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August 14 2012

17:17

After a deal falls apart, Homicide Watch D.C. is going on hiatus

The Internet famously enabled anyone to become a publisher. A tiny outfit of one or two people can, when the stars align, have the same claim on your attention as a major media company with thousands of employees.

But one thing large companies are built for is sustainability. A site driven by the passion and will of one person runs into trouble when that one person wants to take a new job, or take a vacation, or just focus energy elsewhere for a while. When an editor at a large newspaper leaves, it’s occasion for cake; when a small startup’s founder steps away, there might not even be anyone else around to eat it.

Something along those lines is playing out with the lauded crime site Homicide Watch D.C., and, full disclosure, we here at the Nieman Foundation play a role. Founder Laura Amico applied for a Nieman-Berkman Fellowship earlier this year. When she got the fellowship — which lets her and husband Chris Amico spend a year studying sustainable models for crime journalism here at Harvard — she planned on finding a way to keep the site alive for the 10 months she’d be in Cambridge.

Unfortunately, a licensing deal with a local news organization that would have taken over operation of the site fell through at the last minute. Now, Amico says it’s inevitable that the site will be shuttered for at least some period of time.

“It’s tough because Homicide Watch D.C. is undoubtedly what I’m most proud of in my life,” Amico told me. “At the same time I have to take this incredible opportunity, and that’s not something that I could ever pass up either. That the future of the D.C. site is uncertain — I really have to separate myself from that and say that we have done everything we can, and we have given it everything we could. That there’s no one here willing to take it on is not a statement on the site but [on] the editorial values of this community right now.”

For those who don’t know about Homicide Watch, it’s a site that reports on every homicide in the city of Washington — following the case from the crime itself through the pursuit of suspects and the cases’ path through the courts. It’s been lauded for its devotion to blanket coverage and for its ability to build communities of interest around the kind of crime stories that might get a few inches of coverage — if that — in the local daily. As the site’s tagline puts it: “Mark every death. Remember every victim. Follow every case.” (We wrote the first piece about it back in 2009, when it was still just an idea, and have covered it several times since.)

“That there’s no one here willing to take it on is not a statement on the site but the editorial values of this community right now.”

In Homicide Watch’s first full month of operation, she was thrilled when the site got 500 pageviews. Last month, it got 301,000.

The Amicos — broadly speaking, she does the editorial side and he handles the coding on the backend — have built a licensing business, helping reporters in other cities build their own iterations of Homicide Watch. They’ve created a model that she says is “doing well,” but that may not be enough to save the flagship site.

It’s rare that journalists stay with one company for the course of their career these days, and Laura says after her fellowship year, she might be ready to go back to being part of a larger newsroom. (She was previously a reporter at the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat.) Understandably, she wants to explore her options. But she also wants what she created to live on.

“In D.C., my firm belief is that many newsrooms are still thinking about covering homicide in 2012 the way they covered it in 1992,” Amico said. “Homicide has changed dramatically. The drug wars are not the same as they were in 1992. That has impacted and changed who is being killed, and where, and for what reason. Despite that, those criteria that newsrooms are using to determine what homicides are and are not important has not changed. There’s a divergence of news values and realities.”

The Amicos are holding out hope that the site’s hiatus will be brief and that its reporting can be sustained while they’re in Cambridge. They’re in the last stages of launching a $40,000 Kickstarter fundraising campaign, waiting from final approval from the crowdfunding site. “What we want to do is bring on paid interns — five throughout the course of one calendar year — and turn operation of the site over to them, with guidance from Chris and myself,” Amico said. “Everything from the daily reporting to the database entry to monitoring comments, keeping track of cases, year-in-review stories, investigative reports.” (Watch our Twitter feed; we’ll let you know when it launches.)

The database is part of what makes Homicide Watch special because it enables the site to go beyond the intimate coverage — every victim by name — of homicide. The database allows the quick creation and collation of maps, demographic info on victims and suspects, and information on the progression of cases.

“This is all data that I’m gathering because it’s in the course of our normal reporting,” Amico says. “Really, at a moment’s notice, I can write a story saying ’35 people have pled guilty in this period of time and here’s a list of them.’” Amico can also check those anecdotal reporter’s hunches that come with closely covering a beat. A couple of weeks ago, for example, three homicides in one weekend felt like more than usual over a relatively quiet couple of years.

“I got to thinking: Have there been more homicides? Well, I can check, and that took me just a couple of minutes.”

But as the site freezes next week, so too will its collection of data. Amico says she just received an email from a woman thanking Homicide Watch D.C. for its work, and describing the teenagers she sees around Washington wearing t-Shirts printed with names, photographs, and dates that memorialize homicide victims. “It’s tragic that they have to go through this,” Amico says the woman wrote. “You all are giving such an important service. I’m moved by your website.”

That was a particularly tough email for Amico to receive.

“This woman doesn’t know that in a week the site isn’t going to be updated,” Amico said. “The site has had incredible editorial success in a way that I didn’t imagine was possible. But we can’t find a partner to hand it off to.”

July 25 2012

09:16

Hyperlocal Voices: Richard Gurner, Caerphilly Observer

For the fourth in our new series of Hyperlocal Voices we head back to Wales. Launched by Richard Gurner in July 2009, the Caerphilly Observer acts as a local news and information website for Caerphilly County Borough.

The site is one of a small, but growing, number of financially viable hyperlocal websites. Richard, who remains the Editor of the site, told Damian Radcliffe a little bit about his journey over the last three years.

 

1.  Who were the people behind the blog?

People tend to be a bit surprised when I reveal that it’s only me behind Caerphilly Observer. We do have guest bloggers (local politicians and business leaders) and we have some sports reports sent in from local teams, but apart from that I do most of the editorial on the site and our weekly newsletter.

2.  What made you decide to set up the blog?

Believe it or not, I originally set up Caerphilly Observer while I was living in Brighton – some 200 miles away from the area.

I was working for daily newspaper The Argus at the time as a reporter and simply wanted to keep up with what was going on back home. I also wanted to improve my digital skills and thought setting up a news website would kill two birds with one stone.

It has always been a dream of mine to own a newspaper and I thought that if the website took off with the readers, then maybe one day I could do it as a full-time job. I never thought that would become a reality until it happened in August 2011.

3.  When did you set up the blog and how did you go about it?

With the intention of this maybe becoming a business one day, I purposely set about choosing a name with a “newspaper” feel. If the website was to be taken seriously then it needed to have a strong brand. After several alternatives, Caerphilly Observer was finally chosen by my wife.

I registered the domain name and went about setting-up a self-hosted WordPress site. With next to no technical knowledge of DNS, PHP, Apache and loads of other things that sounded like they were from Star Trek, I ploughed on.

The learning curve has been steep – especially with implementing a custom WordPress theme – but the knowledge gained has been immensely valuable.

I’m very much a hands-on learning person, so I know a lot of it has stuck and it won’t be forgotten.

4.  What other blogs, bloggers or websites influenced you?

I drew a lot of inspiration from several news websites, in not what to do, and loads of other blogs in what to do correctly.

Lichfield Live (Or Lichfield Blog as it was then called) was a big inspiration as was Bristol 24/7.

5.  How did – and do – you see yourself in relation to a traditional news operation?

I definitely see Caerphilly Observer as part of the local media and I’m very pleased to say the community we cover also sees us in the same light.

Quite often people mistake us for a newspaper and think we’re bigger and more established than we actually are – not a bad thing. Obviously, I can’t cover everything and there have been court cases I would have loved to have covered but couldn’t. I used to beat myself up about not being everywhere but more recently I’ve come to terms with the fact that it’s me against the big media trying to create something sustainable.

There are other aspects of the site that equally need taking care of such as business admin and the small matter of selling advertising to fund what I do.

6.  What have been the key moments in the blog’s development editorially?

You know you’re being taken seriously when people contact you to complain. I won’t go into specifics but during last year’s Welsh Assembly elections we were threatened with legal action. We eventually sorted it out without the need for solicitors but it did go to show that we had arrived. If we were irrelevant then I wouldn’t have had that phone call.

7.  What sort of traffic do you get and how has that changed over time?

Our monthly average over the last six months (Jan 2012 to June 2012) is 37,000 page impressions and 13,340 unique visitors. That’s roughly double to what we did in the first half of 2011.

8.  What has been your biggest challenge to date?

Creating revenue is an absolute huge challenge and fundamental to the sustainable future of Caerphilly Observer.

One of our selling points is that we’re local and independent, but if we’re not getting the numbers for local businesses to themselves get business, they’re not going to advertise and we’re not going to make any money.

Paid-for editorial spots and display advertising make up the bulk of my income, but I still do freelance copywriting and journalism to create my wage. It’s nowhere near where it was when I was working for a big media company but the difference is I’m doing what I think serves our readers and advertisers the best. There is also an unrivalled sense of job satisfaction.

Many in hyperlocal circles and the wider media industry state that creating a paying website is impossible – I love proving them wrong.

9.  What story, feature or series are you most proud of?

Without doubt it was our liveblog during the local election count in May this year. It was a fantastic night grabbing interviews and updating the website and we had a record number of visitors and page views for a single day.

The reaction from and interaction with our readers was what kept me going into the small hours.

10.  What are your plans for the future?

To keep growing. I want to have at least one other member of staff and an office in Caerphilly town centre, but that will take a lot of hard work and dedication.

Most of all, I want Caerphilly Observer to be the primary source for local news in the area and have the mind and market share in the local community that traditional media has.

09:16

Hyperlocal Voices: Richard Gurner, Caerphilly Observer

For the fourth in our new series of Hyperlocal Voices we head back to Wales. Launched by Richard Gurner in July 2009, the Caerphilly Observer acts as a local news and information website for Caerphilly County Borough.

The site is one of a small, but growing, number of financially viable hyperlocal websites. Richard, who remains the Editor of the site, told Damian Radcliffe a little bit about his journey over the last three years.

 

1.  Who were the people behind the blog?

People tend to be a bit surprised when I reveal that it’s only me behind Caerphilly Observer. We do have guest bloggers (local politicians and business leaders) and we have some sports reports sent in from local teams, but apart from that I do most of the editorial on the site and our weekly newsletter.

2.  What made you decide to set up the blog?

Believe it or not, I originally set up Caerphilly Observer while I was living in Brighton – some 200 miles away from the area.

I was working for daily newspaper The Argus at the time as a reporter and simply wanted to keep up with what was going on back home. I also wanted to improve my digital skills and thought setting up a news website would kill two birds with one stone.

It has always been a dream of mine to own a newspaper and I thought that if the website took off with the readers, then maybe one day I could do it as a full-time job. I never thought that would become a reality until it happened in August 2011.

3.  When did you set up the blog and how did you go about it?

With the intention of this maybe becoming a business one day, I purposely set about choosing a name with a “newspaper” feel. If the website was to be taken seriously then it needed to have a strong brand. After several alternatives, Caerphilly Observer was finally chosen by my wife.

I registered the domain name and went about setting-up a self-hosted WordPress site. With next to no technical knowledge of DNS, PHP, Apache and loads of other things that sounded like they were from Star Trek, I ploughed on.

The learning curve has been steep – especially with implementing a custom WordPress theme – but the knowledge gained has been immensely valuable.

I’m very much a hands-on learning person, so I know a lot of it has stuck and it won’t be forgotten.

4.  What other blogs, bloggers or websites influenced you?

I drew a lot of inspiration from several news websites, in not what to do, and loads of other blogs in what to do correctly.

Lichfield Live (Or Lichfield Blog as it was then called) was a big inspiration as was Bristol 24/7.

5.  How did – and do – you see yourself in relation to a traditional news operation?

I definitely see Caerphilly Observer as part of the local media and I’m very pleased to say the community we cover also sees us in the same light.

Quite often people mistake us for a newspaper and think we’re bigger and more established than we actually are – not a bad thing. Obviously, I can’t cover everything and there have been court cases I would have loved to have covered but couldn’t. I used to beat myself up about not being everywhere but more recently I’ve come to terms with the fact that it’s me against the big media trying to create something sustainable.

There are other aspects of the site that equally need taking care of such as business admin and the small matter of selling advertising to fund what I do.

6.  What have been the key moments in the blog’s development editorially?

You know you’re being taken seriously when people contact you to complain. I won’t go into specifics but during last year’s Welsh Assembly elections we were threatened with legal action. We eventually sorted it out without the need for solicitors but it did go to show that we had arrived. If we were irrelevant then I wouldn’t have had that phone call.

7.  What sort of traffic do you get and how has that changed over time?

Our monthly average over the last six months (Jan 2012 to June 2012) is 37,000 page impressions and 13,340 unique visitors. That’s roughly double to what we did in the first half of 2011.

8.  What has been your biggest challenge to date?

Creating revenue is an absolute huge challenge and fundamental to the sustainable future of Caerphilly Observer.

One of our selling points is that we’re local and independent, but if we’re not getting the numbers for local businesses to themselves get business, they’re not going to advertise and we’re not going to make any money.

Paid-for editorial spots and display advertising make up the bulk of my income, but I still do freelance copywriting and journalism to create my wage. It’s nowhere near where it was when I was working for a big media company but the difference is I’m doing what I think serves our readers and advertisers the best. There is also an unrivalled sense of job satisfaction.

Many in hyperlocal circles and the wider media industry state that creating a paying website is impossible – I love proving them wrong.

9.  What story, feature or series are you most proud of?

Without doubt it was our liveblog during the local election count in May this year. It was a fantastic night grabbing interviews and updating the website and we had a record number of visitors and page views for a single day.

The reaction from and interaction with our readers was what kept me going into the small hours.

10.  What are your plans for the future?

To keep growing. I want to have at least one other member of staff and an office in Caerphilly town centre, but that will take a lot of hard work and dedication.

Most of all, I want Caerphilly Observer to be the primary source for local news in the area and have the mind and market share in the local community that traditional media has.

September 02 2011

16:54

Sourcemap Crowdsources Product Supply Chains, Carbon Footprints

This post was authored by Matthew Hockenberry, who co-created Sourcemap as a visiting scientist with the MIT Center for Civic Media.

Knowing where things come from is a fundamental part of humanity. Things are very different when they come from different places. The provenance of a work tells us the importance of not only where something has come from, but when it was created and who it was that fashioned it. Ancient vessels in Pompeii bear the eternal mark of Vesuvinum, and shelves of China are still identified by their geographic namesake.

With supply chains we talk about traceability, or being able to follow the source through every link on the chain. Environmental impact, climate change, conflict minerals and human rights abuses -- these are problems underpinning global trade. Defining our relationships with things as relationships with places and with people brings a renewed sense of humanity to our purchasing practices.

Sourcemap is an initiative to make information on the source of products and their supply chains public, so that we can make informed choices about their social and environmental impact. Developed by the MIT Center for Civic Media and the MIT Media Lab's Tangible Media Group, Sourcemap has grown over the past few years.

SOURCEMAP: WHERE WE'VE COME FROM

We created Sourcemap to allow anyone -- businesses, consumers, journalists and researchers -- to share the stories of global supply chains and their impacts on the world. Since our site became publicly accessible, we've been fortunate enough to have some wonderful individuals and organizations contribute to our work. We have more than 3,000 published maps and over 6,000 mapmakers, some of which you can see at the new Sourcemap.com.

Each day, the site features new items contributed by entrepreneurs, brand enthusiasts, students and researchers. Some are carefully researched case studies of unique and unfamiliar products. Some are personal explorations of where someone is traveling, or an investigation into what he or she bought at the store that day. Each of them is a testament to the curiosity about the things that occupy our lives and where they came from before they got to us.

There are sourcemaps of everything from an electric car to a detonator for blasting oil wells, from supplier networks of airplanes to carbon accounting for teleconferencing, from the industrial food on your plate to the small supply chains of local cuisine.

Bringing consumers and producers into the same dialogue has become a cornerstone of the work. We not only have the "right to know" where something comes from, we want producers to have the "freedom to say." These two groups -- those who consume and those who produce -- have been separate too long. They have grown apart not only in our minds, but in their placement in the world. To bring them together is to tie together communities from opposite sides of the world, to untangle the knots that have bound our understanding of global production and global supply chains.

PROVENANCE

Housed in the MIT Media Lab, Sourcemap began its life surrounded by people in the midst of making things -- things with blinking lights and beeping sounds. We began to ask questions about these things. What is the impact of a modern product? If we wanted to make it more sustainable, what material would we use? Should it be local, renewable or recycled?

We built something to answer these questions for product designers at the Media Lab, but we soon realized that everyone makes design choices: planning a trip, stocking a shelf, or putting a meal together. All of these decisions bring together disparate components from around the globe. And if we're all designers, then we should all be informed about our choices and the impact they can have on the world.

The growth of the local food movement brought together individuals deeply concerned with the sourcing of ingredients in their own communities. Our earliest collaboration involved a local food chef and caterer, Robert Harris, who was interested in sharing his sourcing practices with his customers. Sourcemap allowed him to create a menu that showed customers exactly where their food comes came from. In the summer months, when the majority of Robert's food is sourced locally, this practice connects customers with not only the ingredients in their food, but with the local community of New England farmers who grow it.

Through early fieldwork in the remote Highlands and islands of Scotland, we met people sensitive to the beauty of the land around them and the fragile community it supports. It's a community in search of a place in the larger world -- looking to continue a specific way of life and sustain the people who practice it. We met a hotel owner who wanted to offset her guests' carbon footprint, reinvesting it in the preservation of the forests they had come to see. We met a local butcher who wanted to understand the carbon footprint of his business. He discovered that the transportation of his native cattle, sheep and pork is only a minor part of the life cycle impact compared to the practices his suppliers adopt in raising the animals.

Sam Faircliff, who runs the Cairngorn Brewery, saw that her local industry relies on a bottling plant in central England. Building a plant at her facility drops the distance a bottle of beer travels by two-thirds, and improves competitiveness, creates jobs, and strengthens the region. There is more than one kind of sustainability, and this experience in the Highlands revealed that it was just as much about people as it was about things.

USING SOURCEMAP TO TELL NEW STORIES

Sourcemap provides information about where things come from, and in doing so, it presents a particular narrative of the trip products make before they get to us. Educators and journalists can use this information to develop research, synthesize it with other perspectives, and tell new stories that situate a product's place in our world.

futurecraft_poster09_forweb-184x300.jpg

Leo Bonanni, CEO of Sourcemap, held a "Futurecraft" class at MIT, which was an important developmental force for Sourcemap, and its role has continued with classes at NYU and Parsons. Parsons master's student Jennifer Sharpe mapped and filmed a video documentary revealing the supply chain behind a line of organic clothing. At the show, "Organic by John Patrick," clothing was shown alongside maps and videos detailing the larger process of manufacture and sourcing. One side of the gallery was filled with the flash of cameras as the clothing was modeled. On the other side, a film showed the sheep farm were the wool comes and the shops and craftspeople responsible for making it into finished garments. In cases like this one, food and clothing connect us to not only each other, but to the natural world that provides the possibility for their production.

Less close to home, we've seen instructors use Sourcemap with their students in numerous locations including Boston, New York, California, Montana, France, Slovakia, New Zealand and Australia. We've traveled to see the social impact of cotton farming in India and gotten a firsthand perspective on fair trade.

A collaboration with the University of Montana helped students understand food production issues that are a critical factor in Montana's future sustainability. These journalism students were able to map the fragile state of their food economy, as the raw materials necessary to produce beef and grain products must leave the state to be processed into finished foods. In each of these classrooms, Sourcemap is mobilized by communities that are displaced by the disjunctures of global supply chains and local economic, cultural and social forces.

FOOTPRINTS

This project comes from an appreciation for the role of the material world in our daily lives. It has, from the beginning, been about understanding how we can have more respect and appreciation for material culture. Things cannot speak, but if they could, what would they say? There's no easy answer for the role of objects in our lives. It's not about passing universal judgment on which things are "local," "organic," "green" or "good." As we saw in the Highlands, communities have unique needs, and they need to understand the supply chains that involve them to make choices that are sustainable over the long-term.

Things mean different things to different people, and the solution is to let the things do the talking.

Sourcemap has evolved significantly since the first few days when we scratched out a design for a "map of where things come from." The team has grown. We have begun architecting the next generation of Sourcemap. We've formed an initiative to unravel the mysteries of footprints and impacts. We've taken trips around the world on a mission to connect communities of consumers with communities of producers. Volunteers from digital media, business, design and journalism have offered their time and effort to make the project more effective and inclusive. Each map begins when someone asks -- just as we did when we began our work -- "Where does this come from?"

As part of this evolution, we recently announced a complete new release of Sourcemap, built with the efforts of our growing team and Chief Architect Reed Underwood. There are also a few changes in the way we do things. Sourcemap is now Sourcemap.com, the "crowd-sourced directory of product supply chains and carbon footprints." Under Bonanni's guidance, and through work with companies, non-profit organizations, experts, and everyday people, we hope that one day Sourcemap.com will allow us to make sustainable choices about the products and services we encounter.

At the same time, I will focus on Sourcemap Foundation, a non-profit research organization dedicated to understanding the fundamental issues at stake in global logistics.

The Brundtland commissioned defined sustainability as "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations." Nothing is sustainable universally -- some things will be sustainable for some communities, and some will be for others. For us, sustainability gives us a connection with the past as we look to the future. It's the opportunity to learn from our mistakes while appreciating the legacy that has been handed down to us.

To understand our community and culture we must act like archaeologists, but what we practice is an archaeology of the present. It is possible to know where things come from. Instead of waiting to position the everyday objects of our lives from a future a hundred years from now, we must begin to unravel the origins of their people and places today.

March 04 2011

12:05

Further your Knowledge of ICT4D at the University of London

A great educational opportunity - MA in ICT for sustainable development at the University of London

The ICT for development (ICT4D) programme is a new strand within the established and highly successful Master course in Practising Sustainable Development at the Royal Holloway, University of London. The new Masters tries to balance out the proportions between the research and practice and it is designed for those who want to launch or further their careers as development practitioners or scholars.

The University is looking for the people with a good academic background in a field related i.e. natural or social sciences, and/or considerable professional experience in the development and environment protection field.

Read more about the programme and apply

February 22 2011

14:00

Help Spot.Us Find a Path to Financial Sustainability

Spot.Us recently launched a new design, so this is an opportune time to write a "State of the Spot" post -- something we haven't done since the website was six months old. I hope to lay out how far we've come and what's on our plate and make a call to arms to the Spot.Us community and anyone else interested in the future of journalism.

In the two years since our site has launched, we've funded over 160 projects with the help of 5,000 contributors, a fifth of whom contributed more than once. We've done this in collaboration with 95 organizations, and our reporting projects have won eight journalism awards.

In short, we're making a difference. Whether it's funding FOIA requests, exposing the lies of a sheriff, or providing a deeper understanding of those less fortunate in our society, the stories we fund make a difference.

I earnestly believe in the power of an informed democracy. The guiding principle at Spot.Us is to make the process of journalism more transparent and participatory -- not merely to inform but to engage. Our site is a testament to the notion that people can take ownership over their information needs if there is a platform to support it.

Partnerships make our impact bigger. Take Oakland Local, for example, which has invested $700 into Spot.Us pitches and received $7,000 worth of reporting in return. Whether it's Mother Jones, The UpTake, WitnessLA or the myriad news organizations (many of them non-profit or community-based) we've collaborated with, our collective efforts allow stories to gain a wider audience, and we empower partnering organizations to do the fearless reporting that our communities need.

Room for Improvement

With all that said, I'm not satisfied. As Clay Shirky noted, our communities can become rife with "casual endemic corruption" if we don't figure out how to keep the public informed and engaged. The Spot.Us platform can and will improve to continue this fight.

Our redesign is an example of forward momentum, and now it's time to tackle the next hurdle: How can Spot.Us become a fully sustainable organization and increase the number of stories we support? Although 2011 looks to be promising, I'm already taking time to look to 2012 and beyond.

Running a startup organization means making choices. This is my attempt to explain to the Spot.Us community, journalists, and others who follow us what choices I'm debating, what obstacles we're facing, and to ask for your advice.

One of the biggest Spot.Us. opportunities is its unique sponsorship model. I've written about this at length before -- from announcing the idea to launching it to seeing early success. As far as I know, we are the only media organization experimenting with the idea of letting the public manage our advertising budget. It's our budget, but your decision. In many ways, this idea is as revolutionary as Spot.Us itself. Community members can fund a story without spending any of their own funds. Meanwhile, sponsors get meaningful engagement from community members, which can turn into tangible return on investment. Our advertising is transparent, participatory and therefore jibes with the mission of Spot.Us to get the public involved in the process of journalism. We are just acknowledging that advertising is part of that process.

Our sponsorship feature has created an important revenue stream for Spot.Us. At the moment, however, it doesn't offset our burn rate. The challenge is getting enough sponsors when we have no sales team (my spare time doesn't really count). We also need to find the right sponsorships which will engage community members so they continue to come back. This is compounded because our model is unique. I haven't found a media planning and buying agency to take it on, even though I'm offering a higher-than-normal commission.

How You Can Help

Tackling this challenge is one of the things I'm working on during a good chunk of my remaining time at the Reynolds Journalism Institute. Any help from a community member on the below action items would be greatly appreciated:

  1. Join Spot.Us and try our latest sponsored survey (free credits) and give me feedback on the experience. Take the challenge of doing the next three sponsorships we have planned (the next one will be sponsored by us to get feedback on how to better sell these).
  2. Help create the sales material for our sponsorship model -- maybe even find an individual or agency to take on the process of selling for a commission.

  3. Draft a long-term business plan with a road map for how Spot.Us would have to scale to become sustainable.
  4. Write a handbook for community-funded reporting, which would be a gift to the larger journalism community.
  5. And finally -- an A.P.I. with PRX, ASAP.

The Nitty Gritty

Allow me to elaborate. First, in regards to the material to sell sponsorships, our current sponsorship page doesn't do the concept justice. I can talk almost anyone's ear off about this model. We have some data about our users, but it hasn't been presented in any kind of media kit. Hopefully, a media planning/buying agency or an independent ad-sales person could use this material. I'm comfortable sharing a healthy commission, but we should provide them with the best sales material possible.

If you are an ad salesperson interested in working on an innovative project, let me know. If you want to contribute some pro-bono time to help us create the material, your karma will increase 13.6 points!

Up next is a business plan that shows a path to sustainability. I've played with some numbers and believe it's wholly possible if Spot.Us can grow its sponsorship model. It's a bit of a supply-demand issue. If we get more sponsorships (supply), I believe we can support more pitches and increase the number of surveys taken (demand). If either side falls short, we fail. At the moment, our demand is much higher than the supply. If somehow tomorrow we got our ideal number of sponsorships, I am not sure if we could hit the demand numbers, but I do believe these numbers are possible by 2012 with the right messaging and if the sponsorships are coming in regularly. The supply-demand conundrum is a bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario. If one side doesn't come through, the circle of life won't continue, and Spot.Us lets one side down.

The business plan I intend to lay out will show what numbers we'd need to hit on both sides to reach a sustainable equilibrium, one that funds stories, provides sponsors with an appropriate amount of engagement and leaves Spot.Us as a strong forward-leaning non-profit.

The community-funded reporting handbook is being led by Jonathan Peters, under my supervision. The handbook will be informed by Spot.Us experiences, but my hope is that it becomes a resource for anyone, regardless of a relationship to Spot.Us.

In regards to the application programing interface, it's important to remember that Spot.Us is not a news site but a news platform. In that same vein, we don't have to be a destination site. If partnering sites can use our back-end to fundraise for projects on their sites, then more power to them. But first we have a few technical hurdles to overcome.

Luckily, PRX is a willing guinea pig I mean, partner. ;) If we are able to create a seamless A.P.I. that integrates into a site, we can scale up the number of pitches (demand) Spot.Us has in its stables whenever we get a new sponsor. In some respects, this turns Spot.Us into a 21st-century advertising network in addition to inviting the public to support journalism.

So what now?

Obviously, we don't have a shortage of things to do. I remain encouraged both by the journalism community that supports our work and the public at large that has shown it supports quality reporting -- stories that need to be told, stories that can make a difference in the lives of individuals and the communities we live in.

Although that is exciting, I remain humbled and don't want to lose sight of what is at risk.

In the 1985 film "Brewster's Millions," Richard Pryor's character spends millions of dollars designing a room he could "die in." The designer goes through various iterations, each time getting closer and closer to the goal but never hitting the nail on the head. Eventually, the designer gets it right. This happens just as we find out the main character is broke, and an army of movers come to collect all the furnishings.

Aside from being one of my favorite comedians, Pryor, with the tip of his hat, touches on one of my biggest fears with Spot.Us. This new redesign leaves the site looking awesome. All the pieces are on the table, and the puzzle is coming together and beginning to show a beautiful image of a community-powered site. If Spot.Us isn't able to reach this dream, it would pain my heart, but I feel I could tip my hat in just the same way. Still, I feel we have a dragon by the tail and the tools in hand to bring it down.

Why I'm Sharing This

  1. Spot.Us as an experiment has always been about openness. As the journalism industry rants and raves about experimentation, I still don't see it happening, at least not at the level I think is possible. The more I can show what I'm doing -- the success, challenges, failures, and fears -- the more I hope others will follow, even if it's not "the industry" but rather lone and brave individuals. The water is fine, and I truly believe it is what we need.

  2. Somewhat selfishly, I think there are ways the Spot.Us community can help push us forward, especially with finding sponsors. Our current sales material is all here (it'll get better, promise), and we do offer a commission to anyone who lands a sponsor. I'm happy to give anyone the talking points.

  3. A similar plea is for any folks who want to dive into the numbers with me and come up with a long-term business plan and a proposal for funding. How I feel about the foundation world is a post in itself. Suffice it to say, it takes money to make money, and any funding we seek would have to abide by the old proverb of teaching people how to fish rather than giving them free meals. Again, we have a tangible revenue stream, but we need to shore up. As a non-profit, we can't get VC funding -- unless it's the kind the Texas Tribune gets), so we'd have to look to philanthropists.

I certainly can't predict what will happen. I never could. But that's what makes this an exciting ride and what I believe empowers the Spot.Us community. We've come this far only because you see value in our efforts. Together, we've funded meaningful stories in partnership with nearly 100 publications. I'm happy to say that I've seen many of them make a real impact in how our communities function.

I'm excited to tackle the future. I hope you'll be there with me


February 15 2011

06:34

Peggy Duvette, WiserEarth

 

I am Peggy, Executive Director of WiserEarth.org. WiserEarth helps the global movement of people and organizations working toward social justice, indigenous rights, and environmental stewardship connect, collaborate, share knowledge, and build alliances.

I am interested in:

- Ways to make non profits connect and collaborate better so they are more efficient and don't replicate efforts.

- Our global movement of non profit and grassroot leaders, and the intersection of online and offline balance

- Philantrophy and better giving strategy (WiserGiving)

- Food and simplicity of living

 

February 11 2011

18:08

Steve Williams, Director, Corporate Social Responsbility, SAP

Hi everyone,

As part of the global SAP Corporate Social Responsibility team, I am responsible for managing our worldwide Technology Donation program that provides free reporting and data visualizaton tools to over 900 non-profts each year in 15 countries. We have been partnering with TechSoup for quite a while now and am excited about the many possibilites to engage.

I am most interested in building capacity in the non-profit sector through technology. At SAP we can bring a wide experience in business management along with the skills of 60,000 employees aroud the world that want to contribute. We also have a large developer ecosystem part of the SAP Community Network. We have also been supporting interesting work around impact measurement for non-profits and social enterprises through the Demonstrating Value Project

What I am most interested in from collaborators is understanding how the different pieces of technology (hardware, networking, different software systems) can be integrated and easily consumed by non-profits. I'm also interested in going beyond traditional training on specific applications to helping organizations create strategies and build operational systems that can deliver better results. Finally I want to learn from, and share with, colleagues best practices on engaging employees with technology donations and how to embed these practices into the business so that CSR programs are not "off to the side" but a core part of operations.

You can find me on twitter @constructive and my (infrequently updated) blog at http://www.constructive.net

January 19 2011

18:30

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

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

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

“There is nothing especially virtuous about being broke”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A different philosophical view about partnership”

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

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

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

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

The value of business experience

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

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

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

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

January 05 2011

14:05

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 07 2010

16:56

Video Volunteers Launches 'IndiaUnheard' for Rural Issues

Video Volunteers recently launched IndiaUnheard, a new project (and website) attempting to create a bridge, through community media, between disconnected rural communities and web audiences who are interested in news on issues of human rights, development and corruption. You can see the result and watch the community videos here. As this is a relatively new venture -- it's only about 4 to 5 months old -- I'd love feedback from the highly knowledgeable Knight and MediaShift Idea Lab community.

Here are some videos to show you what it's about: The village of Natpura, featured in this video below, in rural Uttar Pradesh has no women left in it. Every single one of them has been sold into prostitution rings in India and around the world by their families.

At the other side of the country, in another village, impoverished children featured in this video are not able to take their national exams because headmasters demand a bribe their families cannot afford to pay.

These two stories were broken not by mainstream journalists but by people living in these actual communities -- people who themselves experience these same kinds of exploitation and disadvantage. Because of that, the reporters (or community correspondent, as Video Volunteers calls them) have a vested interest in making sure something happens as a result of the video. They are de facto activists. In the case of the second video, the teacher in question school has been demoted. After seeing that result, the people in a neighboring village asked the correspondent to come make a video about their horrible school, and the teacher in that school was also suspended. Angry villagers mounted a rally led by our young, 19 year-old community correspondent, Mukesh Rajak, himself a young Dalit from the "lowest" caste in India. Mukesh went to the government official's office and showed her the video on his cell phone. The official was furious and took action against the bribe-taking teacher. This is the power of community media and the cascading effect of local media.

How it Works

Our 30 community correspondents (CCs) are stationed across India, nearly one in every state. They make us on average one video a month and we pay them about $30 a video. We are trying to set them up as entrepreneurs -- they make videos, they get paid. If they don't, they don't get paid. This is different from the more charitable model of most community media and is possible because we are working with adults, not youth or children.

The first 30 CCs were trained in March 2010, with support from the News Challenge. They had a two-week residential training in all manner of video journalism. In our primary program, dubbed the Community Video Units, we give them 18 months of full time training that we have felt is necessary when working with such rural communities, so a short intensive training was a departure for us. We plan to take in two new batches of Community Correspondents every year.

A Diverse Network

Community Correspondents are dalits, tribals, Muslims, rural women, among others. Our CC in Chhattisgarh is Sarwat. He is a member of his village council and feels that IndiaUnheard offers a better platform for tackling real issues than local government does. Rohini is our CC from Walhe village in Maharashtra. She was married off right after she finished her 10th grade. She is determined to change the condition of women in her community and her videos bear testimony to this. She's made video stories on devdasis (temple slaves/prostitutes), early marriage and anti-women customs like dowry. Christyraj is a transgender CC from Bangalore. He is one of the only transgender journalists in India and works tirelessly to bring the issues of his community to the fore.

Since May 1 (we launched on World Press Day) a new video report on key issues such as caste, conflict, identity and education is being released every day on the IndiaUnheard website. They are also further distributed through Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other online news portals like Ground Report. Though these communities in India don't have Internet access, they are speaking directly to a global web audience. The impact stories we have -- such as medical supplies being delivered to villages after an IndiaUnheard report, by a web viewer, and people getting their ration cards because of the pressure of exposure on corrupt officials -- are examples of something that is still very high tech in the developing world (cell phone video) actually seeping in to make an impact on corruption.

The people we work with are still totally unconnected, with only one cell phone shared between many family members, no computer skills and Internet cafes often hours away. We struggle with how to bring their media and their voices to a global audience when they themselves can't participate in the online dialog. We've designed some rather unusual solutions to this digital divide challenge-- such as maintaining Facebook and twitter accounts for them which we maintain on their behalf and call them on the phone when anyone asks them a question -- but the internet is still rather unreal and insignificant to them, though storytelling and the desire to be heard certainly is not.

IndiaUnheard fits with lots of efforts being made in India by the UN, the Indian government and NGOs to promote local democracy. IndiaUnheard's role is to promote democracy by enabling marginalized communities to represent themselves and their issues. Hyperlocal media models empower people with the tools to bring attention to their own issues and to come out from the shadows. India is the world's largest democracy; however, most people don't know their rights as information does not reach the poor majority. Simultaneously, government and the mainstream media cannot easily access the knowledge and perspectives of the poor. IndiaUnheard enables marginalized people to influence policies, highlight gross injustices and take a stand, so a better-informed nation can better tackle issues like rural corruption or failing rural schools or health systems.

A Business Model?

IndiaUnheard is an innovative business model for democratizing the media. I've written about this in other posts on MediaShift Idea Lab to make the point that India and other developing countries have a very small number of stringers in rural areas and those that exist are usually not professionally trained journalists. Video Volunteers believes the poor can be winners in the changing media landscape and that some community correspondents can, in time, support themselves in the market. It's not just that our community correspondents would be cheaper than other freelancers the mainstream could draw on. With the advent of citizen journalism and changing viewing habits thanks to the Internet, the world is hungry to see content they've never seen before. Our producers are in places that the mainstream media cannot or does not access so this is a window into the real India.

Mainstream journalists working in India tend to cover only a certain demographic, they do not dig deep to uncover the stories of the marginalized. Video Volunteers will be feeding IndiaUnheard stories to print and television media, giving journalists -- especially local media -- another source of interesting stories.

What Next?

Our ambition is to expand the program nationally to a point where there is one community correspondent in all 626 districts of India, and internationally, in partnership with NGOs, filmmakers and journalists. This is totally funding dependent, of course, but if we can find people to invest for a few years, I believe that eventually we can be earning a sizable chunk of our revenues from the mainstream media. The question is: is it 20 percent? Fifty percent? Eighty percent? We are trying to work that out now.

In the longer term, this low cost, innovative model is a way for every village in the developing world to have someone trained to use the latest technologies to advocate for their rights. There are now video-enabled cell phones in all corners of the world, and a model like IndiaUnheard can enable these technologies to be used to capture human rights violations and bring them to the attention of the world.

So, please go to IndiaUnheard and watch some of the videos. Write a comment, ask a question of the person who made the video. We'll get on the phone to them and post you an answer. In doing this, you'll help one isolated community in rural India feel a little bit more "heard."

November 19 2010

16:00

The Washington Independent is folding, the CEO goes over the books and outlines the lessons he’s learned

On Wednesday, the nonprofit news and politics site The Washington Independent announced that, after just under three years of publishing, it’s closing shop. Its state-based sister site The New Mexico Independent said it would reduce its staff to just one part-time blogger.

News organizations open and close all the time, but this one hit home for me. I joined The Washington Independent in late 2007 as its managing editor and went on to be its top editor before joining the Lab. Several of my former colleagues have already lamented the loss of a valuable news organization; I could do the same, but in the spirit of the Lab, I’d like instead to look at what went wrong financially and what lessons could be learned by other nonprofit publishers from its experiences.

To get a sense of what happened, I spoke with my old boss, David Bennahum, the CEO of the American Independent News Network, which publishes the Washington and New Mexico sites plus a network of six other sites. Back in January, Bennahum told me that in the first five years the organization existed, he’d raised $11.5 million. With that kind of impressive fundraising, what went wrong? And what kind of outlook do other nonprofit news sites have? Here are three contributing factors to the closing:

The economic crisis

Nonprofit organizations are no less susceptible to the pain of an economic downturn. In the past two years, foundations and other donors regularly cited shirnking endowments as a reason for not renewing gifts or initiating new giving. That forced the network to spend less and still dip into reserves to cover costs. “It’s actually quite difficult to get these [nonprofit news sites] funded and get them to run,” he said, no matter the editorial success of the site. “It just never gets easier.”

In an email Bennahum sent to his staff, which he forwarded to me and is published in full at the end of this post, he broke down the numbers like this:

  • In 2006, 2007, and 2008 we raised $8.3 million and spent $6.5 million.
  • We ended 2008 with a surplus of $1.6 million.
  • In 2009 we raised $2.7 million and spent $3.1 million, eating into our reserves by $400,000.
  • In 2010 we will raise $1.9 million and spend $2.7 million; we expect this to leave us around $400,000 in reserves.

Going forward, each site in the network will need to generate enough fundraising to support its operations — successful fundraising for one site will no longer support other nodes in the network. The Washington and New Mexico sites were the two not pulling in enough to cover their costs independently. They also both launched in 2008 with a similar structural problem. In Washington’s case, a single $600,000 donation largely got the project off the ground. New Mexico launched with the backing of a small pool of donors. Those early donors didn’t renew another year.

Not enough multi-year commitments

Bennahum says in hindsight, he should not have launched without multi-year commitments from big donors, even if it meant starting off smaller. For example, had he negotiated the $600,000 donation as three $200,000 grants over three years, The Washington Independent would have been smaller, but more stable. “We would have been half the size — which means today, instead of this position, I might have had several hundred thousand more dollars left,” he said. “We probably wouldn’t be closing The Washington Independent.”

The Washington Independent launched with two full-time editors, about ten reporters (a mix of full and part time) and a substantial freelance budget. By the closing announcement, the staff was down to one editor and four reporters. “You have to have your own diet. If someone puts out a big buffet in front of you, you have to think twice,” he said. “That’s a lesson I’ve learned that we’ll just never repeat again.”

Not growing gradually

Bennahum says the next year will focus on what he described as “a more diversified mix of journalism projects that work in recessionary times.” Earlier this year he launched a site called The American Independent that aggregates stories from around the network and runs original content from states without standalone sites. The idea is to produce new content without the commitment of launching a new state-based site. Currently, reporters file stories from North Carolina and Texas. The funding for those reporters ends in January 2011, which they understood when hired on contract. The site, though, will continue to operate.

“The incremental cost to adding reporters [to The American Independent] is potentially a much lower price than you could operate a newsroom,” he said. “It creates a much more organic and gentle growth path.”

The network will continue operating sites with small staffs of one to three reporters in Iowa, Colorado, Michigan and Minnesota. The Florida Independent received a grant from the Knight Foundation this year for $175,000 (the network’s largest donation) and will continue to operate with a staff of five.

Bennahum says he wants to experiment more with syndicating content across his sites to see if even a site with one reporter can serve a community. “It’s just a great thought experiment,” he said.

So what does The Washington Independent’s demise say about the growing nonprofit sector of journalism? Bennahum said that, for now at least, journalism still isn’t in the same category as the sort of nonprofit entities that get long-term foundation support, like hospitals or schools. Philanthropists are still watching where the news industry is headed.

“‘Let the market sort it out,’ is a lucid response, and not necessarily wrong,” he said. “For the foreseeable future, success [in nonprofit journalism] is going to be the exception to the rule.”

David Bennahum’s staff email:

Dear Team Members:

In four years, we have built an extraordinary news organization. We can proudly track 600,000 monthly readers, and cite dozens of stories that have had a demonstrable impact in the communities we serve. Along the way, we’ve also received over 40 awards for excellence in journalism. We have pioneered a model that melds the benefits of the Internet (speed, voice, dialogue) with the discipline of serious investigative journalism.

I am proud of all we have accomplished together.

It is all the more remarkable for how we’ve done this in the worst economic climate since the Great Depression.

So I want to be transparent with you in regards to our financial position, as it will have consequences for 2011. Here’s the arithmetic:

  • In 2006, 2007, and 2008 we raised $8.3 million and spent $6.5 million.
  • We ended 2008 with a surplus of $1.6 million.
  • In 2009 we raised $2.7 million and spent $3.1 million, eating into our reserves by $400,000.
  • In 2010 we will raise $1.9 million and spend $2.7 million; we expect this to leave us around $400,000 in reserves.

Thus we have, for two years, been self-financing from reserves accrued during better economic times. I am grateful for these reserves, and that we could use them judiciously over 24 months. However, it is no longer possible to self-finance the gap between income and expenditures, for the simple reason that our cash reserves are too limited to do so.

Much of the shortfall in our income has to do with the larger economic climate. But not all. Here are some other factors that I, frankly, underestimated: We agreed, in the past, to open programs without multi-year commitments from supporters. In some cases, these supporters have not renewed their commitments, yet we have kept operating the programs at close to scale. In particular, this is the case both for The New Mexico Independent and The Washington Independent.

We are approaching our fifth year of operations; some of our founding supporters have, understandably, felt that the time has arrived to shift their support elsewhere. This is a relatively predictable pattern in philanthropy: 3-5 years of support from any given source is a safe assumption. Replacing this support with new support requires a 9-18 month development cycle. In this economic climate, it is closer to 18 months. The net result is that we see, in addition to a shortfall, our most conservative estimates actually coming true. For instance, in the summer of 2009 we did a worst case scenario for 2010, with regards to income, and projected $1.9 million in revenues. This is precisely what happened.

So going forward, we must adopt a new set of rules, to ensure our overall viability through an economic crisis that persists, and may persist for several more years:

Institute “pay go” budgets: programs must be supported. When they are not, they have to be either closed or operated at the level being supported. In the case of new programs, require multi-year commitments as a precondition for operations. This is what we have successfully done in Florida, where the program has two year commitments.

Be more innovative in terms of leveraging the “network effect” to help smaller programs operate with limited budgets. We pioneered this in Minnesota, where we’ve learned to operate a robust site with one full time reporter. The site is successful thanks, in part, to the way we can syndicate content throughout the network from our sister sites.

Using this framework, there are two programs that, unfortunately, are no longer sustainable at their current levels: The New Mexico Independent and The Washington Independent.

In the case of New Mexico, we are going to institute the Minnesota model, with the aim of working to rebuild support over time. In the case of The Washington Independent, we are going to merge the site with The American Independent, and now have one national place (instead of two) for all our reporting. Over time, we aim to build up our reporting capacity in Washington as support develops.

And going forward, we will be looking to a different architecture with regards to how we create new sites: more of our programs will live as “state pages” on AmericanIndependent.com rather than as stand alone websites. This will provide us with more flexibility and leave us less vulnerable to sudden changes in support levels.

More details in terms of how these changes will affect you will be forthcoming shortly from the editorial team.

I know that this news is hard, and the decisions that led to this did not come easily. We have learned to work with less, and done so admirably, but I am taking the prudent course that will ensure our network and its mission can thrive. And if things improve faster than anticipated, I look forward to having that good problem on our hands.

Please know that you can come to me with any questions about this situation.

Thank you.

Best,
David

November 18 2010

02:33

Building a successful technology venture for the bottom of the pyramid

This is a long overdue update from our end! We were awarded a grant in the 2008 News Challenge for developing low-cost technologies for community radio stations in India. We have come a long way since then. Our systems are now in use in 9 stations in India, and growing steadily. But we have also realized that there is a lot more that needs to be done to push the community radio movement in India. Thankfully the Knight Foundation has given us considerable flexibility to tackle various problems as and when they arise. Let me first give you a context, and then tell you more about what exactly we are doing, the challenges of operating in this space, and our future plans.

The context

In late 2006, the Government of India announced a revised policy on community radio wherein non-profit organizations were allowed to set up radio stations. This was expected to kick off community radio in India in a big way. The growth has been steady since then, though arguably somewhat slow. There are now some 20 NGO-led community radio stations, and a handful of stations set up by educational institutions which also do a lot of community service.

Setting up and operating a community radio station can be quite complex though. The licensing process is twisted -- it can take almost a year to get a license! Many organizations have in fact given up the idea of setting up a radio station because of the long drawn out and painful bureaucratic process. Cost of setup is another issue. A basic radio station can be set up in less than $10,000, including the cost of transmitter, a few computers, a simple studio, and an initial training of content acquisition and production. But so far in India it has mostly been large NGOs that have set up stations, and have typically spent upwards $25,000 in studio setup. Most of these costs are covered through project grants for which the NGOs apply.

After the station is setup, the operations are complicated too. Cost is surely an issue, more so because one-time grants run out and the stations are expected to become financially sustainable over time. But this is hard, given that advertising in remote rural locations does not have many buyers. Some stations do get contributions from the community, but this is again rare because the stations have to first prove their worth to the community. Staying engaged with the community is the goal of a community radio station anyway, but it takes time and a lot of learning. The station staff need training on how to produce programs, ideas on community engagement, etc, all of which have steep learning curves.

GRINS

Where do we fit in? We stated three challenges in our Knight proposal, and all three of them still stand out:

**1. Technology: **Radio stations need to be improved in low-cost ways to make community engagement seamless. With the wide proliferation of mobile phones, this means that the broadcast medium of radio needs to be enhanced with bi-directional communication through mobile phones. This is exactly what our system does -- it enables a seamless integration between radio and telephony, so that through a single console the radio station operator can make and receive phone calls, conference among multiple callers, put calls on air, archive them, send and receive SMS messages, and run polls, question and answer sessions, announcements, etc. In addition, our system also enables content management and scheduling to handle day-to-day operations of typical community radio stations.

**2. Financial sustainability: **A single radio station has too small a catchment area to be attractive for any advertisers. But a network of radio stations can still be potentially marketed to companies interested in rural areas, or even to different government departments that want to disseminate timely information on vaccination camps or employment opportunities in the area. We have therefore worked on a connectivity module in our system that periodically syncs up with a central server on the Internet to collect messages for broadcast, or report feedback. Feedback is a crucial part of any advertising or information dissemination campaign. How many people called in response to the information? Were there any grievance reports on government projects? How often was the advertisement broadcast? Such statistics are also automatically collected and shipped back.

**3. Content training: **A few organizations in India are training community radio stations on content production and community engagement techniques. But there is lots of variation. Some stations are trained in producing informational programs through narratives and interviews of experts, while some others produce very interesting and engaging content in enacting stories in drama formats. Both these stations can learn from each other by listening to content, asking questions, and giving feedback. We are building such a social networking platform for the community radio staff. This will not be a web-based system though, because many staff are not comfortable with the Internet or with typing out messages. We will build this as a voice based feedback system instead.

The technology is ready and we call it GRINS, standing for the Gramin Radio Inter Networking System. We are now talking to a few large brands and to media buying agencies to get advertising for our network of radio stations. And we are beginning to build the content sharing and social networking platform as an add-on to GRINS.

The challenges

There are many challenges we are facing though. We have been talked about sustainability problems that the community radio stations are facing, but we face sustainability issues ourselves! How can we make money to cover further development and support costs? There are a number of revenue streams we have had in mind.

**1. Commissions on advertising: **The numbers look attractive in theory, but advertisers seem to be interested only once we have a substantial footprint. Furthermore, the footprint is highly fragmented, with a few stations in the north, a few in the south, with no contiguity. This is not easily tackled because the total number of community radio stations is itself quite small, and GRINS can be installed only when a new community radio stations come up.

**2. Installation and training charges: **Four of our installations so far were pilot installations, while the rest were paid. And most of these were done through a reseller partnership we have with an FM transmitter manufacturer. We have also been trying to make direct sales but have not been very successful so far. There is an interesting reason for this. The way NGOs work is through projects -- they put up a project proposal consisting of a capital expenditure and a recurring operational expenditure. This means that for existing stations that have been running since a while, the cost for a GRINS box is to be borne out of their operational budget. This is clearly hard. It is much easier to sell through resellers so that the cost can be absorbed in the initial setup package itself. Having realized this, we are now actively trying to form reseller partnerships. We are also participating in commuinty radio awareness workshops that are being organized in a number of places in India, so that more and more NGOs come to know about GRINS and contact us when they are ready to set up their station.

**3. Commercial radio stations: **India is about to announce commercial radio licenses for small towns. GRINS is perfect for this segment. It is not high-end such as Synergy, RCS, and other radio automation systems that want to do syndicated broadcasts across a network of stations. The set of features which GRINS provides are exactly suitable for standalone stations that want to form closer ties with their listeners. Even in the higher-end segment, the features are somewhat complementary to that of other radio automation systems, telephony and SMS integration being the key here. We are therefore actively forming partnerships in the commercial segment as well.

There are clearly challenges in all these avenues, but the good thing is that we are discovering the problems, and working around them accordingly.

The future

This brings us to the present, where we are working fervently on supporting the community radio movement in India. We will continue to do that, but we are realizing that given the complexities in setting up and running community radio stations, large scale impact will only come after a while. We are all an impatient bunch of people though! There is so much that local media can fix -- corruption in public services, awareness on health and sanitation, a new means of livelihood... And community radio is not the only medium.

We are running an interesting experiment in a slum colony in East Delhi, using voice and photographs to improve the delivery of public services. The idea here is again to technologically enable a local media service for the people, through which they can put pressure on elected officials to improve public services such as sanitation, road conditions, fairness in water and electricity billing, etc. In these slum colonies for example, we have seen playgrounds that have been converted into garbage dumps, community toilets without any water taps, overflowing drains, broken pavements, and even worse. We have set up a toll-free number which community members can call to leave complaints. We also collect photos and videos in the same manner. Our plan then is to play these recordings over a loudspeaker rolled through the slum colony, to enthuse more and more people to participate and pay attention to the messages. We will also build a simple tool to generate wall newspapers that can be printed and put up all around the colony. If this runs successfully, we will begin to invest a lot more time in popularizing the set of tools to other organizations so that they can set up their own local media hubs at practically zero cost.

November 02 2010

16:06

2011 Knight News Challenge: Now Open for Entries

The Knight News Challenge is a media innovation contest funded and run by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The 2011 Challenge seeks innovation in the use of digital technologies that advance the goal of informing and engaging communities. The deadline for submissions is December 1.

This year's Challenge will focus on four categories: Mobile, Authenticity, Sustainability and Community. Applications must fit one (or more) of these categories and also make use of digital technology in an innovative way.

read more

October 27 2010

14:00

Metrics, impact, and business plans: Things to watch for as the Knight News Challenge enters a new cycle

In recent years, it’s been something of a parlor game in future-of-journalism circles to speculate about the $25 million Knight News Challenge: Who’s going to win this year? What are the judges looking for, exactly? And, whoa, how on earth did that finalist get passed up? (On that last question, see CoPress in 2009; e.g., read the comments on this post.)

The buzz and chatter are mostly just idle guesswork, and of course it’s all to be expected when serious money (think: $5 million for MIT, $1 million for EveryBlock) is on the line. (Indeed, there’s an extra $1 million on the table this year, thanks to Google’s donation to journalism innovation announced yesterday.)

So, that’s why this year, the fifth installment of the Knight News Challenge, already feels a little different. In years past, the Knight Foundation has approached the News Challenge with a “hey, we’re not the experts — you tell us what’s innovative” kind of attitude, purposefully leaving the door open to just about any submission, assuming that it met certain basic requirements of geographic community focus, open-source software, and so on. With the exception of some tweaking along the way, the general focus of the News Challenge remained the same: to stimulate innovation in the name of making communities better informed. Simple enough.

But this year, even though the KNC’s general pitch remains the same, applicants will make their submissions in one of four categories: Mobile, Authenticity, Sustainability, or Community. Only the Community category requires a place-based geographical focus, which marks a significant break from previous cycles where all projects had to be tested in a local community. Overall, the categorization scheme lends some direction — even a certain narrowing — of the contest, and it suggests that Knight has learned a few things over the past four years that it’s going to apply in this final go-round, to get a more focused pool of contenders.

And that’s where this post comes in, on the question of lessons learned. At the risk of contributing more baseless speculation to this parlor game, I’d like to share some insights I gained during the past year as I examined the News Challenge — and the Knight Foundation more generally — for my doctoral dissertation at the University of Texas. (I’m now a journalism professor at the University of Minnesota.)

For starters, you can read the full text of my dissertation (“Journalism Innovation and the Ethic of Participation: A Case Study of the Knight Foundation and its News Challenge“) by going here, or by reading the embedded Scribd file below. If you’re looking for the highlights, skip to page 182 and read the last chapter (Participation and the Professions). Quick tip: This is generally a good way to go when trying to interpret academic articles — look for that “discussion and conclusion” section toward the end.

I described some of my key findings in an earlier Lab post. But with regard to the changes in the KNC for 2011, here are several observations from my time studying the Knight Foundation that might fill in some of the context:

Knight cares intensely about evaluation

This is increasingly true of all nonprofit foundations, really — not just the Knight Foundation. But it was striking to see the extent to which the foundation is working to assess the impact and effectiveness of its funding efforts, through an ongoing “deep review” of its mission and goals. A major part of this review: an examination of the Knight News Challenge after its first three cycles (2007-09). This included a massive content analysis of nearly all proposal documents — resulting in a data set that I analyzed as my part of my project (see Chapter 6 of my dissertation) — and interviews, conducted by outside consultants, with many KNC grantees. At one level, there’s the basic assessment of seeing if grantees’ outcomes matched their goals. At another, there is the big question of reach and influence. For nonprofits funding myriad online sites, as Knight does, at least part of that means reviewing web metrics: traffic, unique visitors, etc. All foundations want metrics to justify their investment — and now more than ever.

So, what does this emphasis on evaluation mean for News Challenge applicants this year? Well, it suggests that in a world where user behaviors are easier to track and analyze than ever before, and thus funders of all stripes (for-profit and nonprofit alike) are hungry for good numbers, having a plan for web metrics — for reaching quantifiable and identifiable targets — is probably going to be more important than in previous cycles.

Is this the News Challenge on SEO steroids? Not exactly, but you get the idea. And this gets to the second point, which is…

Is citizen journalism out? Are business models (and the like) in?

There was an interesting quote in recent coverage of KNC changes that got some attention. It was from Jennifer 8. Lee, a Knight consultant and contest reviewer:

We’re not totally into the citizen journalism thing anymore. It has been given its chance to do its thing and kind of didn’t do its thing that well.

Now, Lee was quick to clarify that she was speaking only for herself, and that the KNC is open to citizen media approaches — just not the kind of generic and repetitive pitches that have populated the pool of applicants recently (think: Flip cams for urban youth):

The contest welcomes content or citizen journalism projects. Innovative content or community reporting models can and do get funded…Since innovation is a core value of the contest, traditional content and citizen journalism projects lacking in innovation were generally not looked upon favorably by contest reviewers.

But, nonetheless, this statement is telling because it gets at a key focus of my dissertation: how Knight has dealt with participation in journalism. In my study of the first three years of the News Challenge, I found that the foundation and its KNC winners championed citizen participation in the news process as something that should happen, not merely something that could happen because of new technologies. Participation was portrayed as an ethic of good journalism in the digital age, a foundational piece of journalism innovation.

So, does that square with the notion of we’re not so into citizen journalism anymore? Perhaps there’s a better way to think about this: Knight has already funded lots of citizen media projects, and the evidence — based on my interviews with KNC winners and overall analysis — suggests that many of these sites struggled to build and maintain a base of users. On the one hand, that’s perfectly understandable: Some of these projects were meant to be short-term in duration; Knight knew many of them would fail, because that’s the nature of innovation; and, hey, in the attention economy, it’s tough for any content provider these days, right? Yet, on the other hand, this struggle to get attention — from citizen contributors and audiences alike — was a formidable challenge for many of the early KNC projects, and, well, it just so happened that many of those early projects happened to be citizen media sites. As a result, citizen journalism comes off looking like a failure, even if the motivation behind it was well intentioned and still well regarded in Knight circles.

The lesson here: Going forward, with this ramped-up emphasis on evaluation and impact, and with apparent concerns about citizen journalism’s sustainability, it would seem that Knight wants to see applicants with a clearer path to success, especially in web metrics. Or, perhaps there’s another way to read this: In a media ecosystem awash in sites pushing content — read our blogs! watch our videos! — with less thought about how that content gets subsidized on a regular basis, Knight wants a better business plan. It wants a sustainable model. After all, there’s a reason it hired a director of business consulting.

David Sasaki, of the 2007 KNC winner Rising Voices, might have captured this problem best in this prescient blog post from 2008:

The Knight Foundation is single-handedly making citizen media both more serious and more respected by giving financial support to some of the field’s most innovative thinkers. But is this a sustainable model for the transformation of media? What happens when the News Challenge’s five-year funding period concludes? All of the News Challenge grantee projects are impressive, innovative, and important, but not a single one is turning a profit, nor do they seem poised to any time soon.

What happens to the “news” in News Challenge?

This is a truly intriguing and as-yet-unanswered question going into this final cycle. The five-year funding period Sasaki described is coming to an end. What comes next?

On the one hand, the News Challenge has proved a successful template for Knight’s growing network of prize-philanthropy challenge contests, and it represents the foundation’s most visible link to its historic roots as a “journalism foundation” with close ties to the industry and its concerns. But, as I pointed out previously, Knight is undergoing a shift in emphasis from “news” to “information” as a way of broadening the boundaries of journalism to accomplish innovation with outside help from other fields and philanthropic funders. The most obvious manifestation of this is the Knight Community Information Challenge, which involves partnering with place-based foundations to meet the “information needs” of local communities.

What becomes, then, of the News Challenge? Is there a renewal of some kind — and if so, does it keep the “journalism” tag? Or does the Community Information Challenge suffice in this space? Only time will tell, but the important thing here is to recognize that Knight has an increasingly nuanced view of journalism — one that sidesteps the “baggage” of professional exclusivity and proactively seeks ideas from other fields (say, the tech sector).

David Cohn, whose Spot.Us is one of the best-known KNC success stories, put it recently, in describing startups like Kommons:

As I’ve said before, we may not call it ‘journalism’ in the future, but if it still meets the news and information needs of a community, more power to it.

That, right there, nicely summarizes the feeling of the Knight Foundation: that it cares much more about the ends (i.e., informed communities) than the means (i.e., journalists and traditional news). How that translates into future challenges (or not) is left to be seen.

June 01 2010

21:02

The Mediavore's Dilemma: Making Sustainable Media Choices

The media business is becoming a complex game. A major study recently conducted by the Knight Commission concluded that the Internet and the proliferation of mobile media have unleashed a tsunami of innovation in the creation and distribution of information, a torrent teeming with hundreds of thousands of media channels and millions of media product choices. Yet we also live in a world being confronted by an unprecedented array of environmental threats caused by human activities like agriculture, coal mining, oil extraction, industrial production, electricity use, transportation and deforestation -- all of which contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.

A factor making the media game even more complex is the carbon footprint created by media brands and their supply chains as they compete for advertising dollars and vie for consumer attention. However, despite growing investor and corporate concern about the greenhouse gas emissions, or "carbon intensity," of consumer products and their supply chains, limited consideration has been given to the carbon footprint of media products and their supply chains.

Can advertisers afford to ignore the environmental threats associated with their media supply chain choices? Can consumers afford to ignore the carbon footprint of their media choices...even if their individual impacts may appear to be small?

This article doesn't have all of the answers, but hopefully it will open your eyes to some of the issues and begin a broader discussion about what may be at stake. It is my hope that this and subsequent posts will lead to a better understanding of the carbon footprint of media products so that advertisers, media companies and consumers can resolve what I call "The Mediavore's Dilemma" -- how to enjoy the media bounty before us while minimizing the climate change risks and environmental threats associated with our advertising and media choices.

(You can read my earlier report for MediaShift: Is Digital Media Worse for the Environment Than Print?)

As concern about the environment and consumer awareness about issues like climate change rise, publishers are likely to respond with a bumper crop of "green" media products. Brands will probably pump out ads chock-a-block with green messages to run on the pages and pixels of those products. The jury is still out on whether changing consumer, investor and/or regulatory pressure could change the game and move them to make comparable efforts to identify, measure, improve and communicate the environmental impacts associated with their media products and media supply chains. In the meantime, concern about climate change and carbon footprints continues to grow among global leaders and many high growth companies.

In a recent Ernst & Young survey of global organizations with greater than $25 billion in market capitalization, 73 percent had made commitments to reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Interestingly, 43 percent of respondents believe that equity analysts are including climate change factors in their valuations and 30 percent anticipate climate change factors will find their way into these analyses in the next five years.

The report, Action Amid Uncertainty -- The business response to climate change, probed 300 global executives from corporations with annual revenue of $1 billion or more on how they are responding to climate challenges. According to Mark Foster, group chief executive of management consulting and global markets at Accenture, "Effective carbon disclosure helps corporations mitigate investment risk and achieve more sustainable performance."

Nonetheless, comprehensive carbon disclosure has not been a significant priority among major advertisers or media companies.

Game Change?

The recent BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has spurred a game-changing shift in Americans' environmental attitudes. For the last few years, Americans' environmental concerns declined as the public placed a higher priority on pocketbook concerns like the economy and energy, likely due to the poor U.S. economy. However, a recent USA Today/Gallup Poll indicates that trend has reversed in just two months' time and the pro-environment position has regained the strength it showed for most of the last decade. Given the sensitivity of marketers to public opinion, it is highly likely that this change in public opinion could change the priorities of advertisers and media companies to carbon disclosure.

Oil Spill Alters Views on Environmental Protection

Another factor that could change the priorities of advertisers and media companies is regulation and/or fear of litigation.

"The question arises as to what legal structure will be able to cope with this coming explosion of green advertising and green media marketing claims," said John Lichtenberger, publisher of GreenAdvertisingLaw.com. "Advertisers need to know what is required for such ads before they prepare them and consumers increasingly want to know the environmental backstory of the media products they consume...it's sort of like 'The Omnivore's Dilemma' for media."

How Do You Choose Your Media Menu?

Just as we must increasingly give thought to how we grow, process and distribute the food that feeds our families, we must also step up our efforts to consider and disclose the flows of energy, materials and waste associated with the media products that feed our minds. Uninformed media choices are not an option. For advertisers and media companies they carry brand and regulatory risks. For the public they carry zero sum risks that may constrain or curtail freedom to communicate and result in other unintended consequences. Informed choices can increase the possibilities for a vibrant economy and effective government, as well as a sustainable and civil society.

One of the key obstacles to making effective comparisons and informed choices is the lack of standardized media product descriptions and category rules for the myriad of different media devices and media products that advertisers and consumers have to choose from. Media category definitions and product rules for lifecycle inventory data accounting and disclosure of carbon footprint data are needed. Without these, the best one can do is to use checklists or rely on guidelines like The Living Principles. While using rules of thumb is better than doing nothing at all, they are blunt instruments being used where more accurate and effective lifecycle analysis and carbon footprinting tools for media products are required.

Can We Afford Unsustainable Media Choices?

The Mediavore's Dilemma is selecting media products and choosing patterns of media use that meet our needs for entertainment, education and communication, while minimizing the negative environmental impacts and carbon footprints associated with them. Ideally our media choices should lead to outcomes that are sustainable i.e. environmentally restorative, socially constructive and economically beneficial.

A template for much of what needs to be done exists in the collaborative efforts of the Carbon Disclosure Project and The Sustainability Consortium, as well as in the individual efforts of major brands like Ford, IKEA, Levi Strauss, and others. Those companies call on providers in their supply chains to disclose the environmental lifecycle impacts, climate change risks and "carbon footprints" associated with the goods and services they sell. These requests coupled with the specifications, standards and data that they develop are the keys to making informed supply chain decisions. By focusing and adapting their work to advertising and media devices, products and supply chains it is possible that the challenge of making informed media choices will be less of a challenge than a clean-sheet exercise.

Another factor to be considered is the issue of "materiality" i.e. when carbon disclosure is deemed to be significant to investors. Several large investor groups representing more than $8 trillion in assets under management recently requested the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to issue guidance on the disclosure of climate-related information on the basis that it is material to their investment decisions even to companies whose carbon footprints are relatively small -- and thus whose climate change risks are not likely to be material.

While these calls for carbon disclosure have continued to grow, so far little attention has been paid to the carbon footprint of advertising or to the environmental impacts and climate risks associated with the creation, production, distribution and use of communication and entertainment media. However, last week the Ford Motor Company, one of the world's largest advertisers, announced plans to survey 35 of top global suppliers on their energy use and estimated greenhouse gas emissions. And while it does not currently address the carbon footprint of advertising or media suppliers, it may in the future.

John Viera, Ford Motor Company's VP of sustainability and environmental policy responded to my request for insight about this trend with a statement that suggests a broader set of requests that might include advertising and media suppliers is a possibility:

Currently advertising suppliers are not explicitly included in our supplier survey associated with Ford's efforts to better understand the carbon footprint of its supply chain. At this time Ford's initial efforts are focused on direct first tier suppliers providing higher carbon intensity commodities for vehicle production. However, beyond resources required for supplier engagement, we are not presently aware of any particular or unique barriers to measuring and reducing the greenhouse gas emissions of advertising suppliers.

While some may find this statement encouraging, one must be realistic about the prospects that Ford or any other advertiser will be able to address this issue alone or to build a quorum of like minded brands to join them. A recent Accenture report on supply chain carbon reports that only 10 percent of companies actively model their supply chain carbon footprints or have implemented successful sustainability initiatives.

Why Lifecycle Analysis and Carbon Footprinting Matter

When the June 1996 issue of Life magazine ran a story about child labor in Pakistan that showed a 12-year-old surrounded by the pieces of a Nike soccer ball, activists across the U.S. were soon marching in protest outside of Nike stores holding up the photos. Nike quickly found how brands can be held accountable for the social and environmental transgressions of their extended supply chains. Shortly after the story was published, Nike stepped up its efforts in supply chain scrutiny and joined a coalition of companies, labor organizations and human rights groups to draft an industry-wide code of conduct that would eliminate child labor from their back story.

http://cbae.nmsu.edu/~dboje/nike/pakistan.html

Today, there is growing pressure for major brands to call upon companies in their supply chains to disclose environmental lifecycle impact data. They are also called upon to work with suppliers to innovate the carbon and climate-change risk out of their product and packaging supply chains.

Until recently, those studying media focused on the social and economic effects of advertising and media content to determine their impacts on our opinions and behaviors. However, the size, scope, dynamics and growth rate of today's media consumption patterns are making it increasingly important that we also consider the environmental lifecycle aspects of media devices as well as the carbon footprint of their supply chains, when we make media choices.

If there is greater awareness of just how big the media industry is, and of how big its carbon footprint is likely to be, significant calls for carbon disclosure are more likely to be extended to advertising and media supply chains. The media game is a big business with a carbon footprint to match.

How Big is the Media's Carbon Footprint?

Veronis Suhler Stevenson, a private equity firm, reported that the media industry rose from the 10th largest sector of the economy in 1975 to the 5th largest in 2009. According to the 2009 Deloitte Media and Entertainment Industry Outlook, media and entertainment is one of the largest sectors in the U.S. economy: About $950 billion was spent on products and services provided by media and entertainment companies in 2006. That spending is expected to grow by 38 percent to $1.3 trillion by 2011.

Another key aspect of the media game that can be measured is advertising spend. A major source of revenue to media companies is the purchase of advertising by brands who spend in excess of $125 billion in the U.S. each year to sponsor media products. Close to $500 billion is spent each year worldwide. According to research firm Kantar Media, while advertising expenditures fell 12.3 percent in 2009 due to the recession, advertising expenditures in the first quarter of 2010 rose 5.1 percent from 2009 to $31.3 billion.

The U.S. Department of Energy reports that approximately 360,000 tons of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gas emissions are associated with each billion dollars of economic activity, which would mean the carbon footprint of the media industry could be as much as 500 million metric tons of greenhouse gas. That would be equivalent to the annual greenhouse gas emissions of 130 coal-fired power plants burning 2.6 million railcars of coal; or the annual greenhouse gas emissions from 95 million four passenger vehicles burning 56 billion gallons of gasoline. The DOE also reported that in 2008 the United States consumed about 138 billion gallons (or 3.3 billion barrels) of gasoline and emitted approximately 6.9 billion metric tons of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gas.

Is Size All That Matters?

In addition to measuring economic activity, there are other aspects of media's carbon footprint -- such as time spent consuming media -- that can be used to estimate emissions. This is particularly important in the case of digital media in that, unlike printed media, digital media devices consume energy when being used and when they are in standby mode.

Veronis Suhler Stevenson estimated that overall per capita consumption of media in the U.S. has increased by almost 30 percent over the last 35 years, from 2,843 hours per year in 1975 to 3,532 hours in 2009, and about half of those hours are spent on videogames, Internet, and mobile services. Also, a recent Gamer Segmentation Report 2010 by research firm NPD found that U.S. gamers are spending 13 hours per week playing energy intensive games, up from 12.3 hours in 2009, with "extreme gamers" representing 4 percent of the sample surveyed averaging 48.5 hours of game play per week.

Multi-Tasking Mania

American consumers also appear to be adding more media channels to the menu as well as doing more media multitasking. According to the Thee Screen Report from research firm Nielsen Media, as of 2Q 2009 the 290 million people in the U.S. with TVs spend on average 141 hours each month tuning into television. Mobile video viewing continues its upward trend, with over 15 million Americans reporting watching mobile video in Q2 2009. This is an increase of 70 percent versus last year -- the largest annual growth to date.

In addition to adding more digital media channels and products to the menu, Nielsen reports that American households are also adding more digital media devices... devices which can have significant "embodied energy" carbon footprints in addition to the energy they consume during use or in "sleep mode." While the media industry lags other business sectors such as the building products industry in categorizing and documenting the embodied energy and carbon intensity of its products, the precedent nonetheless exists in development of lifecycle data repositories such as the U.S. Life-Cycle Inventory (LCI) Database.

Fifty-four percent of Americans have three or more TV sets in the home, and more than half of Americans (57 percent) who have Internet access at home, use television and the Internet simultaneously at least once a month. NPD reports that portable navigation devices have found their way into nearly 40 percent of U.S. households, up from 30 percent in 2009 and e-readers, such as the Amazon Kindle and Sony Reader, are increasing in penetration and are now in 5 percent of U.S. households. Also, the recent State of Media Democracy survey by Deloitte indicates that nearly 60 percent of U.S. homes now own a videogame console, a dramatic increase from 44 percent three years ago.

It is unlikely that such growth can be managed for sustainability without the identification, measurement and disclosure of carbon footprint and lifecycle inventory data.

Houston, We Have a Wicked Problem

Make no mistake, the Mediavore's Dilemma is what Horst Willhelm Jakob Rittel called a "Wicked Problem" i.e. one that cannot be solved by a single individual or any one company using conventional thinking. Creating the tools and knowledge required to resolve the Mediavore's Dilemma will require data, collaboration, informed dialogue and systems thinking that could take years.

There are several reasons why solving the Mediavore's Dilemma is a wicked problem that has so far failed to reach a tipping point in support from advertising and media companies:

  • Awareness of what is at stake is low and there has been little explicit investor, regulatory, consumer or activist demand for disclosure of advertising and media supply chain carbon footprints.
  • Advertisers are two to three steps removed from the majority of media supply chain emissions, resulting in inadequate visibility across all tiers and levels of their media supply chains.
  • No brand purchases more than 10 percent of the $150 billion spent on advertising in the U.S. annually, and a myriad of media products results in a highly fragmented market that limits the control of even the largest of advertisers.
  • Functional silos and limited subject matter expertise in Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) are obstacles to deployment of media supply chain scorecards or standards-based scoring systems.
  • The lack of meaningful LCA product category definitions for existing media products is an obstacle to standards-based disclosure and comparison of media product carbon risks.
  • Media industry turmoil and changing media industry business models have made it difficult to make a coherent business case for the allocation of costs and benefits that would result from tackling the problem.

The fact that the Mediavore's Dilemma is a wicked problem doesn't mean we shouldn't try to solve it, and it doesn't mean that we must wait for it to be solved in order to take steps in the right direction. To raise awareness and spur action addressing these issues the Institute for Sustainable Communication (where I am a senior fellow) has been making slow but steady progress working with groups like the Carbon Disclosure Project, the Carbon Trust and Ad-ID to draw attention to the issue and reach out to advertisers and their supply chain partners through ISC's Sustainable Advertising Partnership initiative.

Ultimately the Mediavore's Dilemma is a problem that may best be solved as a "serious game" that engages our collective curiosity and expands our collective wisdom. In the meantime, it is my hope that your questions, comments, suggestions and support in response to this article will help raise awareness of our efforts and assist us in developing better solutions for all of the stakeholders that business, government and world at large depend upon.

MediaShift environmental correspondent Don Carli is senior research fellow with the non-profit Institute for Sustainable Communication (ISC) where he is director of The Sustainable Advertising Partnership and other corporate responsibility and sustainability programs addressing the economic, environmental and social impacts of advertising, marketing, publishing and enterprise communication supply chains. Don is an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Industry Studies Program affiliate scholar and is also sustainability editor of Aktuell Grafisk Information Magazine based in Sweden. You can also follow him on Twitter.

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May 04 2010

08:16

WiserEarth.org Goes Multilingual and Plans to Bring International Sustainability Offline in Paris

WiserEarth logoWiserEarth.org, a nonprofit that offers social networking for the international sustainability movement, launched today in French, Portuguese and Spanish beta versions. This effort was realized thanks to more than 10 months of work by a team of 43 volunteer translators based in Brazil, France, Mexico and the US.

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March 31 2010

17:28

John Thornton: Nonprofit news outlets will be a bigger part of our future than Alan Mutter thinks

[Yesterday, Alan Mutter wrote a post detailing why he thinks nonprofit news outlets "can't possibly save news." An interesting discussion ensued in the comments (including contributions from Jay Rosen, our C.W. Anderson, Dick Tofel, and others). John Thornton, chairman of the nonprofit Texas Tribune, wrote a response to Mutter; I'm republishing it below. —Josh]

Alan Mutter is one of the keenest observers of today’s topsy turvy media landscape. I am therefore pleased that he payed me a compliment on his highly trafficked Newsosaur blog:

An amazing number of smart and sophisticated people continue to harbor the fantasy that philanthropic contributions can take over funding journalism from the media companies that traditionally have supported the press.

At least I think it was a compliment. You see, as a co-founder of The Texas Tribune, I am one of those fantasy-harboring loonies who believes that nonprofit journalism is important. But, now that Alan — who I consider a friend — also considers us smart and sophisticated, I suppose we should all be able to call the whole thing off and get back to our day jobs.

Or not. Alan gets so many things right that I can’t resist arguing the other side. I think he is gloriously, deliciously, spectacularly wrong here. Alan’s logic runs aground on the shoals of three m’s: math, model, and motive.

Math

Alan asserts that replacing the $4.4 billion spent in American newsrooms will require an $88 billion endowment, which he points out is a gargantuan proportion of the $300 billion or so of annual charitable giving in the U.S. There are at least three problems with this statement. The first is that it confuses a balance sheet concept (endowment) with an income statement concept (annual giving). In the parlance of Econ 101, Alan has confused a stock variable with a flow variable. Fox news anchors are known to resort to this trick when they want to make our government seem more profligate than it is (no easy task, that). It’s a little like confusing the federal debt with the deficit. If you take a big number and multiply it by 20: shazam! It’s a bigger number! An endowment is built up over a number of years, and so comparing it to annual giving is mixing apples and pomegranates. And besides, none of the nonprofits I know is considering raising an endowment any time soon.

That leads to problem number two. A tiny fraction of nonprofits of any type receive meaningful support from an endowment. And other than foundations, none of them lives entirely on an endowment’s investment income. Consider any nonprofit in your community: it likely operates primarily on a combination of earned income and annual giving. If it’s lucky, it has an operating reserve to shield it from rainy days and enable it to take care of special opportunities. It it’s really, really lucky, it might receive 10 percent of its operating budget from the income off its endowment.

Third, none of us sophisticated, nonprofit dingleberries is proposing that our efforts will replace commercial news. We do assert that what I call “Capital J” journalism is in trouble, because it’s not very profitable. Turns out that it never was. But now that, as Google’s Marissa Mayer asserts, every article on a paper’s web site needs to be a standalone profit center, the jig is really up, and we’re trying to figure out how to help.

You’ll never confuse what you read on Voice of San Diego or ProPublica or The Trib with content you can get on TMZ, TV Guide, Epicurious, or ESPN. We in Fantasy Land are trying instead to help shore up what Alex Jones calls “the iron core” of journalism in his book, Losing the News. Jones’s analysis reveals that this core of serious content constitutes about 15% of newspaper content, so let’s say it accounts for 15% of newsroom costs, as well. If we had the unhappy task of replacing all serious newspaper journalism with what nonprofit skeptics refer to derisively as “handouts,” we’d be staring at a $660 million annual problem. No doubt that’s real money, but consider this: according to Alan’s numbers, it’s about what people give to environmental causes in a year. In handouts, that is.

Model

But the $660 million number still overstates the size of the issue. No two nonprofit journalism organizations have exactly the same business model, but almost all of us are doing our best to practice what I call “revenue promiscuity.” At The Tribune, in addition to philanthropic support from wealthy individuals and foundations, we’re also chasing corporate sponsors for our events and for our web site. We’ll bring in about 15% of our expenses in subscriptions to Texas Weekly, a newsletter business we own and are working to expand into a string of highly valued niche titles. Our intermediate-term goal is a $3 million annual budget, split roughly equally between membership, corporate support, and specialty pubs. We’re a long way from that, but are making progress — and note that we’re not assuming any foundation support at all.

If organizations like ours can find non-handout sources for two thirds of our budget, Alan’s $88 billion problem becomes more like a couple hundred million. That’s considerably less than ballet companies raise in the U.S. every year. But the real point is this: not only will philanthropy alone not save journalism, it can’t likely support even the majority of our modest efforts. We need to run our businesses like businesses, even if our goal is public service rather than profitability.

Motive

Alan closes his post with these valedictory remarks to us fruit loops:

While there is a pressing need to save the press, a major shift in the philanthropic paradigm seems unlikely, especially in an era in which most folks — with the notable exception of a fortunate few — seem to be tightening their belts.

So, let’s stop dreaming about a visit from the Non-Profit News Bunny and get serious about discovering some realistic possibilities.

It’s a common refrain. I hear it from my friend Jeff Jarvis all the time (I have this mental image of Jeff in the classroom of his “new models for news” course, crying “THINK HARDER, DAMMIT!” to a group of j-school students with their eyes tightly clinched). But like lots of common refrains, I’m tired of it. Here’s why.

First of all, it’s not an either/or proposition. Fantasy Land could easily quadruple in population without meaningfully diluting the talent pool trying to figure out ways to make money in the news business. And although I admire his since of urgency, I should remind Alan to look at one of his own slides — the one that shows newspapers losing media spend share every single solitary year since 1959. Although the combination of the Great Recession and the digital revolution has caused the line on Alan’s chart to auger in recently, this is not exactly a new problem.

Second, the “think harder, dammit” refrain assumes that market solutions are inherently superior to non-market solutions in every situation, even though the existence of public goods (think clean air, national defense) is discussed in the early going of a basic economics course. My mentor in business was fond of saying, “get the big picture right.” It seems to me that the big picture at hand is that when atoms become bits, content consumers win and content producers get hammered into cost-cutting smithereens. If some of that content happens to be vital to the functioning of our society, I simply think it’s prudent to look around for other means of funding it.

Finally, Alan’s admonition for all of us wingnuts to get back to work reflects a view of capitalism which is totally opposite my experience as an investor. I can say with great confidence that markets are more efficient than not, that there is more than enough investment capital looking for profitable places to go, and that nobody had to yell “think harder” at Larry Page and Sergei Brin. I can say with even greater confidence that the world is a better place because investment capital tends to flow where it garners the highest risk-adjusted returns. This just in: the business of serious journalism news ain’t in the top 100, probably never was, and certainly won’t be again. Commercial efforts will persist because they just will. But expecting investors to continue to fund for-profit, Capital J journalism just ‘cuz: doesn’t that sound a lot like charity? And for the love of Zeus, please don’t talk to me about “patient capital” and “lower return expectations for noble causes.” It’s all just another form of philanthropy, but with the added confusion about whether service to God or Mammon is the order of any given day.

I’m about two years into my foray into non-profit journalism, and I’m more firm than ever in this conviction: Public media, privately funded, will be a bigger part of the media landscape in ten years than it is today. This will require the inhabitants of Fantasy Land to do a good deal of consciousness raising in the general public for membership support, and among foundations and major donors to give us the runway we need to establish sustainable business models.

We can use all the help we can get. Alan, we’ll leave the light on for you. And let me know if you see that Bunny!

March 24 2010

14:00

Len Downie: For-profit news orgs won’t create enough journalism

By any measure, former Washington Post executive editor Len Downie epitomized success in the traditional, subscription-and-advertising model of newspaper journalism: With a staff that once topped 900 and an annual budget of $100 million, his newsroom hauled in 25 Pulitzer Prizes over 17 years and wielded influence from Congress to the darkest recesses of the nation’s capital.

Since stepping down from the Post’s top newsroom job at age 66, Downie has taken on a professorship at Arizona State University. But behind the scenes, he also is lending his experience to help shape the practices and prospects for the burgeoning nonprofit sector in journalism.

Why? Simple: Downie says the for-profit model alone no longer can support the kinds of investigative, explanatory, and accountability journalism that society needs. As the for-profit sector shrinks, journalists and interested readers must explore new ways to underwrite their work.

“There are going to have to be many different kinds of economic models,” Downie said in an interview at the Post’s offices. “The future is a much more diverse ecosystem.”

Downie has made himself an expert on the nonprofit model, and wrote about its possibilities in his recent report, “The Reconstruction of American Journalism,” with Michael Schudson.

Less known, perhaps, is that Downie casts a wide net as within the nonprofit sector of journalism. He’s a board member at the Center for Investigative Reporting, which recently launched California Watch to cover money and politics at the state level. He also chairs the journalism advisory committee at Kaiser Health News, which has provided niche explanatory reporting to leading newspapers, including the Post. And he’s also on the board of Investigative Reporters and Editors, which has incorporated panels on the nonprofit model into its conferences. (I should note that I am a part-time editor for the Washington Post News Service.)

Looking across the sector, Downie sees great potential — and some big, unanswered questions.

On the upside, nonprofits are helping journalism move toward a more collaborative model, Downie said. In the old days, newspapers resisted ideas and assistance from outside. But in the new news ecosystem, collaboration is a way of life. “All of our ideas have been changed about that,” he said.

Also a plus: Big foundations and the public at large are warming to the idea that news organizations are deserving of their support, just like the symphony or any other nonprofit that contributes to society’s cultural assets. “There’s a question of whether there’s enough public realization,” Downie said. “I think we’re heading to that direction. Awareness is growing steadily.”

But a lot of questions still must be sorted out, Downie said.

High on the list, he said, is the most basic of all: Where will the money come from? Like other nonprofits, nonprofit news organizations will have to find the right mix of foundation money, grassroots support, advertising, and perhaps additional government support, he said.

That leads to the other big question of sustainability: It’s not clear that all the nonprofits that have launched in recent years will survive. “How many will succeed and for how long?” Downie wondered. A related question: How will the collaborative model will settle out, and where nonprofits will find productive niches?

Downie said he also has been watching nonprofits wrestle with the issue of credibility — how to achieve it and how to keep it.

The answer begins with editorial independence and transparency about financial supporters, Downie said. But when it comes to painting a bright line between journalism and ideology, advocacy or spin, there are no magic formulas to assure readers — just the experience of trial and error.

“It’s one of these things that’s proven by its exceptions,” Downie said. “When there’s an exception, it’s a scandal.”

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