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April 20 2011


Catalyzing news innovation: How would you do it?

I’m having an enjoyable back-and-forth with Geoff Samek — one of the smart folks behind the online news start-up Sacramento Press — about how to most effectively fund and catalyze “news innovation.” In the interest of engaging more opinions (and, heck, to have some fun), we’re taking the conversation public.

Here’s how it all started:

.@gsamek Wish there was more detail in your post “Knight, I know you can do it right” http://ow.ly/4yulX New pubs != easy wins.less than a minute ago via HootSuite Favorite Retweet ReplyPhillip Smith

@phillipadsmith What detail were you looking for? My point wasn’t that new pubs == easy wins. I’d love to chat more and elaborate further.less than a minute ago via web Favorite Retweet ReplyGeoff Samek

Geoffrey’s was kind enough to kick things off with the post Knight, I know you can do it right, part deux.

My e-mail response follows. Feel free to jump in via the comments, twitter, or — better yet — on your own soapbox in the cloud.

Hey there Geoffrey,

It was fun re-reading your e-mail over coffee this morning. Good start to the week; got the juices flowing. The three central themes seem to be:

  1. Technology companies are more innovative than ‘traditional’ news organizations
  2. Knight funding to help ‘long-established media organizations’ results in “inch vs. mile” progress
  3. A TechCrunch-style event with $5M in funding could produce ‘better’ outcomes than Knight’s current investment approach

I’ll tackle the third point first.

From your comments, I get the sense that the idea behind Knight’s investment in Mozilla is not entirely clear. That is, no doubt, our fault for not explaining it well enough yet. We are working to address this.

When I consider the TechCrunch Disrupt idea, I don’t see a huge difference between that concept and what the Knight-Mozilla program is actually aiming to do. Specifically, the program sets out to do three things:

  • Generate great ideas: through design challenges & open conversations;
  • Train people: on taking ideas from concept to code;
  • Make software: demos & reference implementations of the best ideas and experiments.

We’ve looked at many models for doing this — from Mozilla’s own Labs experiments to YCombinator-type start-up acceleration programs to XPrize-style competitions — and this program attempts to mash-up the best elements of each.

On point number two, “inch vs. mile progress,” — again — I believe that we’ve not done a great job surfacing Mozilla’s goals for the “MoJo” (Mozilla + Journalism) initiative. Mozilla is interested in news for one reason, and one reason only: to advance its mission of protecting the open nature of the Internet. ‘Saving the news’ per se is not part of Mozilla’s mission broadly, or as part of this program.

Mozilla is interested in seeing the advancement of the same fundamentally-powerful ideas that make the Internet awesome — openness, generativity, co-creation, massive collaboration, “hacking” and MakerCulture, and so on — embedded and embraced by news organizations around the world. The theory of change is quite simple “The Web is changing, and we are changing with it.” Put another way, news organizations are changing the Web, and Mozilla wants to help ensure they change it for the better.

By working with the news partners that we’ve chosen this year, and those we’ll chose next year, we’re hoping for the broadest possible exposure of the new ideas that come from the fellowships, and we believe those ideas will be embraced by news organizations of all shapes and sizes, both ‘traditional’ and radically new.

The other thing we’re looking for in partners is their ability to host fellows effectively, which Nathan explains well here.

Point number one deserves an e-mail (or a blog post) on its own, because I largely disagree that tech companies are wholly more innovative or capable of producing the types of innovations that Mozilla is interested in. The shortest possible summary is: today’s current start-up frenzy is resulting in the “appification” of everything, which is reinforcing some negative trends: encroachment on user privacy, social silos, and — potentially — less focus on the creation free and open-source software. I believe that a technology-company-centric approaches can lead to market failure, i.e., why would a start-up company advocate for open data when they could instead lock it up and charge $9.95/month?

(This of course is not the case with newer ‘values-based’ start-ups like your own, or organizations like TheTyee — both are more like ‘public trusts’ than start-up companies.)

On the flip side, Knight-funded projects like Document Cloud are:

  1. Highly innovative with broad adoption in the news community,
  2. Born out of ‘long-established media organizations’ with ideas that come from newsroom experience,
  3. Producing re-usable, open-source software that benefits the Web as a whole.

Perhaps there are similar examples in the technology start-up space? If so, I would be appreciative of a pointer.

Update: on re-reading your post, Geoffrey, I note that you’re proposing to hold a TechCrunch disrupt-style event for only news/journalism/reporting start-ups. I do like that idea, and — admittedly — it doesn’t carry all of the same concerns that I’ve outlined above. However, in the case of news/journalism/reporting start-ups, I would swap out the ‘market failure’ with financial failure; I don’t get the sense that the news innovation community is short of ideas, but — most pressingly — the financial models that can sustain the ideas.

September 03 2010


“Conversations from St. Norbert College” featuring John Dye and Thomas Kunkel

Tom Kunkel, former journalist and president of St. Norbert College and John Dye, executive editor of the Green Bay Press Gazette, discuss changing times in the newspaper industry with Mike Counter, senior media production specialist at St. Norbert College. Kunkel spent many years in newspaper management, including time with the San Jose Mercury News, the Miami Herald, and the New York Times. He spent eight years as dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland before being named St. Norbert Colleges 7th president last July. Dye has been the top editor of the Green Bay Press Gazette since 2004. He has been in the newspaper business for more than 30 years, having served as president of state Associated Press editor groups in Ohio, New York, and Wisconsin. For more information about “Conversations from St. Norbert College” please visit: www.snc.edu
Video Rating: 5 / 5

The New York Institute of Technology was voted as one of the best colleges to work for according to a survey by The Chronicle for Higher Education.

August 17 2010


10 Ways to Make Video a More Interactive Experience

I love my iPad. One of the reasons I love it is that it's a great device for watching video. Some mainstream media integrate video very nicely into their iPad applications. However, it seems that all this slickness comes at a price: The conversation with the people formerly known as the audience is often non-existent. It seems that the potentially-messy-but-genuine conversation with
the community is being shifted to Facebook and Twitter.


The iPad (and similar products) is potentially a disruptive device, empowering people to publish not just blog posts or status updates but also their own books and magazines, as the example of Flipboard (left) demonstrates. There is a danger, however, that traditional media won't understand this and will revert to its old ways by producing slick end products that broadcast without actually engaging in a conversation.

You can see this tendency at work online in the videos produced by newspapers. Yes, you can (often) embed their videos, share them on Twitter and Facebook and via email. But often you can't participate in a discussion about the video. Sometimes you can't even leave a comment. Too little effort is being made to evaluate and integrate interactive and community aspects into video.

For example, have a look at the impressive video production on WSJ.com. The videos are well done, but the integration of community interactivity is underwhelming. We're struggling with this at my own newspaper as well, but we're in the process of applying some of the solutions I suggest below.

10 Suggestions

In order to help media organizations do a better job of making video interactive, here are 10 suggestions for integrating video into a wider discussion with the community.

  1. Enable people to leave comments on a video. What I often see on YouTube, however, is that the producer or uploader of the videos do not participate in the discussion. The same rules apply here as for text articles: If you don't respond to comments, there is a risk that people will consider the comments to be akin to graffiti on a blank wall, and not participate.
  2. When interviewing colleagues or experts in a video, provide a back-channel so the audience can chat along and add to the discussion. For example, Livestream.com and Ustream.tv offer a chat and social stream next to the live video. Ustream also does this rather well in its iPhone App.
  3. It's also possible to integrate video into a text-chat module, such as the previously discussed CoverItLive. A word of caution: Most people are not good at being a talking head on video while simultaneously chatting -- it tends to give clumsy and boring results. So let the live video host focus on her job.
  4. The same rules apply as for a regular chat session: It helps to have a fixed schedule for conversational sessions, and to provide an introductory article or post to provide context and discussion material, thus enabling people to ask questions in advance and to prepare for the discussion.
  5. You can invite community members to have a video conversation by using their webcams to appear directly on camera. I've done some experiments with Seesmic video and will note that some psychological and technical barriers stand in the way of doing this well. Which means we need more experimentation.
  6. Especially when it comes to local news coverage, it could be interesting to invite your community members to contribute their own videos. In my previous post about immersive journalism, I mentioned Stroome as an interesting platform for collaborative video editing.
  7. You can easily build a virtual studio in Second Life and invite guests to participate in a live discussion with an audience of avatars/community members. Second Life enables you to combine audio (for host and guests) and chat (for the audience/community members), and a video stream all in one. You can do this for guests who would be hard to convince to come in person to your newsroom for a live discussion. To see this in action, have a look at the Metanomics show. You can find other related practices in the aforementioned immersive journalism post and the comments on that post.
  8. Do not underestimate the importance of text. It could be interesting to have three live streams: 1) The live video stream of an interview; 2) the chat channel; and 3) a live blog. The live blog enables people who missed the live event to quickly find out what the chat was about. During the event it helps those who are hearing impaired, or who are in office settings and can't watch the video.
  9. A very simple but effective technique is to announce a video interview in advance and to ask the community for input in terms of questions or topics for discussion. This seems very straightforward, but it's mindboggling how reluctant journalists are to ask the community for input.
  10. Along the same lines, there are many ways to ask for help when preparing for a video interview: You could use a wiki, a collaborative mindmap, or let people vote for the best questions. But in my opinion the good old blog post does a great job because it's conversational and not technologically intimidating. Just explain what your intentions are for the interview, what the context is (as you would do for your newsroom colleagues), and ask people to react. A follow-up in the video or in a separate blog post would be nice. Be sure to mention which community questions made it into the interview -- and make sure you tell your guest when a question comes directly from the community.

Those are my ideas. Please share your own suggestions for turning video into a community experience below in the comments.

Roland Legrand is in charge of Internet and new media at Mediafin, the publisher of leading Belgian business newspapers De Tijd and L'Echo. He studied applied economics and philosophy. After a brief teaching experience, he became a financial journalist working for the Belgian wire service Belga and subsequently for Mediafin. He works in Brussels, and lives in Antwerp with his wife Liesbeth.

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