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April 28 2011

17:57

Live-Blog at RJI: Fellows Share Lessons from Spot.Us, NoozYou

COLUMBIA, MO. -- I am live-blogging from the Reynolds Journalism Institute, which is holding a week-long RJInnovation Week. It's a chance for the Institute to look at an incredible number of projects and ideas that are flowing through the organization. Today is focused on the 2010-11 class of RJI fellows. Each fellow gets 45 minutes to present what they worked on for the last nine months. (Note: I am an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and was in the first class of RJI fellows in 2008-09.)

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David Cohn - Did That Really Happen?

Carnival of Journalism
Cohn brought this blog roundup back. It went on for about a year in 2007 and was a group of journalism bloggers who would write about the same topics together. This was back in the day before Twitter really took off and the best way to talk back in the day. Dave asked if he could have carnivalofjournalism.com URL and brought it back

Cohn established existing and new rules:

  1. Never apologize (new)
  2. A different host every month (this starts next month - Cohn ran the first three months on his own)
  3. Everyone publishes to their own blog around the same time about the host's topic (This month's topic is #fail: your failure and take responsibility for it)
  4. Host does a round-up of everyone's posts

It became a hashtag on Twitter: #jcarn
On average there were 40 participating bloggers in the first three months. Many of the participants took part in Hardly Strictly Young event at the Reynolds Journalism Institute.

Hardly Strictly Young
This event was focused on alternative recommendations to implement the Knight Commission report. It came out after Cohn attended the Aspen Institute where many thought leaders tried to go from the idea phase to the implementation phase. Some of the recommendations weren't the first things that came to Cohn's mind, so he thought it would be a great idea to create an alternate group of people who are not considered at the centers of power but are creating their own centers of power.

Lots of love and a good time was had by all. Interviews were conducted with the participants along with a live broadcast which was archived. One of the overall hits was catsignal.org and a twitter account was started during this event.

Community Funded Reporting Handbook
This is looking at different players in the space - including broad fundraising platforms. Kickstarter, gojo, crowdtap, kachingle, youcapital, emphas.is

Chapters include:
Primer on Crowdfunding

Art of the pitch

Introduction to other players

Process of Screening

Licensing considerations

Glossary of terms

Audience perspective

Journalism concerns

It will be released as a "book" format and downloadable online.

Spot.us
What does this represent? It's an experiment, a new transparency and collaboration in journalism. In many respects he says where it was as a Knight News Challenge, it was an experiment to see if there is life out there. He says, yes, there are signs of life. The rover was sent out and it was worthwhile experiment back in the day. The big problem now is scale. It isn't a unique problem. It's a problem for many startups. Can you build up enough traffic to get larger and larger.

During his time at RJI, he did more professional redesigns by cleaning it up. He's seeing regular growth The number of registered users has jumped above 10,000 and continues to grow. It doubled from 6,000 to 10,000 since September. 54 percent of the members (5,436) are donors.

His passion: The difference between how it worked and how it is now working. Back in th day you could only help by giving credit card payments. That worked for almost two years. It worked but they had about one percent donating. He wanted to come up with alternatives. Now there's more.

You can click on "free credits" where you provide an act of engagement - provide anonymous feedback to the sponsor. Then you get to fund a story and decide where to fund it. It's kind of like advertising, the public gets to decide where the money goes.

Spot.us launched the first community sponsored credits. There was an immediate spike in participation and donations each month.

Need to verify:
IN the last 12 months, 4,797 unique donations (compared to 1,000 or so in the first year). 4,379 have participated by taking a survey. There is an overlap between those two numbers. 20-25 percent of donors are repeat donors. (That's jumped up thanks to the surveys)

Spot.us sponsorship kits. That's the hardest thing to do. Cohn has been able to raise about $5,000 a month. He worked with students to come up with a sponsorship kit and come up with unique materials to present to potential sponsors.

They're working on more market research on the readers to help with sponsorships. They're selling acts of engagements. Examples:
Jeans - if you take a survey you could also get a coupon. Acts of engagement that help connect with Facebook and Twitter where you share the experience you just had with the sponsorship experience on Spot.us. The results of the survey can become a topic of conversation if the sponsor is willing to let the survey go public.

Increased consumer feedback could play a role in this. (A good example is how people provide feedback on products on Amazon. Spot.us members could try it too.)

Pictures of the Year archive photos - community members could help tag the photos to help with the POY database and earn credits for each photo and help POY's archives.

Outsourcing surveys - His major bottleneck is he has to sell them himself. What if he incorporated already existing surveys. So far, he has found Research for Good. It's a startup as well and can't embed polling technology on Spot.us yet. That would dramatically decrease the challenge of sales for the site.

Increase pitches by expanding the API. They're going to be on PRX's website and even on a Louisville NPR affiliate site. Spot.us may not even be officially visually connected. If someone is signed up on their site, it is automatically linked to Spot.us, they may never know it was links to Spot.us. That would dramatically increase the number of pitches in the system.

Working with a business class. He benefitted by working with business students and created the "Spreadsheet of Amazing." He was able to create different scenarios. He decided to increase the take of Spot.us from donations from 5 to 10 percent. Huge benefit for the site. This looks at the benefit of hiring more people. For a long term plan, it looks like the best way to go. There are all kind of early numbers, but it looks smart to hire a sales person and it will grow.

Strategic options for Spot.us

Boldness Scale
1 - consider it a successful experiment. Extrapolate lessons until funds run dry

3 - Continue as open source lab experiment with incremental additional effort. Would require a sustaining grant in late 2011 early 2012 ton continue pace

7 - Scale aggressively remain not-for-profit

10 - spin off as a for-profit

He thinks the ingredients are all there and can make a meal out of it.

NYT subscription model. They're the whale. But they're asking people for money and it isn't for access. They're a step towards a membership program. It's convenience or ignorance. The two things Spot.us is doing can be operated by NYT. When you get a pay meter/wall what if you created acts of engagement to give the reader an opportunity to read five more articles. Or let the members engage with the paper to contribute content or thought to the product.

Most important - if it can be scaled and tangible. The concept is much bigger than any implementation he can do. The concept has potential to work with any product if money is exchanged for

Who are your donors? Why do they want to play?
Many of the surveys help gather demographics. It's almost 50/50 male/female. 67 percent defined as liberal and most are on the West coast. For a month an a half, Spot.us had more traffic in the midwest (during the Wisconsin protests). It's similar to NPR demographics but scales 10 years younger. It scales caucasian. Average income is $75,000. It's encouraging that he can answer these questions.

First time donors are often there because they have a direct connection to the reporter. Repeat donors say they want to feel connected to their community. Those who do come back have civic minded purpose.

Scalability - making it more transparent and more participatory. Spot.us is an implementation of that concept. We normally don't let the public understand the cost of what happens before a story. Opening a part of journalism could be implemented by any organization. Spot.us is one way to do it. Let people know what is most important to them, they the journalists will know how to serve them.

OpenFile.ca is the for profit version of Spot.us. It does require mental shifts of how we think about our role in journalism and as journalists.

If you really focused on the concept and not the site, could it advance journalism? The API is Cohn's way of saying Spot.us is not a destination site. He doesn't want that to be the case. The high growth view of the Spot.us requires other sites to implement the technology into their own site. He's always evangelized the concept of community funded journalism, not Spot.us. The handbook will be useful for independent journalists who are freelancing. But he agrees this is a cultural shift.

What stories get funded?
From the first year data: Civics and politics were not popular. Criminal justice was very popular. He isn't sure if there's enough data to really know. He'd like to look more into it.

Have you seen any attitude change while you were here?
Crowdfunding is becoming more of an accepted concept. There is still much more education to be done.

Mentioned in the group - look at the TED model. It has played the ends of exclusivity and openness.

Anne Derryberry - Games and Journalism: An Epic Win?

Everybody's Talking the Game
Seth Priebatsch of SCVNGR is quoted saying "This is the decade of the game layer." Business leaders and beyond are seeing the trends and opportunities for games and their applications.

Compelling Factoids:

  • Videogames are #1 category for consumer/end-using spending (PWC)
  • $10.5B in US in 2009 (was 11.7B in 2008) (ESA)
  • 10.6% CAGR for 2010-2014 (PWC)
  • Global market - $70.1B by 2015 (KPCB)

The reason this is true is because of the widespread appeal of games to all ages. The average age of a gamer is 34 (ESA). 45-60 year old women are the fastest growing demographic. 67 percent of Americans play games (ESA).

The rise of social games and Facebook-based games are a principal reason behind this rise. Most games are being played with social networking, tables, mobile, broadband access.

Games are fun, but what are the other compelling reasons to use them? Games play mechanics and rewards (usually embedded within a web- or mobile site). It helps: promote brand awareness, adoption and attachment
Induce participation

raise comprehension and retention

make tedious content/activities seem less odious

What does this have to do with journalism? Ian Bogost at Georgia Tech is quoted from Newsgames: Journalism at Play: "We shouldn't embrace games because they seem fun or trendy, no because they dumb down the news but because they can communicate complex ideas differently and beter than writing and pictures and film. Games are raising the bar on news, not lowering it."

It's been echoed in many spaces. Kotaku (a game review publication) writer, Brian Crescente wrote "wouldn't it be wonderful , for instance, if [there were] News Games for The Daily, allowing readers to not just passively absorb the news."

How Far Can We Take This?
Bring some clarity to the thinking behind this conversation.

So she put together a prototype: NoozYou - a game driving news outlet
It focuses on three types of News - current events, issues and editorial. You can create tools that are available for people who are going to develop these categories of games.

You need a platform for people to find these kinds of products. It should offer access, community engagement and management along with a workflow process.

How is this paid for? Are there revenue models that can come out of this? Advertising and licensing is needed. All of these questions weren't able to be tackled during a nine month proces.

They focused on the current events category for news telling. There are already a few games developed under this category, but current events was a bit more tricky. They adopted tools, built their own platform and the revenue model is still under construction.

It Takes a Village
She worked with an external development for the platform. Incoming fellow Peter Meng helped put this together. She brought in a tool from Impact Games "Play the News" for authoring story/games. Newsy agreed to be a media partner. Students helped become a news team (convergence capstone team), SEO team (interactive advertising team) and many different people attended game salons.

13 story games were produced in a short amount of time. You can look at it all on the NoozYou site. It is a prototype but is rich with content.

Players get to look at the last 10 stories published on Newsy.com and then vote about which topics they'd like to see made into a game. Not a lot of stats just yet, but it could be great background data for media suppliers. You can see the top three vote getters. You get to "noozify" them.

News quizes are published weekly based on news events. Questions and feedback come from Newsy content. When you answer one of the quiz questions, you get feedback that tells you if you answered properly. If you need help, you get to watch the video.

The site has user comments and they are already getting feedback. Most happens on the noozYou site and on individual games. Most people who wrote comments were positive about their experience. There were some recommendations and suggestions for changes. Anonymous survey turned up rich feedback for the site and helpful for what needs to happen next.

By the numbers: So far it's a two month experiment.The site went up at the end of February for the game developer conference, but no promotion at first. There's been a nice bump recently with a more stable platform. So far, there's an absolute unique of 1539 which Derryberry considers very encouraging. Only 50 percent were first time. That means most people are coming back to participate in the site. Users come from 30 countries/territories visited the site.

Big questions remain:
New template?

The Play the News template constrains the type of games you can create. They'd like to look at new templates might be appropriate for the site.

How do they handle original reporting?

She decided not to do that because it would require stories that would be hyper local with a limited audience outside of the geographic regions. She wanted content that would encourage mass use. Also, it would require a generation of a lot of media. But it's something she's like to tackle.

What kinds of advergames are most effective?

Advertising and Advergames is a hot topic, but noozYou hasn't deeply explored this so far.

What is the right rubric for journalytics to ensure good journalism experience design?

She believes in data driven design. Right now she has marketing data, but she wants more. How do you generate the right interactions for news consumers. That hasn't even gotten started.

Most Important Lessons
Use game techniques - but dump the moniker. There continues to be a knee-jerk negative response to the word "game." Many people feel as though it indicates the cheapening of the news experience. If there's another label to put on this, adoption will grow quickly. Let the contest begin.

News-telling in this way fores and increased awareness of users' journalism experience (JX) - The kind of rigor that is required to tell news stories forces an even greater awareness of what is happening on the recipient end of the communication equation. You really have to think about the news consumption experience. It makes the storyteller think deeper.

Ever more powerful news-telling and analysis potential by focusing on journalism experience. You can enhance the kind of news telling and analysis of the news. You can immerse people into the story (with the goal of not drowning). You give the consumer the control - a non-linear (even non-chronological) narrative. Take in the story in the way that makes most sense to the individual. You can make assumptions, but the consumer will make the call. By chunking content in manageable ways and organizing it in logical ways on a single screen and successive screens, we give them the ability to create the experience. As troubling as that may seem to some, that experience may be non-linear and non-chronological. It will happen through the interactive pathways offered by the information designer. This is a storytelling format that allows all of the multimedia opportunities and multi-channel opportunities. Many substories can be followed and tracked. The interactivity and choices given to the users, they can jump back and forth and follow their muse as they track through the stories. A cross media experience is a great benefit for users and the flexibility they have in the stories told. It's also the big challenge for the creators of the delivery.

Next steps for noozYou -
Revise and extend

Platform, tools, services

-- high school/HED journalism programs

-- commercial license - it could be white labeled for media outlets of all kinds

-- content aggregation and syndication of stories and games

The Power of One to the Many
-Massively Multi-participant Online Collaborations (MMOC) - she sees a great opportunity for us all to collaborate to make the noozYou concept happen. With the rise of social media and other tools. There are lots of skunkworks projects where people are coming together to solve problems together as a society. Some are organized (Wikipedia, Crisis Camp), some are not.

-massive group problem-solving

-using interactive design and game mechanics

-informed and facilitated by journalism

David Herzog - OpenMissouri
Herzog spent his fellowship focused on launching a website that will help bring more awareness and access to government data.

He launched the site OpenMissouri.org on March 17th during Sunshine Week and also held Open Missouri Day at the Reynolds Journalism Institute.

So many sites are out there with a look at open records, but many have some data, but not a lot of context. Herzog says the Sunshine Foundation is doing great work helping open up federal government records. The advent of Web 2.0 has really helped make it more possible to share, search and learn from data.

Whatdotheyknow.com helps you see Freedom of Information requests, in England, MuckRock is a very open look at search and records.

The big question:
How do we use simple, freely available technology to connect citizens and journalists with public data?

Features
Catalog: Nearly 150 data sets listed

Search

Comprehensive MO department listing: 19

There is no comprehensive state contact list for Sunshine requests. You can do that on OpenMissouri.

It's five weeks old and currently has 35 registered users. The site's automated Sunshine letters will make it a lot easier to request data.

More features

Suggest a data set - users can suggest the collection of a data set. If you hear about a data set, click submit and the managers of OpenMissouri, it's reviewed and verified.

Commenting -

Potential enhancements -
Upload a dataset to share with other people. The primary goal is not for OpenMissouri to be a place to get data, it's a place for people to share data and make sure more people can get access to the information gathered.

APIs (application programming interfaces) to share catalog and agency information some day. It would help programmers interact with the data collected on the site - especially the agency list.

Develop a site and social media activity stream. You'd be able to see what new interactions have happened on the site about user activity.

How-to materials - Tips on how to file a Sunshine request, what to do when the agency ignores your request or says no.

Jennifer Reeves worked in television news for the majority of her career. In the last six years, she has moved from traditional journalist to non-traditional thinker about journalism and education. Jen is currently the New Media Director at KOMU-TV and komu.com. At the same time, she is an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and was a part of the inaugural class of Reynolds Journalism Institute fellows (2008-09).

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

November 30 2010

18:30

Droid Does Mizzou: Speed-dating style app contest builds a new framework for journalism experience

It may not be possible to force innovation in journalism, but you may be able to guide it, starting with a little speed dating.

Lightning round-style matching is the secret to creating teams that can successfully build apps for news, at least at the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri. (For our purposes let’s replace nervous single-ites making awkward small talk with anxious j-students, programmers, and business majors.)

This is the fourth year the Institute has held a competition to encourage journalism students to try their hand at becoming developers. In previous years students have focused on creating applications for the iPhone and Adobe AIR. In this year’s competition students will create apps on the Android platform with help from Google, Adobe, Sprint, and the Hearst Corporation.

“What we try to do is take an emerging piece of technology and challenge our students to come up with a solution for journalism or the advertising that supports it,” Keith Politte, manager of the technology testing center at the Institute, told me.

Over the course of the next few months students will give an initial pitch to judges, followed by months of working on the apps for a final presentation in the spring. Winners will earn a trip to Silicon Valley to present their project to Google. “Android will be fun,” Politte said. “It not only allows us to go to phones, but also some of the new tablets and Google TV.”

In its role Hearst acts as a client and partner, offering specs on what types of apps or content areas it’s interested in, as well as providing project managers to help guide students. The company will also consider student apps for use in its own products. The winning projects from last year’s competition, a recommendation engine and an enhanced photo gallery program, have both been turned into internal projects at Hearst Interactive, Politte told me.

J-schools like Mizzou are taking furtive steps towards blending traditional media education with a sharper focus on teaching technical skills (or perhaps ushering in the rise of the journo-programmer), and the competition at RJI is an example of fostering innovation from journalism students in a less-than-academic (or at least outside-the-classroom) way. And if the last three competitions have been any indicator, it’s a bridge to outsiders (engineers, business students, programmers) who could bring fresh thinking into journalism’s future.

“We bring in different students, introduce them to the concept, and say go,” Politte told me. “After an hour of frenzied experiences you have a team.” Again, speed dating. They bring together undergrads from the School of Journalism with computer science majors, engineering students, and business majors. Absent the young developer toiling away in a dorm, it’s likely most people don’t have experience building web applications or may not have convenient connections to computer science geeks or budding journalists. As a practical necessity teams need members from the J-school and an “other,” meaning students from other schools, Politte said.

One benefit is that journalism students are exposed to thinking like (and communicating with) a programmer, a skill that likely will be handy once they leave college. But Politte said the opposite is true as well, as programmers, engineers, and business students gain an insight into journalism. “The world doesn’t live in silos,” Politte said. “We need to be able to cross disciplines — and our students, when they graduate, if they’re working as a journalist, will interface with IT folks.”

Of course there’s also the reality that working as a journalists going forward doesn’t necessarily mean working in a newsroom or at a newspaper. Politte thinks that future is more than apparent to students, which is why more are interested in broadening their skills outside of media.

“They see the legacy business model being fractured and are wanting to be more entrepreneurial and solve problems in a journalism context,” he said.

What may give students a greater incentive this year is the fact that they’ll own what they create outright. Politte said in previous competitions that there was uncertainty whether the university retained the license to products created by students. Now participants will have the intellectual property rights to what they develop. “The old way is the university owns everything and is motivated by capturing anything created and being able to monetize it,” Politte said. “It’s good in theory, but the university doesn’t have enough individuals to help commercialize and accelerate the licenses we have.”

Practical, tangible experience is now the mindset for many journalism schools, as we’ve seen with Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, the University of North Carolina’s Reese Felts Digital News Project, and the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Innovation Lab.

Journalism schools find themselves launching students into an industry in flux and trying to adapt to ideas and technology that may not be fully formed yet. What the student competition suggests is that creating non-academic frameworks for students to innovate (and potentially find solutions to the industry’s problems of today) may be just as important as any curriculum or classroom experience.

Politte sums it up best: “We wanted to step out of our students’ way and let them be successful.”

September 02 2010

18:00

How to Conquer Journalism Students' Fear of Technology

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Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.

In a time and age when many of my generation assume the younger generation understands technology, I have been surprised by the number of students who walk into my class and announce that they "don't know anything about computers."

It's a rampant attitude. I beg each and every student who says this to pretend they never said it and try everything I introduce to them in my class. Over the last seven years I've been teaching, I've seen a slow change that is now very obvious: It isn't just a belief that they don't know about computers, many students are simply afraid to fail.

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I am open to writing about my professional failures for this site. I thrive from the learning experience that comes from doing everything I can, even if I fail. So my students' reaction to failure has been difficult to understand, and even more difficult to verbalize.

A Different Approach

When they arrive in my class, I teach students how to go beyond what they already learned in the radio/television sequence at the Missouri School of Journalism. The students know how to produce stories for on-the-air and online. They know how to edit stellar video and audio. But there is another level of multimedia journalism that I try to help them add to an already solid base of knowledge. This can be scary, as many of my students are overachievers who are frightened to get a bad grade. They're afraid to jump into something new before they even have a chance to fail. I used to just think that was funny and it didn't interfere with my teaching. But lately I have decided it is time to teach my class differently.

In the past I taught students the basics of software like Flash, Photoshop and Illustrator. I introduced blogging, video conversion tools and many other web-based tools that can make delivering online stories a richer experience. The students who try it all walk away with a knowledge of how things work. But even more important, they understand how to talk about the technology. They may not be experts, but they can talk to an expert and be able to understand his or her needs when they work together on a project.

I will not stop teaching these tools, but I am going to do it with more help. I think I need to spend classroom time presenting my case for the basic knowledge of software instead of teaching it during class time. I plan on going about this campaign in a number of ways.

Four Elements

Here are the four main elements of my new approach:

  1. First, I want to make sure my students know there is no other time in their life when they will have this much free time to experience and be curious about new tools for journalism. I'm handing them access to tools to explore and an outlet to share their lessons. Each of my students work in the KOMU-TV or KBIA-FM newsrooms. (KOMU is a university-owned local NBC station; KBIA is the local NPR station.) They also have a chance to work with a number of social media applications for each of the newsrooms.
  2. Second, instead of focusing on the software in the classroom, I will spend more time showing examples of what technology can produce for the journalism industry. I hope to introduce my students to a number of people in the profession (thanks to Skype) who have a wide range of skills. I hope to use their backgrounds to explain why it's important to break past fear of the new.
  3. Third, I have added five online courses from Lynda.com to my class, which my students will be able to take at their own pace. I will not teach software in class, but I will hold open, non-mandatory meetings for students who are still confused and want to work through the confusion.
  4. At the end of the class, I will ask students to use the lessons they learned with Lynda.com to produce content that will benefit their online portfolio. I will expect examples of photo editing, graphic creation and, as extra credit, a use of interactive graphics. I'm hoping that by requiring content that will benefit the student portfolios, it will motivate my students to jump into learning software.

Not all of my students are afraid of technology. The shifts I am making in my class are focused on helping this group of students succeed just as well as the more fearful ones. And I'm ready to push ahead with these changes with the knowledge that they too could fail.

Jennifer Reeves worked in television news for the majority of her career. In the last six years, she has moved from traditional journalist to non-traditional thinker about journalism and education. Jen is currently the New Media Director at KOMU-TV and komu.com. At the same time, she is an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and was a part of the inaugural class of Reynolds Journalism Institute fellows (2008-09).

news21 small.jpg

Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.

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

July 30 2010

17:57

Learning From Failure in Community-Building at Missouri

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Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.

I recently had an opportunity that is rarely handed to a journalism school professor: The chance to be a member of the inaugural class of the Reynolds Journalism Institute Fellows in the 2008-09 school year.

I already have a unique job. As an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism, I am also a new media director at the university-owned NBC-affiliate, KOMU-TV. I teach new media and I manage its production in a professional newsroom that is staffed with students. (We have a professional promotions, production and sales department just like any other television news station.)

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I had a big idea back in 2007. I wanted to find a way to bring multiple newsrooms together to make it easier for news consumers to learn about their candidates leading up to election day. I wanted to partner with the other newsrooms owned by the University of Missouri: KBIA-FM (the local NPR station) and the Columbia Missourian (the daily morning paper in town). I wanted to plan for the big election in November 2008 and had already tried a similar project during the mid-term 2006 November election season.

Smart Decision '08

In 2006, we put a lot of content into one place but it was all hand-coded. I won't go into the nit-picky details. What I will tell you is it was time consuming and almost impossible to keep up to date as three newsrooms populated the site. I wanted automation and simple collaboration so the site could make it easier for news consumers to learn about information without worrying about where it came from. Information first, newsroom second. In the end, news consumers would end up using all of the newsrooms' information instead of just one or none.

I launched the Smart Decision '08 site and went into my RJI fellowship with a plan to complete my goal. I had already started building a new website that would collect RSS feeds of each newsroom's politically branded content. I had a small group of web managers tag each story that arrived into our site and categorize it under the race and candidate names mentioned in the news piece. It was a relatively simple process.

Unfortunately, our site was not simple. It was not clean and it was hand built by students with my oversight. It did not have a welcoming user experience. It did not encourage participation. I had a vision, but I lacked the technical ability to create a user-friendly site. I figured the content would rule and people would come to it. Not a great assumption.

Back in 2008, I still had old-school thoughts in my head. I thought media could lead the masses by informing voters who were hungry for details about candidates. I thought a project's content was more important than user experience. I thought I knew what I was talking about.

We did find a way to gather up some participation on the night of the big November 2008 election. We invited the general public to a viewing party where they could watch multiple national broadcasts, eat free food and participate in a live town forum during a four-hour live webcast we produced in the Reynolds Journalism Institute building.

We brought four newsrooms together in a separate environment where we produced web-only content while each newsroom produced its own content for air or print. We had a Twitter watch desk, a blog watch desk and insights from all kinds of people in the area. You can see a very quick video that captures some of the experience of that night:

Assumptions About the Audience

But in the end, my project was a failure.

Still, without that failure, I would not have learned so much.

You see, I came into this project with the idea that I was progressive. I was thinking about the future of journalism. I was going to change it all. But it all started out with a very old view of journalism: I made assumptions about my audience.

  • I assumed people wanted the information I was collecting.
  • I assumed the online audience wanted to take the time to dig into the information I was collecting for them.
  • I assumed the audience wanted to participate in a new space I created for them.
  • I assumed the newsrooms that were partners in the project would promote the site without any prompting.

My assumptions killed my project. I had invested so much time into the project that I had to finish it. I arrived into the fellowship with a work in progress and I wasn't going to stop -- even though I could see we were not getting the public participation. I created the content and hoped participation would follow.

The truth is that things work the other way around.

But I would not have learned that without my fellowship.

I worked with an amazing team of people. Jane Stevens and Matt Thompson led me into a new perspective in community building and content collection. I watched as we talked about community building. My biggest "a-ha moment" was when we discussed how community builders need a personal relationship with its first 1,000 members on a website. I realized that my Smart Decision project was doomed to fail from the start because I did not start with my community first. I expected the community to come to me. I needed to go to them.

I also learned a major project needs two managers: One to keep up with the content and one to make sure it gets promoted. That promotion needed to happen in each individual newsroom and in the public.

Being More Agile

During my fellowship, I also learned to be more agile. These days, when I start a project, I'm ready to move on to the next idea a lot faster. I launch multiple ideas at the same time and see what floats. I also cherish the relationships I form with members of the community. Instead of creating many different sites, I'm bringing the information to where they are. I'm focused on delivering information to Twitter and Facebook. I have news employees working on blogs, but most people go to those posts through Facebook. They do not go directly to the sites or from our main news web page.

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I'm constantly learning as a news manager. But I will always cherish the time I had as a fellow because I was allowed to fail. The Smart Decision project was not something I could have managed while I was also in charge of a newsroom. It was an experiment that taught me how not to launch a new website.

I learned Drupal sites can be awesome if you know what you are doing. (I did not know what I was doing until it was too late). I also learned that my job in my newsroom does not make it easy to launch major multiple-newsroom projects. I am not sure if I will do it again in 2012. I would like to, but I'll need to consult my community first.

Jennifer Reeves worked in television news for the majority of her career. In the last six years, she has moved from traditional journalist to non-traditional thinker about journalism and education. Jen is currently the New Media Director at KOMU-TV and komu.com. At the same time, she is an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and was a part of the inaugural class of Reynolds Journalism Institute fellows (2008-09).

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July 16 2010

14:00

This Week in Review: Paying for obits online, ESPN’s news-ad fusion, and the great replacement debate

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

Should papers charge for obits on the web?: We’ve written a whole bunch about Steve Brill’s paid-online-news venture Journalism Online around these parts, and the company’s first Press+ system went live on a newspaper site this week, with Pennsylvania’s LancasterOnline obits section going to a metered pay model for out-of-town visitors. PaidContent has a good summary of how the arrangement works: Out-of-towners get to view seven obits a month, after which point they’re asked to pay $1.99 a month or $19.99 a year for more access. Obits make up only 6 percent of the site’s pageviews, but the paper’s editor is estimating $50,000 to $150,000 in revenue from the paywall.

Poynter’s Bill Mitchell offered a detailed look at the numbers behind the decision and said the plan has several characteristics in its favor: It has valuable content that’s tough to find elsewhere, flexible payment, and doesn’t alienate core (local) readers. (He did note, though, that the paper isn’t providing anything new of value.) Most other media watchers on the web weren’t so impressed. MinnPost’s David Brauer was skeptical of Lancaster’s revenue projections, but noted that obits are a big deal for small-town papers. Lost Remote’s David Weinfeld was dubious of the estimates, too, wondering how many out-of-towners would actually be willing to pay to read obit after obit. GrowthSpur’s Mark Potts’ denouncement of the plan is the most sweeping: “Every assumption it’s based on — from projected audience to the percentage of readers that might be willing to pay — is flawed.”

TBD’s Steve Buttry posted his own critique of the plan, centering on the fact that the paper is double-dipping by charging people to both read and publish obits. The paper’s editor, Ernie Schreiber, fired back with a rebuttal (the experiment is intended to help define their online audience, he said, and no, they’re not double-dipping any more than charging for an ad and a subscription), and Buttry responded with a point-by-point counter. Finally, Buttry came up with the most constructive part of the discussion: A proposal for newspapers on how to handle obituaries, with seven different free and paid obit options for newspapers to offer families. Jeff Sonderman offered a different type of proposal, arguing that obituaries should be free to place and read, because if they aren’t, they’re about to be Craigslisted.

Meanwhile, MinnPost’s Brauer discovered that all you need to bypass the paywall is FireFox’s NoScript add-on, and Schreiber added a few more work-arounds while responding that he’s not worried, because the tech-geek and obit-junkie crowds don’t have a whole lot of overlap. Reuters’ Felix Salmon backed Schreiber up, arguing that a loose paywall is much better than a firm one that unwittingly harasses loyal customers.

A new degree of news-advertising mixture: We may have caught a glimpse into one less-than-savory aspect of the future of journalism late last week through the sports media world, when ESPN aired “The Decision.” Here’s what happened, for the sports-averse: 25-year-old NBA superstar LeBron James was set to make his much-anticipated free agency decision this summer, and ESPN agreed to air James’ announcement of which team he’d play for last Thursday night on a one-hour special. The arrangement originated from freelance sportscaster Jim Gray and James’ marketing company, which dictated the site of the special, James’ interviewer (Gray, naturally), and a deal in which the show’s advertising proceeds (all lined up by James’ company) would go toward James’ designated charity, the Boys and Girls Club. ESPN insisted that it would otherwise have full editorial control.

The show — and particularly the manner in which it was set up — received universally scathing reviews from sports media watchers: Sports Illustrated media critic Richard Deitsch called it “the worst thing ESPN has ever put its name to,” legendary sportswriter Buzz Bissinger said ESPN’s ethical conflict was so big it can never be fully trusted as a news source, Baltimore Sun TV critic David Zurawik fumed that “never in the history of sports has the media behaved in a such a whored-out, dazed, confused and crass a manner,” and L.A. Times media critic James Rainey accused ESPN of playing up both sides of a spectacle it created.

The ethical conflict seemed even worse when there was a report that Gray, the interviewer, was paid by James, rather than ESPN (as it turned out, ESPN covered his expenses, but other than that he says he wasn’t paid at all). But the true details, as revealed by Advertising Age, were almost as shocking: ESPN had previously hoped to arrange a special program before its sports awards show, the ESPYs, with James handing out the first award just after his announcement.

Ad Age’s phenomenal article hammered home another important point for those concerned about the future of news: This program represented a new level of integration between advertising and news, and even a new breed of advertiser-driven news programming. Ad Age detailed the remarkable amount of exposure that the program’s advertisers received, and included superagent Ari Emanuel, the man who orchestrated the arrangement, boasting that “we’re getting closer to pushing the needle on advertiser-content programming.” In his typically overheated style, Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi called the show “the prototype for all future news coverage,” in which a few dominant news organizations create their own versions of reality in a race for advertising money, while a few scattered web denizens try to ferret out the real story.

Replacing the newspaper, or complementing it?: This week, the University of Missouri School of Journalism publicized a study that its scholars published this spring comparing citizen-driven news sites and blogs with daily newspaper websites. The takeaway claim from Mizzou’s press release — and, in turn, Editor & Publisher’s blurb — was that citizen journalism sites aren’t replacing the work that was being done by downsizing traditional news organizations. Not surprisingly, that drew a few people’s criticism: Ars Technica’s John Timmer said the study provides evidence not so much that citizen-driven sites are doing poorly, but that legacy media sites are embracing many of the web’s best practices. He and TBD’s Jeff Sonderman also pointed out that if one startup news site is lacking in an area, web users are smart enough to just find another one. The question isn’t whether a citizen journalism site can replace a newspaper site, Sonderman said, it’s whether a whole amateur system, with its capacity for growth and specialization, can complement or replace the one newspaper site in town.

TBD’s Steve Buttry (who must have had a lot of free time this week) delivered a point-by-point critique of the study, making a couple of salient points: It ignores the recent spate of professional online-only news organizations and vastly over-represents traditional news sites’ relative numbers, and, of course, the long-argued point that the question of whether one type of journalism can replace another is silly and pointless. One of the Mizzou scholars responded to Buttry, which he quotes at the end of his post, that the researchers had no old-media agenda.

After hearing about all of that debate, it’s kind of strange to read the study itself, because it doesn’t actually include any firm conclusions about the ability of citizen-led sites to replace newspapers. In its discussion section, the study does make a passing reference to “the inability of citizen news sites to become substitutes for daily newspaper sites” and briefly states that those sites would be better substitutes for weekly papers, but the overall conclusion of the study is that citizen sites work better as complements to traditional media, filling in hyperlocal news and opinion that newspapers have abandoned. That’s quite similar to the main point that Buttry and Sonderman are making. The study’s guiding question may be deeply flawed, as those two note, but its endpoint isn’t nearly as inflammatory as it was publicized to be.

Looking at a BBC for the U.S.: A few folks went another round in the government-subsidy-for-news debate this week when Columbia University president Lee Bollinger wrote an op-ed column in The Wall Street Journal advocating for a stronger public-media system in the U.S., one that could go toe-to-toe with the BBC. Bollinger argued that we’re already trusting journalists to write independent accounts of corporate scandals like the BP oil spill while their news organizations take millions of dollars in advertising from those companies, so why would journalism’s ethical standards change once the government is involved?

The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson agreed that government-funded journalism doesn’t have to be a terrifying prospect, but several others online took issue with that stance: CUNY j-prof Jeff Jarvis said we need to teach journalists to build self-sustaining businesses instead, and two British j-profs, George Brock and Roy Greenslade, both argued that Bollinger needs to wake up and see the non-institutional journalistic ecosystem that’s springing up to complement crumbling traditional media institutions. But the people who do want an American BBC are in luck, because the site launched this week.

Reading roundup: A few cool things to think on this weekend:

— Curtis Brainard of the Columbia Journalism Review has a long story on what is a safe bet to be one of the two or three most talked about issues in the industry over the next year: How to bring in revenue from mobile media.

— French media consultant Frederic Filloux asks what he rightly calls “an unpleasant question”: Do American newspapers have too many journalists? It’s not a popular argument, but he has some statistics worth thinking about.

— Adam Rifkin has a well-written post that’s been making the rounds lately about why Google doesn’t do social well: It’s about getting in, getting out and getting things done, while social media’s about sucking you in.

— The New York Times and the Lab have profiles of two startups, Techmeme and Spotery, that are living examples of the growing role of human-powered editing alongside algorithmic authority. And Judy Sims urges newspapers to embrace the social nature of life (and news) online.

— Finally, news you can use: A great Poynter feature on ways news organizations can use Tumblr, from someone who used it very well: Mark Coatney, formerly of Newsweek, now of Tumblr.

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