implement quickly enough.

Can we call this the ebook revolution? Maybe, but that’s probably too narrow. Delivery of new products to new audiences can take several forms. A text-only ebook, a shinier iBooks-enabled product with video, or an app with all the glorious functionality apps offer. It’s not the form; it’s the content, content that satisfies niches rather than serves masses with one-size-fits-all newspaper or magazine products.

Call it the newsonomics of 100 products a year, or just one way to envision a much bigger future.

The 100-product-a-year model is a much-needed growth model. We can see how it fits nicely with all-access subscriptions, and together we have two interconnected Lego blocks of a new sustainable news model. We have two essential parts of a crossover model (“The newsonomics of crossover”) that I detailed here a few weeks ago. The big, hairy challenges of accelerating print ad loss and onerous legacy costs remain, but at least we’ve got a couple of building blocks we didn’t have two years ago. By we, I mean those of us who care about news and great professional content.

Is it a big moneymaker? We don’t know yet, though we can extrapolate some numbers below.

It’s directionally right, though, for at least a couple of strategic reasons. The notion of 100 smaller products reminds us that so much of the new world is based on volume. Google has built a monstrous advertising business on hundreds of thousands of smaller advertisers, while daily newspapers reaped huge profits on relatively few bigger advertisers. Even as movie watching by streaming surpasses DVD watching, more money is still in the old medium. Streaming will monetize at a lower rate, but end up generating bigger dollars over time. The same thing is true in the digital music business. Selling lots of stuff to lots of people at smaller price points is something the Internet enables superbly.

Yes, there are definitely new winners and losers in movies and music, as there will be in news. Those who transition best and fastest will win.

Second, it’s in line with the strategic push to satisfy the hell out of core customers. As publishers have figured out that it’s the top 15 percent of site visitors who make the big difference in building the new digital business — perhaps paying for subscriptions, consuming many more pages than fly-by users sent by Google — core customer satisfaction is key. Ebooks deeper the relationship to that reader customer.

This 100-product-a-year model may fit as well with the new California Watch/Bay Citizen combo (“The newsonomics of the death and life of California news”), finalized Tuesday, as its does with The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the Charlotte Observer, GQ, or Conde Nast Traveler.

Let’s take one example. On Wednesday, the Boston Globe launched “Sunday Supper & More.” It’s a cookbook. It’s New England. And it could be the beginning of a new franchise: Expect summer, fall and winter editions each year to join this spring debut. The Globe’s staff built it with Apple’s iBooks Author tool, so it offers video within it.

Want to buy it? Not so fast. Today, Sunday Supper & More is only available to Boston Globe print, all-access, and digital subscribers. So subscription — think “membership” (the recent riff of the L.A. Times new paywall intro) — is gaining new benefits. Surprise, says the Globe, you not only get our paper, our spiffy new replica-plus edition, if that’s what you want, and our mobile apps — you also get our cool cookbooks, with more to come.

The Globe will sell the book to non-subscribers — probably at $4.99 — but will decide the timing of that sale after next week’s Globe confab at which execs and editors will plot an ebook plan for the company.

“Events and ebooks will be the two biggest perks” of the new Globe subscription push, says Jeff Moriarty, the Globe’s VP of digital products. Beyond Sunday Suppers and a new spin on the Fenway 100 historical Red Sox book, we can picture the Globe soon mining its archives in both sports and features to provide new value for customers and a new leg of revenue. It experimented early with three books on its Whitey Bulger stories, and learned some lessons in pricing, distribution, and the technical creation process along the way.

The Globe has plenty of company in this push. We see Canada’s National Post committing to a couple of dozen ebooks in the coming year, again from hard news to features (“To learn what works (quickly), Canada’s National Post dives into ebooks”). Guardian Shorts is an early innovator; Politico is churning out four campaign ebooks this year.

Magazine publishers, faster than newspaper publishers to embrace the tablet as the next-gen platform, are also ahead of most newspaper publishers in ebooks. Vanity Fair’s done more than a half dozen, and its parent Conde Nast is hosting an explosion of more single-purpose apps in the iTunes Store, some unrelated to Conde’s magazines. Hearst’s Cosmopolitan is embracing ebooks, and now partnering, along with ProPublica — an early tester of ebooks — with Open Road Integrated Technology. Open Road Integrated Technology?

Well, it’s a book company, an ebook company juiced on the possibilities of our age. Headed by former HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman, the company is prototypical of a new group of middlemen. With book marketing savvy (cover design, marketing, distribution+), these companies are now feeding the emerging ebook marketplace. They are also partnering back for that old standby, print, as Open Road has done with book services company Ingram. In Canada, it was Harper Collins Canada that became the National Post’s partner in bringing news ebooks to market.

Just as the web has knocked many middlemen for a loop, it creates openings for new ones.

If you talk to publishers about ebooks, they are farther along in experimenting than they were a year ago. Yet some basic issues — producing the books, marrying them to commerce engines, placing them prominently in e-stores and more — are giving them headaches as they push forward. “How do we make the right offer to the right person at the right time?” one experienced exec asked.

The marketplace has been exploding (recall that Amazon announced last spring that its ebooks were now outselling its paper books), but those issues are setting the stage for a new group of companies, many staffed with graduates of the book industry, offering their help. Newspaper and magazine publishers are looking to the Open Roads for guidance.

Some are turning to their digital circulation partner, Press+. That company, which is powering more than 280 titles’ subscription commerce, says its system can handle the commerce and even help with identifying likely customers, based on tracked content usage, so its customers are just beginning to ply the ebook trade.

ProPublica general manager Dick Tofel opted for Open Road for the non-profit investigative publisher’s fifth and sixth books. He says the company will start producing a half dozen or more a year now and is now fielding calls from other publishers eager to get the benefit of his early ebook experience.

So far, ProPublica has put 90,000 ebooks into the market. The first couple were free downloads, but with the addition of new original introductions to work ProPublica had already published free online, Amazon and ProPublica agreed on test pricing of 99 cents and $1.99, and new revenue is rolling in. It’s small, but “pound for pound, it generates more than advertising,” notes Tofel, who is a Wall Street Journal veteran. And, of course, the incremental cost of creating ebooks is closer to zero, with most sales cost able to be a commissioned cost of sale.

As assistant publisher, Tofel oversaw the print books business that’s been a good Dow Jones sideline for a long time.

Those books — personal investing and more — are naturals for the ebook revolution now. Look for the Journal to experiment more with those titles, perhaps niching by life stage.

As news and magazine publishers look to this new revenue stream, here are six points to ponder:

It’s about product development: Yes, it’s editing, but fundamentally, it’s a mindset change for many publishers stuck in the one-size-fits-all world. Publishers either need staffers with new product chops or partners wanting to license publisher content and create the products for the marketplace.

Free the archives!: Digital archives have never been a big business for publishers, caught somewhere between Google and musty library connotations. Packaged archives — for specific audiences — can offer new life for older content.

Don’t think content; think problem solving: Publishers too often start with content. If we start with audience — college-planning students and parents, new mothers and fathers to be, bored cooks, and, big time, sports enthusiasts of all ages — we can see the motors of ebook publishing beginning to role. Think life stage, just for starters, and add the geo angle, and regional publishers can play.

Mining the database: As onesies and twosies, it’s fairly easy to pick content from publishers’ own databases. Think of bigger production cycle, going beyond the 100 a year, to a thousand, all niched products that could be semi-automated and templated over time. Better tagging of content for ebook usage then becomes a priority.

Ebook or app?: Early experimenters say let the content be your guide. The more multimedia, the better an app may work. Ebooks, though, can be sold through more distributors, while Apple continues to dominate the app business.

Pricing: What’s an ebook worth? If it solidifies a subscriber/member paying $300 or more a year, it’s worth a lot, even if it’s free. Think of the lifetime value of that subscriber.

To the right niche, some ebooks will be worth $1.99 and others — Retina perfect — will go for $19.99. Let’s take our 100 products a year. Let’s average 5,000 sales for each. Let’s price at $2.99 on average. That would be $1.5 million. Some books, though, could be blockbusters. We can play with this math and see where it goes.

For the ProPublicas, it’s a nice non-ad revenue stream. For other publishers, it’s at least a growing third leg of revenue (beyond ads and circulation) and one that may be nurtured into something significant. (Last fall, Will Sullivan offered a gaggle of reasons ebooks make sense for publishers.) As importantly, it can reinforce those two legs, pleasing subscribers/members with free (or discounted) perks and advertisers/sponsors who have new opportunities to represent themselves to niche audiences. That’s a pretty good combination, and one that publishers will soon embrace, just as they lately have all-access digital circulation.

March 28 2012

14:00

Best Practices for Collaborative Investigative Reporting

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

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

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

Documenting Collaboration

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

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

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

Lessons in the Unexpected

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

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

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

The Non-Negotiables

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

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

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

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

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

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January 22 2012

19:04

Launch of the first ever Data Journalism Awards, London, 19 January 2012

Press Release :: The Global Editors Network (GEN) is proud to announce the launch of the first annual Data Journalism Awards (DJA), the international competition recognizing outstanding work in the growing field of data journalism. The GEN initiative is supported by Google and is organized in collaboration with the European Journalism Centre

An international jury of data journalism and media experts will select the six winning submissions. Jury members have been selected from prestigious international media companies including the New York Times, Reuters, and Les Echos and the president of the Jury is Paul Steiger, founder of ProPublica

[Paul Steiger:] ... journalists and media organisations increasingly use numerical data and databases to gather, organize and produce relevant information. The Data Journalism Awards champions the evolution of this field by rewarding editorial excellence and highlighting best practices in data journalism.

Data Journalism Awards candidates can apply to one of those three categories:

1. Data-driven investigative journalism

2. Data visualisation & storytelling

3. Data-driven applications

Both National/International and Local/Regional projects are welcome and will be judged separately. The work submitted must have been published or aired between 11 April 2011 and 10 April 2012.

A total of €45,000 (around $57,000) will be awarded to the six winning projects

As of today, applicants can submit their best data journalism projects at http://www.datajournalismawards.org. The competition is open to media companies, non-profit organisations, freelancers and individuals until 10 April 2012. The six winning projects will be announced by jury members at the annual News World Summit (NEWS!) being held in Paris, France, from 30 May to 01 June 2012 and hosted by the Global Editors Network.

At Google, we’re keen to help support and stimulate innovation in digital journalism,” said Peter Barron, Director of External Relations.  “We see exciting possibilities of leveraging data to produce award-winning journalism.

Media partners of the Data Journalism Awards are the Online News Association, journalism.co.uk, OWNI, Wired Italy, AHREF and the Forum for African Investigative Reporters (other media partners added later). 

About the Global Editors Network

Founded in 2011, the Global Editors Network (GEN) is the first non-profit, non-governmental association that brings together editors-in-chief and senior news executives from all platforms – print, digital, mobile and broadcast. By breaking down the barriers between traditional and new media, GEN aims to define an open journalism model for the future and to create new journalistic concepts and tools. GEN brings together like-minded people that are forward thinking and enthusiastic about defining tomorrow’s journalism.

http://www.datajournalismawards.org

August 28 2011

21:58

Niemanlab: How ProPublica blends news that wins Pulitzers with news that wins followers

Niemanlab :: Go to the ProPublica homepage right now, and you’ll see a mix of timely content whose headlines involve words like “guide.” And “FAQ.” And “Why X.” And “What is Y?” And “Z: we separate fact from fiction.” You’ll see reported blog posts and detailed explainers and thorough reading guides and news navigation maps. You’ll see a mix of content, in other words, that isn’t the kind of painstaking, time-taking Works of Public Interest Journalism that you might expect to emanate from the newsroom of a two-time Pulitzer winner; on the contrary, it’s often quick-turn, occasionally lighthearted, and almost always unapologetically derivative.

We’re taking all the little bits and pieces and making them useful to people in a much more immediate way,” says Amanda Michel, ProPublica’s director of distributed reporting and the developer of the outfit’s overall social strategy. They’re deconstructing the news, and reconstructing it into forms designed to help their readers and serve their mission.

Continue to read Megan Garber, www.niemanlab.org

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.

July 13 2011

14:00

6 ways of communicating data journalism (The inverted pyramid of data journalism part 2)

Last week I published an inverted pyramid of data journalism which attempted to map processes from initial compilation of data through cleaning, contextualising, and combining that. The final stage – communication – needed a post of its own, so here it is.

Below is a diagram illustrating 6 different types of communication in data journalism. (I may have overlooked others, so please let me know if that’s the case.)

Communicate: visualised, narrate, socialise, humanise, personalise, utilise

Modern data journalism has grown up alongside an enormous growth in visualisation, and this can sometimes lead us to overlook different ways of telling stories involving big numbers. The intention of the following is to act as a primer for ensuring all options are considered.

1. Visualisation

Visualisation is the quickest way to communicate the results of data journalism: free tools such as Google Docs allow it with a single click; more powerful tools like Many Eyes only require the user to paste their raw data and select from a range of visualisation options.

But ease does not equal effectiveness. The rise of chartjunk illustrates that visualisation is not immune to churnalism or spectacle without insight.

There is a rich history of print visualisation which remains relevant to the generation of online infographics: focusing on no more than 4 data points; avoiding 3D and ensuring the graphic is self-sufficient are just some.

Kaiser Fung’s trifecta is one useful reference point for ensuring a visualisation is effective, and this explanation of how a chart was transformed into something that could be used in a newspaper is also instructive (summarised by Kaiser Fung here).

In short: it’s not a simple process.

Visualisation has one major advantage which makes that effort worthwhile, however: it can make communication incredibly effective. And it can provide a method of distributing your content which cannot be matched by the other types of communication listed here.

But its major strength is also its main weakness: the instant nature of infographics also means that people often do not spend much time looking at it. It makes it very effective for distribution, but not for engagement, and so it is worth thinking strategically about 1) making sure the image contains a link back to its source; and 2) making sure that there is something more at the source when people arrive.

2. Narration

A traditional article can struggle to contain the sort of numbers that data journalism tends to turf up, but it still provides an accessible way for people to understand the story – if done well.

There are books providing useful guidance on how to write with numbers most clearly – and some guidance for web writing too (you should use numerals rather than words, as this helps people who are scanning the page).

As with visualisation, less is often more. But also, as in most narrative, you need to think about meaningfulness and your objectives in communicating these numbers.

Abstract amounts can be impressive, but meaningless and useless. What does it mean that £10m has been spent on something? Is that more or less than usual? More or less than something similar?

Try to bring down amounts to manageable quantities – the amount per person, or per day, for example.

Finally, use editing to focus in on the essentials: and make sure you link to the whole.

3. Social communication

Communication is a social act, and the success of infographics across social media is a testament to that. But it’s not just infographics that are social – data is too. The Guardian has demonstrated this particularly successfully with the cultivation of a healthy community around its Data Blog (which enjoys higher stickiness than the average Guardian article), and around its API.

Crowdsourcing initiatives aimed at gathering data can also provide a social dimension to the data. The Guardian are, again, pioneers here, with their MPs’ expenses project and Charles Arthur’s attempt to crowdsource predictions about the specifications of the iPad. But there are other examples, too – especially when it is difficult to obtain the data any other way.

The connectivity of the web presents new opportunities to present data journalism in a social way. ProPublica’s app that provides results based on your Facebook profile (schools attended; friends who have used the app) is one example of how data journalism can leverage social data, and, equally, how communicating the results of data journalism can be geared around social dynamics, using elements such as quizzes, sharing, competition, campaigning and collaboration. We are barely at the start of this aspect of online journalism.

4. Humanise

Broadcast news reports often use case studies to get around the problem of presenting numbers-based stories on television and radio. If waiting times have increased, speak to someone who had to wait a long time for an operation. In other words, humanise the numbers.

More recently the growth of computer-generated motion graphics has relaxed that pressure somewhat, as presenters can call on powerful animation to illustrate a story.

But once again, the point of making stories relevant to people comes through. As I wrote in One ambassador’s embarrassment is a tragedy, 15,000 civilian deaths is a statistic: when you move beyond scales we can deal with on a human level, you struggle to engage people in the issue you are covering – no matter how impressive the motion graphics (that post outlines some other considerations in humanising stories, such as ensuring that case studies are representative).

So after being buried in abstract data we need to remember that going out and recording an interview with a person whose life has been affected by that data can make a big difference to the power of our story.

5. Personalise

One of the biggest changes in journalism’s move online is that it opens up all sorts of possibilities around interactivity. When it comes to data journalism that means that the user can, potentially, control what information is presented to them based on various inputs.

There are some relatively well-established forms of this. For example, when a government presents its latest budget, news websites often invite the user to input their own details (for example, their earnings, or their family make up) to find out how the budget affects them. A recent variant of this are those interactives which invite the user to make their own decisions on how they might cut the deficit (the FT’s version took this further, adding in party strategies and policies).

Another common form is geographical personalisation: the user is invited to enter their postcode, zip code or other geographical information to find out how a particular issue is playing out in their home town.

A third is simply ‘your interests’, as demonstrated by Popvox’s approach to political engagement and the LA Times’ Newsmatch.

As more and more personal data is held by third party sites, the possibilities for personalisation expand. The ProPublica example given above, for example, demonstrates how Facebook profile information can be used to automatically personalise the experience of a story. And there are various apps that offer to present information based on location data provided via GPS.

This also indicates that there may be various ways in which personalisation and social strategies might be combined. Personalised stories can, in many ways, be used as an expression of our identity: this is where I live; this is how I am affected; this is what I’m interested in.

And when the COO of Facebook is predicting that all media will be personalised in 3-5 years, it’s clear that this is something the social networks are going to drive towards too.

6. Utilise

The most complex way of communicating the results of data journalism is to create some sort of tool based on the data. Calculators are popular choices, as are GPS-driven tools, but there is a lot of scope for more complex applications as more data becomes available both from the publisher and the user.

Again, there is overlap here with personalisation – but it is possible to provide utility without personalisation. And quite often, the complexity and consequent barrier to competitors presents commercial opportunities too.

At Reed Business Information, for example, their model is geared towards this sort of utility: attracting users at various points of the communication chain – online updates, printed magazines, mobile news – and steering them towards the point where they are closest to a purchasing decision. The idea is that the closer your information is to their action, the more valuable it is to the user.

Creating utility from data is currently relatively costly – but those costs are going down as a result of competition and standardisation. For example, as increasing numbers of news organisations adopt standard ways of storing story data (e.g. XML files), it is easier to create apps that pull data from datasets. Meanwhile, app creation becomes increasingly templated (in many ways you can see the process following a similar path to that of web design) and platform independent.

A medium up for grabs

What all of the above makes apparent – and I may have missed other methods of communicating data journalism (please let me know if you can think of any) – is that there are whole areas of online journalism that have yet to be properly explored, and certainly most have yet to establish clear conventions or ideas of best practice.

I’ve tried to scope out an overview of those conventions that are emerging, and the best practice that’s currently available, but it would be great if you could add more. What makes for good humanisation? Utility? What are great examples of personalisation or data journalism that involves a social dimension? Comments below please.

Meanwhile, here are both parts of the model shown together (click to magnify):

The inverted pyramid of data journalism and data journalism communication pyramid

.

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July 08 2011

20:48

Facebook for news apps: How ProPublica harnessed the social network for ‘The Opportunity Gap’

ProPublica :: Last week ProPublica published The Opportunity Gap, a news application that lets readers find out how equally their state provides poor and wealthier schools access to advanced classes that researchers say will help students later in life.

ProPublica designed the app so it was oriented behaviorally, and not just hierarchically, to foster engagement of their readers. This emphasis on encouraging behavior spurred them to integrate Facebook in a deeper way than we’ve done before, including using Facebook as a relevance engine.

Here's how - continue to read Al Shaw, www.propublica.org

July 02 2011

05:22

ProPublica - a redesign, which puts “future of context” ideas to work

Niemanlab :: As most site revamps tend to be, the new propublica.org is sleeker, slicker, and generally more aesthetically pleasing than its previous incarnation. But it’s also more intuitively navigable than the previous version, incorporating the accumulated wisdom that the investigative outfit has learned about its users, its contributors, and its journalism in the past two-and-a-half years.

[Scott Klein, editor of News Applications:] ...(what we) hope is that the level of design sophistication now matches the sophistication of our reporting.

Pro-publica-small

Continue to read Megan Garber, www.niemanlab.org

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