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December 03 2010


4 Minute Roundup: WikiLeaks Under Attack, Dropped by Amazon

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4MR 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 this week's 4MR podcast, I talk about the recent release of secret diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks, and how it is viewed by governments, journalists and free speech advocates. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is wanted in Sweden for possible sex crimes, Amazon dropped hosting the documents, and the site has had trouble staying online due to hacker attacks. I spoke with NYU professor Jay Rosen about his views on WikiLeaks, the networked nature of information sharing, and the potential for local WikiLeaks.

Check it out:


>>> Subscribe to 4MR <<<

>>> Subscribe to 4MR via iTunes <<<

Listen to my entire interview with Jay Rosen:


Background music is "What the World Needs" by the The Ukelele Hipster Kings via PodSafe Music Network.

Here's a longer discussion of WikiLeaks by Jay Rosen in a recent video:

Jay Rosen on Wikileaks: "The watchdog press died; we have this instead." from Jay Rosen on Vimeo.

Here are some links to related sites and stories mentioned in the podcast:

State's Secrets - Special Report at NY Times

Swedish Court Confirms Arrest Warrant for WikiLeaks Founder at NY Times

WikiLeaks site

Despite Attacks, WikiLeaks' Swedish Host Won't Budge at Forbes

Bill aimed at WikiLeaks introduced at UPI

The War on WikiLeaks at CBS News

WikiLeaks fights to stay online amid attacks at the AP

Amazon explains WikiLeaks cutoff - Not because of feds at the Seattle Times

Amazon and WikiLeaks - Online Speech is Only as Strong as the Weakest Intermediary at the EFF

Online, the censors are scoring big wins at Salon

Here are some of the more entertaining responses to our recent poll question about new names for Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism:

medill survey grab.jpg

Also, be sure to vote in our poll about who you think about WikiLeaks:

What do you think of WikiLeaks?online survey

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

news21 small.jpg

4MR 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 ».


Why Design is So Important for Journalism Projects

As this year's batch of News Challenge applicants hurriedly slid those last-minute applications under Knight's door, the SeedSpeak team and its technology partner Gate6 were busy prepping a very limited sneak peek of the SeedSpeak website.

Please stop by and show us love by giving us your contact information; we'll use it solely for the nefarious purpose of letting you know when the fully functional version is running, which should be very soon! After that, why not follow us and give us a quick Like on Facebook?

We are excitedly bracing ourselves for all of you to explore, evaluate and explode SeedSpeak. As past News Challenge winners know (and a new batch will very soon discover), getting to this point takes lots of daydreaming, plenty of phone calls, and loads of... design.

Importance of Design

In particular, the process has exposed questions and uncovered opportunities about design thinking and its role in journalism instruction, practice, and innovation. I was a student working on several projects at Arizona State University's New Media Innovation Lab when the first thought struck: "I'm getting a journalism degree. But I'm working on design projects. And I love it! Whoa. What am I? Who am I?"

It's exactly this kind of serendipitous identity crisis that the world of journalism innovation should more regularly -- and explicitly -- inspire among beginning practitioners. If you find yourself in a similar position, consider this post a call to action to better understand the role of design and its implications for the non-fiction storytelling ecosystem.

My little hypothesis is this: Once the vocabulary of the design thinker becomes the vocabulary of every journalist, the journalism community will be better positioned to innovate and even compete with media innovations that arise from, for example, places like this, and dare I say even places like this.

The rising standard for design thinking in the business world -- and the success of tech companies that design amazing media products -- hints at the amazing implications for grassroots activists, civic geeks, community journalists and social entrepreneurs of various stripes. You can see evidence of this in advice to last year's News Challenge applicants from Dan Schultz, who hints at a design-minded approach to a winning application.

In another post from last year, Chris O'Brien touches on the great journalism product ideas that can emerge from the design process. And I suspect the two esteemed members of the Knight family who make up the bulk of the Google hits for the search terms "human-centered journalism" (Andrew Haeg) and "design thinking in journalism," (John Keefe) would be thrilled at a more widespread discussion.

To the folks with product development and technology backgrounds, the importance of design is old news; it's among the building blocks of effective products. But to an incredibly large swath of students, practicing journalists and educators, this is an underexplored or completely unexplored concept.

So, to those News Challenge applicants not rewarding themselves by taking an extra-long nap this afternoon, I propose a much less exciting and substantially less monetarily-rewarding challenge: Get to know some of the design concepts and tools below, and stretch for an understanding of how you can leverage these for your projects (and for life in general!).

Considering some of the philosophical parallels between design and journalism, the journalists out there may be surprised by what they discover. And don't shy away if your project isn't tech-heavy: Design consultancies like IDEO use design thinking to help identify and solve all sorts of problems.

Learning About Design Concepts

So, here we go! This is by no means an exhaustive list. Just a jumping off point for some design discovery.

Some big picture stuff. Yes, these concepts totally overlap, but it's worthwhile to know where they overlap. Check out the Austin Center for Design's definition of interaction design and these principles of interface design. Be aware of the existence of terms like human-centered design and goal-directed design, and check out these thoughts from Whitney Hess about user experience design. Also, learn a little about design validation and usability testing.

Some concepts, tools and techniques that you'll come across as you delve into design include mental models, personas, use cases, task analysis, and more abstract stuff like heuristics and affordances.

You should know what ethnographic research is compared to the kind of research you may be used to. Check out some of these prototyping programs, and understand some benefits of paper prototyping and card sorting. Why not check out more fun stuff like Arduino, and make yourself aware of the existence of other professional design tools like Unity and Maya. Happen to have Adobe Creative Suite on your computer? Figure out what those programs do, and make something with each one of them. Or, get to know some of the open-source alternatives.

Design Thinkers

Now for some ways to connect with design thinkers. For starters, check out the Interaction Design Association, AIGA, the Information Architecture institute, and the Design Thinking Network. Also, don't hesitate to throw in some fun blogs like UX Booth, Johnny Holland, Core77, Designmind, Design Observer, Experience Matters, Dexigner, Putting People First, LukeW, Designboom, etc.

Hope that has you overwhelmed and excited. Happy designing!

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December 01 2010


'Report an Error' Button Should Be Standard on News Sites

The web is a two-way medium. But when it comes to reporting errors on news sites, too often, it might as well be broadcast or print.

It's time to change that. That's why, yesterday, we announced the launch of the Report an Error Alliance -- an ad hoc coalition of news organizations and individuals who believe that every news page on the web ought to have a clearly labeled button for reporting errors.

Today's articles come with their own array of buttons for sharing -- and print and email and so on. We believe that opening a channel for readers to report errors is at least as important as any of those functions.

We aim to make the "report an error" button a new web standard. Toward that end, we're releasing a set of icons that anyone can use for this purpose. It's up to each publisher what to do with them -- link them to a form or an email address, use a dedicated error-reporting service like MediaBugs, or choose any other option that suits your needs. What's important is that the button be handy, right by the story, not buried deep in a sea of footer links or three layers down a page hierarchy.

We've got a handful of forward-thinking web news outfits signed on already -- including the Toronto Star, TBD.com, Salon.com, Poynter.org, and NewsTrust.net. We hope to see this roster grow. We also encourage individuals to add their names to our alliance as an indication of your support for this new standard.

Kathy English, public editor at the Toronto Star, which already has its own "report an error" button, said, "I'm pleased that the Star is a founding member of this important initiative to help assure greater accuracy in digital journalism. The Star has long encouraged readers to report errors for correction, in print and online, where the 'Report an Error' function in effect turns every reader into a fact checker. This is a strong step forward in establishing industry best practices for online accuracy and corrections."

Not a Magic Solution

Report an Error is intended to be a focused effort toward a simple goal. Too many news sites still make it hard for you to tell them they made a mistake. Such reports get buried in voice-mail boxes and lost in flame-infested comment threads. Yet journalists still need to hear them, and readers deserve to know that they've been heard.

Implementing a "report an error" button isn't by itself a magic solution to the problem of accuracy and the erosion of confidence in the media. But it's a good start at repairing the growing rift between the press and the public. It's like putting a badge on everything you publish that says, "If you see a problem, we really want to know about it!"

So visit our Report an Error site, join the Alliance yourself, and grab some of our icons to use on your news pages and posts.

The Report an Error Alliance project is a collaboration between Craig Silverman of Regret The Error (and managing editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab) and myself. Though it grows out of my work on MediaBugs, it's a separate effort, intended to distill the simplest, easiest, and most important step in this area that every news website can take.

November 01 2010


Why MediaBugs Won't Take the Red or Blue (State) Pill

MediaBugs.org, our service for reporting errors in news coverage, has just opened up from being a local effort in the San Francisco Bay Area to covering the entire U.S. We're excited about that expansion, and we've spiffed up various aspects of our site, too -- check it out.

But with this expansion we face an interesting dilemma. Building a successful web service means tapping into users' passions. And there's very little that people in the U.S. are more passionate about today than partisan politics.

We have two very distinct populations in the country today with widely divergent views. They are served by separate media establishments, and they even have their own media-criticism establishments divided along the red and blue axis.

So the easiest way to build traffic and participation for a new service in the realm of journalism is to identify yourself with one side or the other. Instant tribe, instant community. Take a red-state pill or a blue-state pill, and start watching the rhetoric fly and the page views grow.

I'm determined not to do that with MediaBugs, though it's sorely tempting. Here's why.

The Road Less Traveled

I don't and can't claim any sort of neutrality or freedom from bias as an individual, and neither, I believe can any journalist. Anyone who reads my personal blog or knows my background understands that I'm more of a Democratic, liberal-progressive kind of person. This isn't about pretending to some sort of unattainable ideal of objectivity or about seeking to present the "view from nowhere."

Instead, our choice to keep MediaBugs far off the red/blue spectrum is all about trying to build something unique. The web is already well-stocked with forums for venting complaints about the media from the left and the right. We all know how that works, and it works well, in its way. It builds connections among like-minded people, it stokes fervor for various causes, and sometimes it even fuels acts of research and journalism.

What it rarely does, unfortunately, is get results from the media institutions being criticized. Under the rules of today's game, the partisan alignment of a media-criticism website gives the target of any criticism an easy out. The partisan approach also fails to make any headway in actually bringing citizens in the different ideological camps onto the same playing field. And I believe that's a social good in itself.

It would be easy to throw up our hands and say, "Forget it, that will never happen" -- except that we have one persuasive example to work from. Wikipedia, whatever flaws you may see in it, built its extraordinary success attracting participation from across the political spectrum and around the world by explicitly avowing "a neutral point of view" and establishing detailed, open, accountable processes for resolving disputes. It can get ugly, certainly, in the most contested subject areas. But it seems, overall, to work.

Fair, Open System

So with MediaBugs, we're renouncing the quick, easy partisan path. We hope, of course, that in return for sacrificing short-term growth we'll emerge with a public resource of lasting value. The individuals participating in MediaBugs bring their own interests and passions into the process. It's the process that we can try to maintain as a fair, open system, as we try to build a better feedback loop for fixing errors and accumulate public data about corrections.

To the extent that we are able to prove ourselves as honest brokers in the neverending conflicts and frictions that emerge between the media and the public, we will create something novel in today's media landscape: An effective tool for media reform that's powered by a dedication to accuracy and transparency -- and that transcends partisan anger.

I know many of you are thinking, good luck with that. We'll certainly need it!

October 25 2010


5 Ways to Improve the Non-Profit Journalism Hub

The Voice of San Diego, one of the oldest of the new guard of non-profit news orgs that have been popping up, has teamed up with some academics from San Diego State University to launch The Hub, a handy database of information about non-profit community news organizations. If you're looking to start your own non-profit news org or want to learn more about what's already out there, this is the place to start. 

Megan Garber over at NiemanLab has a detailed rundown on the who's and what's involved.

I'm a big fan of things that solve problems, and The Hub clearly does that. Voice of San Diego CEO Scott Lewis told Garber the site was created in response to "many, many occasions in which VOSD execs and editors found themselves fielding requests for consulting and advice from people hoping to start their own non-profit news sites."

I spent some time cruising around and think it shows a lot of promise. I've also got five ideas for how it could be made even better and more useful.

Inside The Hub

The piece that I'm most interested in is the simple directory of existing non-profit news orgs that The Hub has put into motion. This is a great idea. Structured directories are almost always awesome. The Hub's directory is pretty simple, currently listing just 13 organizations that qualify as non-profit, community-based news organizations. All the big players you usually read about in stories are there: New Haven Independent, Texas Tribune, Bay Citizen, etc. Each profile page includes a quick rundown on the org's background and then a short Q and A with someone from the organization answering basic questions about its goals and origins.

It might not sound like much, but this is really useful stuff for people looking to learn more about this area. That said, there are a few ways these profiles could be improved on to make the site as a whole much more useful:

  1. More structured data -- I'd love to see The Hub focus more on structured data over narrative. The interviews I read were fairly interesting, but the ability to take in all the important details about an organization at a glance is more valuable than the ability to read a Q & A that may or may not contain the same information. What I'd love to see would be for The Hub to borrow a page from CrunchBase in how all the data is structured and links to clickable search results. An emphasis on getting more structured data would be a bigger win than getting more narrative info on these profile pages.
  2. Funding information -- The biggest piece of structured data missing is the funding for each organization. As a reader, I want to know how much funding each news org has received so far and what the source of it is. From my own reading, I know that there's a vast disparity in funding levels between some of these organizations. Visitors need to be able to see this at a glance so they can put the rest of the information into the proper context.
  3. Rundown on key personnel -- Similarly, the structured data for each news org should include the names of the top editors and the publisher of each organization. These pages could link to "people" pages on The Hub, or they could just link out to LinkedIn profiles or Twitter accounts. Either way, people will want to know who's in charge at these news orgs so they can get a better sense of what they're doing and how they're doing it.
  4. Subscriber/follower counts for social media accounts -- The Hub's profile pages helpfully link out to the social media accounts for each news organization. What they don't tell you, however, is how many followers that news organization has right now. This might seem like a small thing, but it could actually be very useful information if acquired automatically. It would be great to be able to rank non-profit news orgs based on how many followers they have on Twitter, or by number of fans on Facebook, for example.
  5. Info on how freelancers can pitch them and how interested parties can support them -- My final suggestion would be for The Hub's profile pages to prominently include information aimed at freelancers looking to learn more about how to pitch non-profit news organizations and for fans and avid readers looking for how to support these new enterprises and their work. These are two use cases I think will be pretty common among visitors to The Hub and they don't appear to be addressed specifically on the profile pages.

The Hub is a useful project off to a great start. People working on the edges of journalism need more projects like these that give shape and voice to what's happening in the field. I look forward to seeing how this develops.

September 16 2010


Open Data + Custom Maps = Better Afghan Election Monitoring

If your organization is working on an open data release and your goal is to maximize the reach and impact of your data, sometimes just releasing the data and tools isn’t enough to accomplish your goal. Derivative products — like custom maps that visualize key data — extend the reach of data even further and help reach people who will never use complex tools or know how to meaningfully manipulate raw data.

That’s why this week when the National Democratic Institute (NDI) launched an open data site for election monitors in Afghanistan, they also released 14 sets of custom map tiles created using our TileMill project to make the data more useful to end users.


The rest of the site is designed to help users combine different datasets from the past three national elections in Afghanistan into helpful visualizations that give greater insight into the election processes. For instance, the site lets users see fraud incidence overlaid on a map of security issues from the 2009 presidential election, which can help them better understand correlations between violence and fraud. Many of the datasets don’t provide obvious insights on their own, but correlations become more apparent when the datasets are combined. These visualizations are one of NDI’s key value additions to the election process that are made possible by the site.

More Than Just Data

Our team worked with NDI to create the new open data section (following the Obama Administration’s Open Government Initiative namespace protocol), which makes much of the source data visualized elsewhere on the site available for download. Like other open data releases, the major goal of this section is to empower interested organizations and individuals to run their own analysis of the data and use it in their own applications. Making the data available to others extends its reach and impact, improving transparency and creating greater efficiency among the wide group of election monitoring organizations. This is the theory with most open data projects, but in this case NDI decided to release more than just data — they also released maps and documentation to go with the data.

Why not just release raw data and let others figure out how to use it? Most of the election data on the site has a geographic component, and some of the data includes geo-specific KML files that are designed to be viewed overlaid on a map. The intent of the open data site is to make source data available for others to visualize on their own maps, but there was a major problem with this in practice.

As we worked with the Afghanistan team at NDI to plan for this project and talked with many of the organizations most likely to use the data — both on the ground in Kabul and back in Washington, D.C. — we realized that many of them didn’t have GIS capacity (either time or skills) to create complex maps online. Releasing the raw data without the maps would have made the data impractical for many of the target audience to leverage in their work. Because NDI also wanted to make the data useful for the average interested user, it became clear that we should use the open site to share some of the same custom maps we had created for NDI’s use.

Publishing custom maps with the most up to date province and district boundary lines puts end users of the data in a position to quickly build their own visualizations and applications using the core datasets that were released. To make map distribution as easy as possible, we agreed to host the maps on MapBox.com and provide them free to use with our standard SLA. To further maximize the use of the maps, we also made the tiles available for download in our new “.mbtiles” format, which combines the tiles into a single SQLite database so they can be used offline or in other applications, including offline with our Maps on a Stick tool that is being used by NGOs in the field. The work to create this new file format and make tiles practical to download and use in other applications is something we’ve been able to do along with our work on the upcoming TileMill 2.0 release.

Focus on End Users

“Open data” has become a buzzword on the web — particularly in government and humanitarian tech circles — and with that status comes some issues. There’s a perception sometimes that an open data release means just checking the right boxes (XML, RDF, “apps” contest, etc.) to be successful. Many open data initiatives don’t get to the point of explicitly thinking about how to help end users. At the end of the day, the intent of most open data projects is to improve efficiency and the use of the data, which also means supporting users with tools and other resources.

We’re really excited about how the ability to create and distribute custom maps stands to help improve the success of open geo-data projects like NDI’s, and we’ll be working more on these tools in the coming months so that it’s even easier to share custom maps and free open source mapping tools in the future.

July 30 2010


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).

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 26 2010


Don't Blame the Content Farms

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From a business perspective, traditional journalism is rather inefficient.

Stories are chosen by a small group whose members often have similar experiences and outlooks. With little knowledge of true market demand, they assign the stories to a limited pool of writers and reporters who may not have the knowledge or contacts to quickly do a top-notch job. The stories are then produced and put out to consumers who may or may not like them. The process is repeated, daily or weekly or otherwise, often with little hard data on what, exactly, made a given story or feature popular.

But despite the inefficiencies, publishers have been able to survive, even thrive, because of other inefficiencies and barriers to competition, such as costly printing presses, advertisers with few other viable outlets and controlled distribution.

Enter the Internet. The "content farms" that MediaShft has focused on this week are exploiting new digital information technologies and systems to turn the model on its head, remove the friction caused by the inefficiencies, and reap the economic rewards. Rather than a small group of editors surmising what a community might want, algorithms from Demand Media, AOL and others process search queries and social media, glean what's wanted, then use other pieces of technology to calculate the likely value; they then quickly find writers or producers at a profitable price, assign and produce the content, attach money-making ads, and pay the "content creators" in a streamlined way.

Some in the industry may bemoan what's produced as "dreck," a term AllThingsD's Kara Swisher used while interviewing Demand CEO Richard Rosenblatt, but it does seem to satisfy a significant number of media consumers.

"Whenever you do stuff at scale and it's disruptive, people immediately think it's not good," Rosenblatt told Swisher, saying Demand produces some 6,000 pieces per day. "We're trying to prove that our content is good."

It's not as if the content farms invented the idea of producing work that's just good enough to sell. Just scan the racks at your local newsstand. As for complaints about the amount the content creators are paid, anyone producing the content is doing so voluntarily. By definition, they're being paid a market rate.

Not All Content Creators are Content Farms

Not every company trying new media business models can be put into one "content farm" bucket. Organizations like Politico, Patch and MainStreetConnect (a recent client of my company) are hiring reporters according to a more traditional model and focusing them by subject matter, geography, or both, while also using technology to keep costs down and drive new efficiencies that allow them to become, they hope, profitable with lower revenue than is required by traditional news organizations.

It's the classic case of a disrupted industry: The newcomers can do what's required to make a profit without having to support legacy processes responsible for a majority of current profits.

"It's hard to do something for future gain that is costly in present revenue and margin," publishing industry expert Mike Schatzkin told me in an interview. "If you don't have present revenue or margin, you have nothing to lose."

Writer James Fallows, in a recent Atlantic Monthly article, suggests that those bemoaning the fate of journalism might take a page from the engineers at Google, and instead try new processes, test and iterate, to discover how to derive enough revenue from what they make to sustain its production.

"Find out what [consumers] really want and value, and try to give them that, instead of what you've been making (which they may or may not want to buy, but which you've wanted to sell)," Alan Webber, who co-founded Fast Company magazine, told me in an email. "Find ways to cut costs. Find ways to cut waste. Find ways to test new ideas, new products and services faster, cheaper, and better."

That's more productive than fretting that the old ways of doing business are no longer working. And it sounds like what the content farms are doing.

Transformation of the Media Industry

About a century ago, as Americans were switching from horses-and-buggies and trains to cars, there were said to be more than a thousand companies producing automobiles in the United States. After a vigorous era of foment and entrepreneurialism, a handful survived, often incorporating the lessons learned from some of the other players that they bought out. Eventually, a thriving industry supplying millions and millions of consumers was born.

Entrepreneurial journalism -- an increasingly popular topic at journalism schools and institutes around the U.S. -- is just that, entrepreneurial. Amid the ordered disarray of startups and growth, different models are being tried. Some will succeed, and more will fail. New standards will be created.

Those upset that their skills can't get them more from the market might do well to bolster those skills. No longer is it enough to be able to report and write; hiring managers are looking for the ability to template, shoot, mic and perhaps even write a bit of code. If you don't know how to use Twitter these days, you're nowhere near the cutting edge.

Think of the power the new tools give journalists, including ones working for such venerated institutions as the New York Times, to reach beyond the confines of their publications and personally assemble communities of readers, viewers and participants around the journalism they create, while also developing leads and sources. That's more traffic for the publication, more influence and voice for the journalists. The tools also give people working for the content farms, also known as content mills, the ability to quickly get their work done and in some cases earn an hourly wage well beyond journalists' typical starting salaries.

"Yes, Demand Studios is a content mill. A new business model well adapted to the way consumers demand information. Get over it already," writes a commenter on a previous story in our series. "Why do I work for Demand Studios? The hourly pay is worth it and the independence fits my lifestyle."

A former managing editor at ABCNews.com and an MBA, Dorian Benkoil has devised and executed marketing and sales strategies for MediaShift. He is SVP at Teeming Media, a strategic media consultancy focused on attracting, engaging, retaining and monetizing audiences. He tweets at @dbenk.

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July 22 2010


An Ethical Argument for Transparency in Journalism

In a recent post on my website I examined an ethical argument for transparency. I will continue this internal dialogue with the caveat that I am not a journalism academic. I do not prescribe my beliefs to anyone but myself. This is a disgustingly theoretical post (I promise the next one will be practical up the wahzoo). I should also note the inspiration behind these two posts was a discussion at FOO Camp: Philosophy and Technology - Tim O'Reilly and Damon Horowitz.

The First Chapter

The first post on this topic hinged on the idea that transparency is necessary for public participation in journalism.

This Wikipedia quote puts it bluntly. The argument for transparency then isn't ethical so much as practical. It's a second order argument. The process of journalism must be transparent if we expect people to participate in a meaningful way. This assumes, however, that we want people to participate.

If we can reason that participation in journalism is ethical and transparency is necessary for participation to occur, it follows that there is an ethical argument for transparency.

Which means the next step is to examine the base of this syllogism: There is an ethical argument for participation in journalism.

The Goal of Journalism

What is the purpose or goal of journalism? In philosophy I might pose this as, what is journalism's Telos -- its purpose, aim, end and/or design.

The reason this question (and blog post) is important is that if you look at the current understanding of ethics in journalism you can see that it is more along the lines of a professional code than an ethical debate or analysis. Public accountability is mentioned in many of the existing code of ethics. As is the rightful dissemination of information to the public. But in almost all of these cannons of journalism the public is acted upon and is rarely an actor.

When I ask what is the goal of journalism I am not interested in the journalism industry or a journalism company. The goal for both of which would be the same for any industry (protecting itself as an economic good) or company (increasing revenue).

The tagline for my blog is "journalism is a process, not a product," and that continues to be my rallying cry. Too often our ethics, ideas of success and end goals are determined by journalism as a product, industry or company. I am more interested in the process of journalism. What is the end goal for an act of journalism?

Now here I have to posit a question: If an act of journalism is committed but never published, is it an act of journalism?

Many people don't know this, but I used to be a musician. I've actually recorded at least two albums. But I never promoted my work. So if a work of art is not shared, is it art? What is the distinction between art and hobby? Related: If an act of reporting occurs but is not shared, is it journalism? What is the distinction between journalism and journaling?

I ask this question because it gives me the platform to pose a possible end goal of journalism -- to inform. Journalism, which is a tricky thing to define, is the process of collecting, filtering and distributing information that has meaning. One caveat of course is that the information is non-fiction (true and accurate).

If we take away the "distributing" of information we no longer have the process of journalism. It is the final step in the process because it is the final Telos of journalism -- to inform our fellow human beings. Size of the audience aside, journalism is fundamentally a process of education. But when we look at the conversation about journalism, those two words are most often coupled around journalism education (journalism schools) and rarely about how the two endeavors are intimately tied.

Informing is Participatory

So the goal of journalism is to inform people about events in the world. This is fundamentally a social act and would remain the goal of journalism if we lived in a democracy, republic or any other kind of society.

Historically speaking, the "participation" of journalism consumers was to consume. That is a form of participation, but not necessarily the kind that I wan to justify. If it were, this blog post could have been much shorter: "We can justify transparency in journalism because people need to be able to read it!"

The kind of participation that I want to argue for is more engaging. Members of the public are not participating by the sheer act of be informed, but they are self-informing. It's the difference between roads that make public transportation possible and roads that make all forms of transportation possible.

Why Individual Participation is Ethical

And herein lies the base of this whole thought process. It comes down to the individual. It is the individual, as part of a collective, that journalism seeks to inform. The individual should be actively participating in the dissemination of information for several reasons:

1. On a utilitarian level, they will become more informed and help inform more people. If the good of journalism is to inform, then letting more people participate will inform more people. Similarly, the mission of roads is to enable travel/transportation, not to safeguard public transportation. (There could be unintended consequences, of source, such as pollution.) The mission of journalism is to inform, not to safeguard journalism companies. A network has infinity more connections and that requires active participation and self-informed informants.

2. They have a moral right as an individual to participate to the extent that they do not hinder others from participating. (See individualism).


So, to review:

  • Transparency is required for well-informed participation to happen.
  • Participation is needed because....
  • Journalism's end goal is to inform other people.
  • More people participating in the process of journalism means more people being informed.
  • Combine this with individual rights and ...

The journalism industry has a moral obligation to make the practices and processes of journalism more transparent so that the larger citizenry can participate.

Behind the lack of climax

Perhaps I could have shortened this blog post. I made every attempt to go step-by-step and lay out my line or reasoning.


Too often our discussion of participatory journalism, citizen journalism, etc takes an industry or company view. Either citizen journalism is good or bad because of its relationship to a bottom line.

Slighter better arguments are that participatory journalism is good/bad because of its quality (or lack of).

What I'm suggesting is that participation in the media is a net positive because of its intrinsic value.

July 09 2010


Where Did We Go Right? How to Be a Successful Entrepreneur

Imagine a well-known Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. Wanting to repeat his success, he scrutinizes all his articles and discovers they contain the letters "E" and "R" 10 times more frequently than any other letters. In his next article, he focuses on increasing the use of these letters, and then plans on teaching his new-found secret during his journalism seminar next fall.

More than likely, his success as a reporter is due to a combination of talent, hard work, circumstances, personal relationships and some luck. Which means that evangelizing the benefits of proper letter frequency is irrelevant at best and probably harmful to his journalism students.

Entrepreneurial Mortality

Successful entrepreneurs make this same mistake. New ventures are born every day and the sad fact is most die young. Yet the causes of startup death are predictable: Lack of cash, lack of funding, arriving too early or too late to market, insufficient experience or talent on the team, or just plain bad luck.

In a startup, you may not be able to avoid death, but at least you'll know what killed you. Triage is easy on a corpse; it's a lot harder to dissect a healthy Olympic athlete to understand what makes them a champion.

Entrepreneurs who experience failure usually have lots of time to ponder the question "Where did we go wrong?" in order to learn from and avoid making the same mistakes. It's much harder for them to figure out "Where did we go right?" so success can be repeated.

Success As Poison

Before becoming entrepreneur-in-residence at the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship, I spent my career as a serial entrepreneur. I was surrounded by entrepreneurs who had worked on as many successes as failures. Some of these entrepreneurs are very well known and have achieved legendary status, while others are just starting to become the next generation's Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. Failures, fizzles, flameouts and near misses are the norm -- and in Silicon Valley they are rites of passages for every entrepreneur.

Experience gained from failure is more valuable than an Ivy League M.B.A. and can serve as a passport for long-term success. Misinterpreting prior success factors can doom the entrepreneur, as well as infecting all other ventures they mentor. Yes, early success can be worse than failure -- just ask any child star.

Many entrepreneurs who taste success attribute it to their own intelligence, vision, creativity or business savvy. They ignore the critical influences of timing, circumstances and luck. In many cases I've seen people ignore an inheritance, an influential relative or a family name when they take stock of their success. This brush with success poisons future attempts.

Snake-Oil Success

Far more dangerous are former entrepreneurs who have one success to their credit and spend the rest of their career imparting (or worse, selling) their secret to wide-eyed aspiring entrepreneurs everywhere. The books and seminars shout, "Be like me! Use more E's and R's than your competition and you'll be successful."

Being an entrepreneur is often like driving a half-built race car 200 mph in a thick fog -- and not being sure if the steering wheel works. There are lots of voices in the crowd telling you which direction to drive, but who can you trust? Even if one of the voices belongs to an experienced racer, they have not been successful in these exact same circumstances -- so their advice could be fatal.

Success is Simple. It's Just not Easy

Mark Zuckerberg's path to success was different than Steve Jobs' path. They are different people with different backgrounds and situations, so trying to copy their path and methods is probably futile. A more reliable way is to look at the majority of success stories and find out what they had in common, and apply the lessons to your own situation.

Great entrepreneurial success often looks like a combination of luck, timing or brilliance -- or sometimes sheer genius -- but when you dissect it, there are really just two groups of entrepreneurial success factors:

1. Personal Factors:
  • Hard work and commitment
  • Sufficient intelligence
  • Interpersonal skills/relationships
  • Location and proximity to resources
2. Circumstantial Factors:
  • Economic and business situation
  • State of technology
  • Social trends
  • Customer wants/needs/behavior
  • Competition

When looking at these two groups, notice that all the personal factors are within your control, and the circumstantial factors are the same for every other entrepreneur. So what's the catch? The best entrepreneurs play to their strengths on the personal factors and develop a particular clarity on the circumstances and leverage them to their advantage. Most successful entrepreneurs actually have one key personal factor and one key circumstantial insight that makes all the difference in their success.

Now we can better understand what appears as luck, timing and brilliance:

  • "Luck" is when any of the personal or circumstantial factors are stronger without any extra effort. Recognize it, embrace it and use it -- but don't count on it.
  • "Timing" is when several circumstances are aligned with the entrepreneur's interests. Wait for it, recognize it and move fast when it happens.
  • "Brilliance" is when you are aware enough to take advantage of luck and timing.
  • "Genius" is when the entrepreneur overcomes the personal and anticipates the circumstantial.

Where Did You Go Right?

As an entrepreneur, what can you do to make these success factors work for you? First, take a look back on any success you've had in the past -- no matter how minor -- and ask, "What did I do right?" Think about which personal factors were your strengths, how you can use them again, and which personal traits need more work.

Next, take a look at the circumstances surrounding your prior success. Which of them were you able to foresee or even predict? Perhaps you have a special gift or insight in that area. Are you particularly observant as to customer needs, or can you understand technology or spot trends better than most? These are your success factors, and they don't come out of a bottle sold by someone else.

All entrepreneurs, and potential entrepreneurs, have the necessary success factors -- personal traits and circumstance. The key is being aware of which are your own relevant success factors, and which ones are someone else's snake oil.

July 08 2010


News Organizations Must Innovate or Die

People in news don't generally think of innovation as their job. It's that old CP Snow thing of the two cultures, where innovation sits on the science not the arts side. I had my own experience of this at the American Society of Newspaper Editors conference in Washington a couple of months ago.

After one of the sessions I spotted an editor whose newspaper had adopted hNews (the Knight-funded news metadata standard we developed with the AP). "How's it going?" I asked him. "Is it helping your online search? Are you using it to mark up your archive?"

Before I had even finished the editor was jotting something down on his notepad. "Here," he said, "Call this guy. He's our technical director -- he'll be able to help you out."

Technology and innovation still remain, for most editors, something the techies do.

So it's not that surprising that over much of the last decade, innovation in news has been happening outside the news industry. In news aggregation, the work of filtering and providing context has been done by Google News, YouTube, Digg, Reddit, NowPublic, Demotix and Wikipedia...I could go on. In community engagement, Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter led the way. In news-related services (the ones that tend to earn money) it has been Craigslist, Google AdWords and now mobile services like Foursquare.

Rather than trying to innovate themselves, many news organisations have chosen instead to gripe from the sidelines. Rupert Murdoch called Google a "thief" and a "parasite." The U.K.'s Daily Mail has published stories about how using Facebook could raise your risk of cancer,, referred to someone as a "Facebook killer" (as in murderer), and runs scare stories about Facebook and child safety. And let's not even start to take apart various news commentators' dismissive attitude towards Twitter.

When they have seen the value of innovation, news organizations have tended to try and buy it in rather than do it themselves, with decidedly mixed results. Murdoch's purchase of MySpace initially looked very smart, but now, as John Naughton wrote over the weekend, it "is beginning to look like a liability." The AOL /Time Warner mashup never worked. Associated Newspapers in the U.K. have done slightly better by making smaller investments in classified sites.

Most news organisations do not see innovation as a critical element of what they do. This is not that unexpected since they spend their day jobs gathering and publishing news. Unfortunately for them, if it doesn't become more central to their DNA they are liable to become extinct.

Speed and Unpredictability of Innovation

At last week's Guardian Activate Summit, Eric Schmidt, Google's CEO, was asked what kept him awake at nights. "Almost all deaths in the IT industry are self-inflicted," Schmidt said. "Large-scale companies make mistakes because they don't continue to innovate."

Schmidt does not need to look far to see how quickly startups can rise and fall. Bebo was started in 2005, was bought by AOL in 2008 for $850 million, and then was sold again this month to Criterion Capital for a fee reported to be under $10 million.

The problem for Schmidt -- and one that is even more acute for news organizations -- is the increasing speed and unpredictability of innovation. "I'm surprised at how random the future has become," Clay Shirky said at the same Activate summit, meaning that the breadth of participation in the digital economy is now so wide that innovation can come from almost anyone, anywhere.

As an example he cited Ushahidi, a service built by two young guys in Kenya to map violence following the election in early 2008 that has now become a platform that "allows anyone to gather distributed data via SMS, email or web and visualize it on a map or timeline." It has been used in South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, India, Pakistan, Gaza, Haiti and in the U.S.

He might also have cited Mendeley, a company which aims to organize the world's academic research papers online. Though only 16 months old, the service already has over 29 million documents in its library, and is used by over 10,000 institutions and over 400,000 people. It won a prize at Activate for the startup "most likely to change the world for the better."

The tools to innovate are much more widely available than they were. Meaning a good idea could be conceived in Nairobi, Bangalore or Vilnius, and also developed and launched there too, and then spread across the world. "The future is harder to predict," Shirky said, "but easier to see."

That's why Google gives one day a week to its employees to work on an innovation of their choice (Google News famously emerged from one employee's hobby project). It is why foundations like Knight have recognized the value of competition to innovation. And it's why Facebook will only enjoy a spell at the peak.

Some Exceptions

There are exceptions in the news industry. The New York Times now has an R&D department, has taken the leap towards linked data, and published its whole archive in reusable RDF. The Guardian innovated with Comment is Free, its Open platform, and the Guardian Data Store. The BBC developed the iPlayer.

The Daily Telegraph had a go, setting up "Euston Partners" under then editor Will Lewis. (Although setting up an innovation center three miles away from the main office did not suggest it was seen as central to the future of the business.) The project was brought back in-house shortly after Lewis left the Telegraph in May 2010 and has been renamed the "Digital Futures Division."

But mostly people in news don't really do innovation. They're too focused on generating content. But as the Knight Foundation has recognized, doing news in the same old way not only doesn't pay -- it doesn't even solve the democratic problems many of those in news are so rightly concerned about. For some people FixMyStreet.com or its U.S. equivalent SeeClickFix is now more likely to give them a direct relationship with their council than the local newspaper.

News and media organizations have to realize that they are in the communications business, and being in that business means helping people to communicate. Giving them news to talk about is a big part of this, but it's not the only part. The sooner they realize this and start to innovate, the better chance they have of surviving the next couple of decades.

July 06 2010


6 Key Lessons From NewsHour's Coverage of the Gulf Oil Spill

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has lasted more than two months now. It is the worst spill in U.S. history, and it is likely to continue until at least August. And in covering it, PBS NewsHour has broken every traffic record it ever had thanks to great reporting, our live video feed of the spill and the ticker showing the number of gallons released.

So what have we learned? Below are some of the insights we've gathered so far. (Quick note: A lot of the thinking behind this post comes from a debriefing at work with my colleagues Vanessa Dennis, Travis Daub and Katie Kleinman, and from conversations about the spill and our coverage with other people in and out of the newsroom. Just so no one thinks this is all coming out of my head. Now then...)

1. Embrace the Uncertainty

New York University professor Jay Rosen recently wrote:

It's incumbent upon journalists to level with people. If that means backing up to say, "Actually, it's hard to tell what happened here," or, "I'll share with you what I know, but I don't know who's right." This may be unsatisfying to some, but it may also be the best an honest reporter can do.

Portraying conflicting accounts or clashing interpretations is an exacting skill, which does require a certain detachment. But there is no necessary connection between that skill, or that kind of detachment, and the ritualized avoidance of all conclusions, such as we find in He Said, She Said and the View from Nowhere.

Rosen is talking about political journalism, but I think it applies very well here (and there are plenty of political facets to this story). As I said in my earlier post on the spill on my personal blog, part of what made me hesitant to make that now-famous ticker that tracks the spill was having to choose a flow rate when there were so many conflicting reports.

Uncertainty is part of the story here. Sometimes it's a huge part. There are probably a lot of journalists uncomfortable saying so explicitly, "We don't know, and neither does anyone else," but it's what the story is here.

2. Commit to the Story

For big, complicated events where lots of people are watching -- where knowing what happened is easy but knowing what it means is hard -- the NewsHour has learned how to tell the ongoing story and, critically, to stick to it.

We don't do this for most stories. There are lots of one-off blog posts and features, and plenty that can be told with one segment on the show. The stories where we can dive in and hang on, though, is where the good stuff happens.

Also, putting it all in one place is helpful.

3. Give Users Tools to Answer their Own Questions

Here's what I told Poynter's Al Tompkins about creating tools for users:

The NewsHour is a public media company, and I think part of our mission is to give the public tools to understand the news better. People see this and have different reactions, and by letting them embed it on their own sites, we allow the conversation to spread beyond areas we can think up ourselves.

There are questions we'll never think of. That's true of the NewsHour, and it's true of the New York Times. And even if we could think of every possible angle to a story, there is no guarantee that we'll answer your particular question. Building tools our users (and reporters) can use gives us a way to catch more of those questions and find more of those answers.

4. Build Things That Make your Reporting Better

Here's what I'm most proud of about the widget/ticker that I didn't want to build: It made our reporting better.

If we were going to estimate how much oil had flowed into the Gulf, it was vital that we knew what the estimates were, how they were made and what numbers were defensible. I've rewritten the JavaScript a handful of times as the situation has changed, and tracked those changes. My colleague Lea Winerman has gone back to scientists repeatedly to get their read on the latest data. We can stand by our math.

Most of this is just good beat reporting -- but having a constant, visual reminder that we need to be right is a nice prod.

5. Do Something New

Probably obvious, but it bears repeating.

6. Be Clear

I've written a lot of blog posts about math lately. I try to make these as readable as possible -- but it's still math. And I think it's important to explain where we're coming from and how we reach the numbers and conclusions we reach.

This comes back to embracing uncertainty. Here's what we said a week ago, as we struggled to find out whether more oil was coming out of the ruptured well after BP cut the riser pipe:

Did the flow rate increase significantly after June 3, when BP cut the riser pipe in order to put the current containment dome in place? And if the flow rate did increase, by how much?

We haven't found a clear answer to that question. An Interior Department official said that preliminary analysis suggested a modest increase, but that they didn't have definitive information to measure the change.

And Ira Leifer, a researcher at the University of California-Santa Barbara and a member of the flow estimate panel, told us in an e-mail that the scientists can't be sure of whether there was an increase because BP didn't provide enough data from before the riser cut to get a good estimate of the flow then.

Given that uncertainty, we initially left the minimum flow rate in our Gulf Leak Meter at 20,000 barrels per day, reflecting what the government's Flow Rate Technical Team reported on June 10 -- an estimate they based on data from before the riser was cut.

But today, BP says it captured 16,020 barrels of oil and flared another 9,270, for a total of 25,290 barrels (1,062,180 gallons) diverted from the Gulf.

(I say "we" in this case because parts of that post were written by me, and parts by Lea Winerman.)

This is getting awfully long, so in keeping with the above principles, I'm going to open it up from here. What other lessons should we learn from covering the spill? What lessons have you learned? Share them in the comments below.

Chris Amico is a journalist and web developer based in Washington, DC. As the interactives editor for the PBS NewsHour, he tells stories with data and documents. He built the database application behind the award-winning Patchwork Nation, along with other tools used by NewsHour reporters and producers. He blogs about news, code, China and travel at chrisamico.com.

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June 14 2010


The civic media world turns its eyes this week to MIT

This week, all past and present Knight News Challenge winners descend here upon the MIT campus as Knight Foundation and the MIT Center for Future Civic Media co-host the 2010 Future of News and Civic Media conference.

There has been an interesting evolution in the conference's--and the News Challenge's--focus: the question is less and less "How do we save, finance, or repurpose the functions of newspapers?" and more and more "How do we blow apart what we once thought media was 'merely' capable of?" News Challenge winners are showing that investigative journalism doesn't always need an investigative journalist. They're putting entire philosophies--such as Mencken-style satire and Mako-style software development--in conversation with each other. They're quite calmly ignoring the alarmists and getting on with the business--the literal business--of getting citizens the actionable intelligence they need to make good civic decisions.

Though registration is limited to Knight's guests, we hope you'll join us at 2:30pm on Wednesday when Knight Foundation announces the 2010 News Challenge winners. We'll have a live stream here: http://civic.mit.edu/conference2010. And you can follow the conversation on Twitter with the #fncm hashtag.

June 02 2010


Why Journalists Should Learn Computer Programming

Yes, journalists should learn how to program. No, not every journalist should learn it right now -- just those who want to stay in the industry for another ten years. More seriously, programming skills and knowledge enable us traditional journalists to tell better and more engaging stories.

Programming means going beyond learning some HTML. I mean real computer programming.

As a journalist, I'm full aware of the reasons why we don't learn programming -- and I'm guilty of using many of them. I initially thought there were good reasons not to take it up:

  • Learning to program is time-consuming. One look at the thick books full of arcane code and you remember why you became a journalist and not a mathematician or an engineer. Even if you are mathematically inclined, it's tough to find the time to learn all that stuff.
  • Your colleagues tell you you don't need it -- including the professional developers on staff. After all, it took them years of study and practice to become really good developers and web designers, just like it takes years for a journalist to become experienced and knowledgeable. (And, if you start trying to code, the pros on staff are the ones who'll have to clean up any mess you make.)
  • Learning the basics takes time, as does keeping your skills up to date. The tools change all the time. Should you still bother to learn ActionScript (Flash), or just go for HTML5? Are you sure you want to study PHP and not Python?
  • Why learn programming when there are so many free, ready-made tools online: Quizzes, polls, blogs, mind maps, forums, chat tools, etc. You can even use things like Yahoo Pipes to build data mashups without needing any code.
  • When Megan Taylor wrote for MediaShift about the programmer-journalist, she asked around for the perfect skillset. One response nearly convinced me to never think about programming ever again: "Brian Boyer, a graduate of Medill's journalism for programmers master's track and now News Applications Editor at the Chicago Tribune, responded with this list: XHTML / CSS / JavaScript / jQuery / Python / Django / xml / regex / Postgres / PostGIS / QGIS."

Those are some of the reasons why I thought I could avoid learning programming. But I was so wrong.

Why Journalists Should Program

You've heard the reasons not to start coding. Now here's a list of reasons why you should:

  • Every year, the digital universe around us becomes deeper and more complex. Companies, governments, organizations and individuals are constantly putting more data online: Text, videos, audio files, animations, statistics, news reports, chatter on social networks...Can professional communicators such as journalists really do their job without learning how the digital world works?
  • Data are going mobile and are increasingly geo-located. As a result, they tell the stories of particular neighborhoods and streets and can be used to tell stories that matter in the lives of your community members.
  • People have less time, and that makes it harder to grab their attention. It's essential to look for new narrative structures. Programming enables you to get interactive and tell non-linear stories.

Jquerylogo copy.jpg

  • You don't have to build everything from scratch. Let's take JavaScript, which is used for creating dynamic websites. Tools such as jQuery, a cross-browser JavaScript library, enable people to create interactivity with less effort. Web application frameworks such as Ruby on Rails and Django support the development of dynamic sites and applications. So it can be easier than you thought.

A Way of Looking At the World

Maybe you're not yet convinced. Even though jQuery makes your life easier, you still need a decent knowledge of JavaScript, CSS and HTML. Django won't help you if you never practiced Python. All of this takes time, and maybe you'll never find enough of it to get good at all this stuff.

Still, we must try. The good news is that it doesn't matter if you become proficient at the latest language. What is important, however, is that you're able to comprehend the underpinnings of programming and interactivity -- to be able to look at the world with a coder's point of view.

I'm still just a beginner, but I feel that this perspective provides you with an acute awareness of data. You start looking for data structures, for ways to manipulate data (in a good sense) to make them work for your community.

When covering a story, you'll think in terms of data and interactivity from the very start and see how they can become part of the narrative. You'll see data everywhere -- from the kind that floats in the air thanks to augmented reality, to the more mundane version contained in endless streams of status updates. Rather than being intimidated by the enormous amount of data, you'll see opportunities -- new ways to bring news and information to the community.

You probably won't have time to actually do a lot of the programming and data structuring yourself. But now you're equipped to have a valuable and impactful conversation with your geek colleagues. A conversation that gets better results than ever before.

So, even though it's probably a bit late for me to attend the new joint Master of Science degree program in Computer Science and Journalism at Columbia University, I can still learn How to Think Like a Computer Scientist using the the free MIT OpenCourseWare, take part in the Journalists/Coders Ning network, and find help at Help.HacksHackers.Com).

And so can you.


Are you a journalist who has taken up programming? A programmer with advice for journalists? Please share your experiences and insights 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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April 20 2010


WikiLeaks, Bay Citizen, and Lessons from the Logan Symposium

Over the past two days, I had the pleasure of attending the 4th Annual Reva and David Logan Investigative Reporting Symposium. If you want a blow-by-blow account, check out the live blogs from Day 1 and Day 2.

Now that I've had a chance to catch my breath, I want to reflect on what I heard (and what I didn't hear).

For the most part, the gathering was flat out inspiring. The folks here are doing the hardcore, courageous investigative journalism that takes on powerful interests, asks vital questions, and in many cases puts their finances, their safety, and their health on the line.

This is also the stuff that's most at risk as business models collapse, as newsrooms cut staff, and audiences fragment. At times, as I listened to many of the elder statesmen of journalism recount war stories, I felt like I was being taken in a time machine back to a recent age that has long since ended. If you saw the movie "State of Play," which was in fact the theme of the symposium this year, then you might have some sense of what I mean.

And yet, here were many of these same folks gamely trying to chart a new course. There wasn't much hand-wringing about the problems (as in past Logan Symposiums). But there also wasn't much consensus on how to move things forward.

Non-Profits Sustainable?

On a Saturday panel about collaboration, everyone agreed that there should be more. And thanks to organizations like ProPublica, there is. Throughout the weekend, there was a heavy representation of non-profit news organizations that didn't exist even a year or two earlier. Whatever one thinks of the wisdom of these models, I take it as a positive sign that people are moving past the talking phase and into the doing phase.

Jonathan Weber, the new editor of the Bay Citizen, the non-profit news organization being developed in San Francisco, said the reason people like him (who had previously been critical of the non-profit model) were coming around to this model was simple: There is no private capital available from investors to fund organizations that will primarily pay journalists. There's money for things like aggregation, but not journalism.

But as well as ProPublica has done so far, it's still never going to plug all the holes at the national level, and it doesn't pretend it will. What concerns me more is the lack of resources at the local level. In theory, organizations like Bay Citizen will start to plug some holes there, but what I heard from that corner left me more concerned about the direction of the nascent organization.

We heard from two representatives from Bay Citizen: Weber on Sunday, and CEO Lisa Frazier on Saturday. For all the time they had on stage, I still couldn't tell you exactly what it is, or what it aims to be. And for the most part, Weber and Frazier either couldn't, or wouldn't, say. For an organization that at some point is going to be asking for public support and donations, I expected more transparency in order to build confidence and trust.

Frazier, facing some tough questions from Slate's Jack Shafer, couldn't say anything about what the organization's strategy was for grassroots fundraising, or why Weber had changed his mind about non-profits. ("You can ask him tomorrow. He'll be here tomorrow morning," she said to Shafer.) And when Shafer asked why he should donate money to the Bay Citizen, she rattled off some statistics about the number of journalism jobs lost and reduction in content. But there was no sense of what the organization's core mission was. She still sounded more like a McKinsey consultant rather than a visionary leader of a revolutionary news organization.

Weber shed a bit more light on things Sunday -- but only just a little. They won't be using students from the Graduate School of Journalism at UC-Berkeley as slave labor. There will be some paid internships. They will develop some investigative projects and innovative journalism projects through classes at the school. And of course, the Bay Citizen will produce two days of local content for the New York Times.

But what stories will they cover with their 15 employees? How will they be presented beyond the New York Times? Weber said we'll just have to wait and see once they get started. I found that attitude a bit baffling. If he were building a for-profit enterprise, sure, keep your secrets. But as a non-profit that will be seeking collaborations and donations, it would seem wise to be sharing the process and communicating a vision and purpose as soon as possible. Or perhaps the vision hasn't been clarified yet.

WikiLeaks Founder: A Journalism Anarchist

If there was one big surprise for me, it came on Day 2 with the appearance of Julian Assange of WikiLeaks. Assange took us behind the operations of WikiLeaks. He was tough and passionate. I didn't necessarily agree with everything he said. And there will no doubt be times in the coming months and years, as WikiLeaks pushes the boundaries, that they will do things that will cause wide-ranging discussions about ethics in this new age.

But meeting Assange left me assured that WikiLeaks is being led by someone who is thoughtful, visionary, and yes, a journalist. "Leaking information is an act of anarchy," Assange said.

The good news is that Assange is taking a measured and responsible approach, rather than coming off as a zealot. For instance, he acknowledged that at first he hoped that by putting everything they got online, the crowd would help filter things, discover what was legit or not. "It's bullshit," he said. Now, WikiLeaks employees and volunteers vet information and sources before posting information.

WikiLeaks has structured its organization and its technology to be located in many jurisdictions so it can dodge the worst legal threats. Essentially, WikiLeaks is trying to use the tricks multi-national corporations use to avoid taxes and regulation to protect themselves.

"We built the organization from the ground up to be un-sue-able," he said.

It was a good way to end the weekend, hearing from a thoughtful journalism anarchist. It left us with a taste of the way new technology could in fact be a catalyst for new and powerful forms of investigative journalism.

Chris O'Brien is a business and technology columnist at the San Jose Mercury News where he has covered Silicon Valley for 10 years. He was also a recipient of a Knight Foundation News Challenge Grant in 2007 to research and design the newsroom of the future.

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March 30 2010


Portability, Participation Rule for New Media Consumer

We're spoiled by technology. Today, we expect more from our media than we can get from print, radio or linear TV.

If you're like me -- and, increasingly, evidence shows people are -- you crave portability, fungibility, the ability to listen to a book or article, to watch a TV show or movie or YouTube clip whenever and wherever you want. You may even, like me, want to chop off pieces and show them elsewhere, tag them, mash them up.

Consuming media the way it used to be provided (and sometimes still is) can be so woefully inefficient. Who wants to have to sit down and consume at the provider's convenience, rather than their own? Who has time for appointment TV any more? Just look at the research that finds more and more of us using DVRs, avoiding commercials and otherwise changing viewing habits.

It's not necessarily that we object to a reasonable level of advertising or fees. We're increasingly using services like Hulu or Netflix that let us watch shows and movies on demand, even if we have to suffer ads, or pay for the privilege. It's worth the price in order to not be at the mercy of whatever happens to be available, either in real-time or on-demand through a cable. It's great to have the choice of what screen to use, too. And who doesn't enjoy being able to zoom back a minute or two and catch something they liked or missed?

During the Winter Olympics, I couldn't bother sitting through tape-delayed events that had happened hours ago or that I didn't care about. I not only recorded the shows off the air, using an Eye TV device mentioned in this MediaShift story on cutting the cord to cable, but also set the program to automatically convert the broadcasts to iTunes clips that took up less space on my hard drive and also made them easy to transfer to computers and other devices.

Shifting from Eyes to Ears and Back

If you're like me, you also enjoy reading and listening to books you're interested in. I may read a chapter or two, then listen to a chapter while doing the dishes. I get through the book faster and enjoy the continuity. When an audiobook doesn't exist -- which is surprisingly often -- I'll try to get the digital edition and have my computer's speech-synthesis application read it to me. Even with the distortions and glitches, it's good enough to give a good rendering of what's in print.

I'll do that for newspaper and magazine articles, blogs and research papers, too. It's a great way to not have to stop reading because I have something else to do that requires the use of my hands or eyes. If I'm going to be traveling, I might record the audio into an iPod so I can listen while standing in line or taking a taxi to the hotel. I'll certainly access books remotely via computer, Blackberry or iPod Touch.

By now, you may be thinking: What's this got to do with trends in media or the media business, at large? This guy is a huge geek, and he's unlike 90 percent of humanity.

But that really isn't the case. Yes, I am reasonably comfortable with technology, but I don't use it for its own sake. I use the technology because it is liberating, it let's me do things I've always wanted to. I know I'm not the only person who's engaged in time- and place-shifting by using a timer and tape recorder to grab favorite radio shows, for example. It's no secret why audio cassette decks used to be sold with two slots for tapes, only one of which had a "record" button. I still record things on a videotape when I want to bring them over to someone else's house to watch.

Our time is valuable, and the more we can control it the more value it has. So, too, does media become more valuable when we can better weave it into our relationships. If we can snag a piece of something and blog or tweet about it or email it to a friend, it makes it easier to have a meaningful conversation and be engaged.

Age of the Participatory Consumer

A recent study from IBM media research found that we're moving from "traditional devices" to "connected experiences," that media consumers from all generations, but especially the younger ones, are moving from passive to "involved" consumption of media, and from limited to open access. Consumers around the world, it finds, increasingly expect to control and participate in their media.

There's a lesson here amid debates about what media consumers will pay for, and which distribution channels and levels of access can be controlled. Device makers, too, need to figure out a balance between portability and access, as the iPod's masters showed they learned by finally offering DRM-free versions of songs. I also predict the Kindle will do the same as competitors with more open devices gain market share.

Anyone who produces media or the devices to consume them will have to provide enough value for us to put up with any restrictions. More importantly, they need to understand that technology has made us into new kinds of consumers.

Dorian Benkoil is consulting sales manager, and has devised marketing strategy for MediaShift. He is SVP at Teeming Media, a strategic media consultancy focused on helping digital media content identify and meet business objectives. He has devised strategies, business models and training programs for websites, social media, blog networks, events companies, startups, publications and TV shows. He Tweets at @dbenk.

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March 24 2010


Joel Spolsky Retires His Blog, but Blogging Will Endure

Joel Spolsky wrote his final blog post last week. If you're not in the software field, you might not know Spolsky's name. But since 2000 his Joel on Software blog has been explaining the intricacies of programming with clarity and humor for an audience of both insiders and novices.

joel on software grab.jpg

Joel on Software served as a model example of how blogging liberated experts in myriad fields, enabling them to school readers without taking the shortcuts that so often mar conventional coverage of their subjects. A good many technology journalists, myself included, got any number of crash courses from Spolsky's posts, on arcane topics like unicode or "the law of leaky abstractions" or "distributed version control":http://joelonsoftware.com/items/2010/03/17.html (the topic of Spolsky's final piece).

The reasons for Spolsky's success were no mystery: He had a wealth of knowledge and personal experience, and he had a compellingly comic voice. He would, for instance, explain the inefficiency of a particular algorithm by referencing a joke about Shlemiel the painter. As a writer, he was a sort of geek vaudevillan, and he would hold your attention through shameless ploys that you couldn't help smiling over. If blogging didn't exist, it's hard to imagine how Spolsky would ever have emerged as the Mel Brooks of programming.

Lifespan of Blogs

Blogs have natural lifespans. Anyone who has written one for a decade and produced over 1,000 substantial posts has a right to say, as Spolsky did, "I'm done." But with Spolsky adding his hat to a rack now groaning with retired bloggers' headgear, we are once again hearing the perennial question: Is blogging over?

Spolsky announced his move with a column in Inc. (also his last) that explained his company, Fog Creek Software, was now going to take more of his time. He also wondered whether the "blog your way to success" model makes any sense. Certainly, if you're trying to answer the question, "Should I blog?" from a purely mercenary perspective -- will a blog help promote my business? -- then the answer is a moving target. Today Spolsky has concluded that his firm has won as much success as it can through the blogosphere; now it's time to adopt more traditional marketing techniques.

Spolsky is a smart guy, and I'm sure what he's doing makes sense for his company. But can we please be spared the latest round of funeral dirges for blogging that his decision has prompted?

Consider, for instance, this post from Adam Lashinsky of Fortune, who uses Spolsky's retirement as an occasion to pen an obituary for blogging as an independent activity. "If you've truly got something interesting to say," Lashinsky writes, "you're going to be part of an organization that can give you a platform."

Lashinsky reminds us that a few years back Time named "You" as its "person of the year," based on the way web culture placed "you" at the center of its media universe. The Fortune writer can't wait to smite this straw man:

People are beginning to understand that if a medium with new and exciting tools is just an excuse to write nonsense while wearing pajamas, then it's not worth much. If, however, a blogger has a message, some thought, and some research, well, that's called journalism. And that, come to think of it, is what we paid serious attention to before it became all about you.

In other words: When blogging gets personal, it's worthless; and when it's good, then it's just plain old journalism. This is a great illustration of the sort of ostrich-like reasoning that kept so many journalists from understanding the impact of blogging for most of the last decade. Trapped in their own narrow professional vantage, they, like Lashinsky, couldn't see that the value and purpose of blogging lies precisely in its differences from previous media forms -- in the way it liberates personal publishing from commercial norms and radically widens the spectrum of public voices we can hear.

Still Relevant

Blogging emerged and continues to thrive because it gives us something our old institutions and practices can't. Its combination of immediacy and archival persistence uniquely exploits the web's native qualities in ways older-fashioned publications are still trying to match. Its near-zero cost of publishing and distribution means that anyone can do it. That enables individuals to project their words in the public sphere without needing to work for a media company or stand on a platform controlled by someone else. And it allows writers to mix up the personal and professional at will.

The result can be illuminating -- and, yes, it can also be, as skeptics are so ready to point out, self-indulgent. Some bloggers take "write about yourself" as a license to dispense a stream of trivia about their lives; but many others take it as an invitation to teach the world what they know by telling stories from their experience. Doing the latter, as Spolsky always did, is -- pace Lashinsky -- not the same thing as journalism. It's more like a complement and supplement to journalism.

Like many of the most valuable bloggers, Spolsky is a participant in a specialized field who took up blogging to tell his own stories and make his own arguments directly to the public. He's made a success of that by intelligently projecting his own voice, perspective and experience directly into his writing in an informal, personal way that journalists have traditionally eschewed and still rarely attempt.

I'll miss Joel on Software, no question. But I'm not worried about the future of blogging.

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March 22 2010


Why 'TV Everywhere' Will Fail

A few years ago, while TV networks were happily setting up Hulu as a place for people to watch shows online for free, the cable companies were fretting. If cable customers could watch shows online for free on Hulu, or through cheap subscription services such as Netflix, who was going to pay for cable service? Sure, the cable companies would still get you for Internet access, but they'd lose one part of their "triple play" package -- usually the most expensive and lucrative part.

So they dreamed up the idea of "TV Everywhere." It came mainly from the minds of Comcast and Time Warner Cable, who didn't like the notion of their cable content getting out into the wilds of the digital world. As a recent cover story on BusinessWeek magazine points out, TV Everywhere is the "Revenge of the Cable Guys" who didn't want to see their industry downsized in the same way the music industry was hit with file-sharing.

businessweek cover image.jpg

But who are the cable companies getting their revenge on? Is it the array of tech startups that want to help people cut the cord? No, the real revenge is on cable customers who were considering cutting the cord. Rather than allow them to go online to customize their TV viewing and pay only for the content and channels they want, Big Cable wanted to lock them into the old routine of paying for 500 channels while watching about eight of them. TV Everywhere is a solution for Big Cable -- not for its customers. Just look at the image that BusinessWeek chose to show cable's revenge: A customer wrapped up in a cable like a prisoner (see image at left).

While cable companies say they are not seeing widespread reductions in customer subscriptions as a result of people cutting the cord, my Guide to Cutting the Cable TV Cord story at MediaShift has been the 3rd most popular story on the site over the past 12 months (even though it was only published two months ago). I've heard from scores of people who have happily cut the cord or are considering doing so.

The cable companies believe that their method of paying for all those channels of content and then collecting huge (and rising) premiums from customers is the only way studios and content creators can be paid to produce high-quality shows. But how long will the old way be the only way? Aren't those content creation costs a bit inflated when you consider that the tools and distribution are being democratized online? Yes, online video sites have not become huge money makers for independent web productions yet. But that doesn't mean a shift isn't coming down the line.

Reasons for Failure

Here's a rundown of why I think the TV Everywhere concept -- and Comcast's beta of Fancast Xfinity TV -- are doomed to failure over the long term.

  • Taking away choice.
    While Comcast pitches Xfinity as giving users more control over content by being able to watch what they want when they want, the reality is that Comcast is locking people into their menu of offerings for cable TV. And, most importantly, they are giving people the chance to watch content on other platforms -- laptops, smartphones, etc. -- only if they keep paying their cable bills. There is still no choice for people who want to pay less for just the shows they want. The ultimate in customization comes from the Internet, where you watch what you want and aren't usually forced into bundles of content and channels.
  • Propping up old technology.
    The TV Everywhere push has absolutely nothing to do with promotion of new content platforms and everything to do with propping up the old one. The perfect analogy is newspaper publishers (the latest being Cablevision with its acquisition of Newsday) who think they can get people to pay for print newspaper subscriptions in order to get free web access to their content. The customer wants to get access to the content online, so the publisher's reaction is to say, "OK, you can have that, but you'll need to pay for this other thing that you no longer want." You can only prop up the old model for so long before someone figures out a way to make the new one work without it.
  • No plan to charge people for online-only access.
    The cable companies have no plan to give people the option to access Xfinity or other TV Everywhere services for a fee instead of forcing them to pay for cable TV. That means this is not a strategy for working out an online business model (either through advertising or paid content, or a mix of those or something new). Instead, the cable companies have one aim: Protect the old business model. Again, this is not a strategy born from innovation or smart thinking about new platforms. This is survival mode and all about protecting the old, broken way of doing business.
boxee box
  • Google TV on the horizon.
    It's true that the earlier entrants in web-TV convergence (including WebTV) were failures because the technology wasn't quite there yet. And when you consider the multiple steps required to get your TV hooked up to the Net properly, it makes sense that most people won't cut the cord to cable. But more TV sets are being built with easier web integration. And what happens if Google, Intel and Sony band together for Google TV, as rumored in the New York Times recently? And with the Boxee Box due out this year, the web-TV setup without cable gets even easier. That makes low cost alternatives enticing vs. the TV Everywhere promise that you'll be paying your cable bill forever.
  • People don't trust Big Cable.
    In survey after survey, people say they have poor customer service from cable and satellite companies. They would likely jump at the chance to get a service that gives them any kind of friendly help, or can portray itself as even slightly responsive to their needs. You rarely hear people complain about the service they get from Netflix, for instance, so the upstarts have a chance to show they can do better.
  • Not delivering on its promise.
    Worst of all for TV Everywhere is a failure to deliver on its initial promise. The promise was that you could watch all your cable shows and channels on your laptop and mobile phone. But as PC World's Mark Sullivan points out in a review, you can't get all the content you expect. "After all the hype from Comcast about the new service, I'm surprised at how little subscription-only and premium video -- especially movies -- is actually available on Fancast Xfinity TV," he wrote. That could change over time, but first impressions can make a difference with word of mouth.

I am convinced that this early trial for Xfinity and TV Everywhere is doomed to failure because they are a way to prop up a legacy media in transition. But there are ways that the cable companies could change course. They could come up with a fair payment for online access for people who don't want to pay for cable. They could offer more customization for cable, allowing people to buy just the channels they watch.

But, at the moment, the cable companies are content to sit high on the hog, charging huge sums for cable TV services that continue to defy gravity, and the recession, by going up, up, up.


What do you think about Xfinity and TV Everywhere? Will they keep you happy paying for cable TV? Or have you quit cable and cut the cord? Share your thoughts in the comments below. And don't forget to vote in our poll about your satisfaction with your cable or satellite service:

What do you think about your cable or satellite TV service?polls

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

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March 15 2010


How Journalism is Getting Better

Michael Arrington's recent TechCrunch post about old media "guys" who don't get it made me realize how far things have come -- and how much better they've gotten -- in the world of journalism.

I worked for more than 15 years in what's now called "legacy media" as a reporter, news editor and business person. All along, there were a bunch of things that made me scratch my head.

The Way Things Were (Wrong)

Why, for example, could we could lift from other sources without offering attribution? I remember when a librarian at ABC News taught us how to use news databases to find stories from local media that could serve as grist for our mill. On another occasion, I pretty much re-reported a Japanese magazine's story for Newsweek. The Japanese magazine's editor called me out privately, but I never paid any further price.

I marveled at how expensive databases with reams of news and information benefited us at big media companies, but weren't readily available to the public. One of the reasons I worked for large media companies (such as ABC, Newsweek and AP) was because of the information access they afforded.

I saw how my colleagues and I could resist calls for transparency in disclosing sources or methods because it was very hard for people to vet what we did and then share their concerns widely.

Meanwhile, the viewer or reader or listener pretty much had to take whatever we thought they should be given. At top-flight news organizations, we seldom talked about what the consumer might want. I would get sometimes looked at cross-eyed if I brought the topic up.

I remember the frustration I felt at always having to repeat the nut graf and essential information in a story, just in case someone reading it might not know the basics of what had already happened. I remember the Newsweek bureau chief in Tokyo telling me he was annoyed at being assigned a story that would cover the same ground as one done well by another news outlet.

As both a news professional and a news consumer, there was a constant feeling that I was missing something.

The Equation Is Changed

Digital media -- can we please stop calling them "new"? -- have changed it all.

I was exhilarated in my early years at ABCNews.com, where I was its founding international producer, when I got a Serb from Belgrade within the NATO bombing zone to email me missives, which I posted on the site. Sure, they were biased and sometimes myopic, but it was great to have someone who had bombs falling all around him making observations from his window, sending images, showing his feelings.

I remember, too, the enjoyment I felt getting screamed at from China for allowing what I believe was the first real-time chat between people in China and a major news website. In both instances, the experience was raw, unfiltered and direct from the source -- without any correspondent to tell us what was being said. The unlimited space, flexibility of time, and ability to bring others into the conversation broke down the barriers that the journalist can place, even inadvertently, between those involved in the news and those interested in it. (These were adjuncts, not the main story, and I don't believe we can or should do without journalists, editing and packaging. But I do think coverage is greatly enhanced by direct access to those involved.)

While watching the Paley Center's recent session, Education of the Entrepreneurial Journalist, I was glad to see Geneva Overholser, director of the School of Journalism at USC's Annenberg School for Communication, promise that, "We will have journalists who need to care about where audiences are and how they are going to reach those audiences."

But I was almost shocked that it had to be stated. Isn't it a given that journalists have to care about the audience? Are we still in an era when they don't?

Change for the Good

Access to information has, obviously, improved as well. Search engines such as Google and myriad other information sources, from Twitter and Facebook to Digg and Delicious, have made it easier to be sure we don't miss what's relevant. They can also enable us to find serendipitous links that take us on new journeys. Sure, there's still proprietary information locked up in Factiva, Nexis and Bloomberg terminals, but you'd be hard-pressed to convince me we have less access to good information today than we did before the web.

Journalists are also now held to a higher standard, and have to be more transparent. As everyone from Dan Rather to The New York Times and Reuters and many solo bloggers have found, any mistakes or distortions will be called out and publicized. You'll be hounded until you make a prominent correction. You may even have to find another line of work. No longer is it simply enough to say, "Trust us and our integrity. We have the brand and the access and the information."

The ability to link and refer to source documents has helped, too. I remember how I had to convince a boss in those early days of ABCNews.com to let a link or two replace a few paragraphs of background in order to save us space and effort, while also sparing readers the annoyance of repetition. Today, the link and search are our friends, and can give us not just the background, but also the source documents, raw interviews, and much more. Done right, journalism has new authenticity and credibility.

Accountable advertising

Democratization has also come to the business side. I used to wonder how it was that advertisers could place their ads without ever knowing much about the effect of their placement. Of course, we all knew that even though a placement in the front of a publication was deemed a choice spot, readers might pick up Newsweek just for the arts section and never get to the "front of the book." In the Washington Post, they might not go beyond the Style section, so a chunk of subscribers weren't being reached by ads in the front section.

Today, in digital media, advertisers can at least tell if their ads have been served to (and presumably seen by) a viewer. Yes, it's imperfect, but you can't convince me that digital media is less accountable than print or broadcast.

While I feel the pain of those who've lost their jobs -- I've both laid off people and been laid off myself -- there are now business models for news that work on the web, even if the traditionalists don't like it. Just ask Gawker Media, Gothamist, Talking Points Memo, Daily Kos or Drudge Report, all of which are said to be profitable. I know it's still fashionable in some circles to curl your lip when referring to "bloggers," or to lament the mediocrity of so much web journalism. But there is real, strong journalism taking place, too.

I'm not saying today's media have made things all sweetness and light, that digital is saving us and everyone is holding hands and dancing together in sun-filled meadows. But we're getting some clarity about information sharing and attribution, fraud is being detected, fairness and even-handedness are being demanded, the megaphone is being shared, and advertisers are able to demand evidence that their ads are actually being seen.

Meanwhile, there is huge disruption. This is not a time for the faint of heart or those unwilling to learn and change. But, for so many reasons and in so many ways, things are better than they used to be.

Dorian Benkoil is consulting sales manager, and has devised marketing strategy for MediaShift. He is SVP at Teeming Media, a strategic media consultancy focused on helping digital media content identify and meet business objectives. He has devised strategies, business models and training programs for websites, social media, blog networks, events companies, startups, publications and TV shows. He Tweets at @dbenk.

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March 05 2010


Clifford Stoll Was Wrong, But Internet is Far From Perfect

Poor Clifford Stoll. His 1995 Newsweek essay The Internet? Bah! Hype alert: Why cyberspace isn't, and will never be, nirvana resurfaced last month and, yes, is still so curmudgeony that it makes Dennis the Menace's Mr. Wilson sound like Pangloss:

What the Internet hucksters won't tell you is that the Internet is one big ocean of unedited data, without any pretense of completeness. Lacking editors, reviewers or critics, the Internet has become a wasteland of unfiltered data. You don't know what to ignore and what's worth reading. Logged onto the World Wide Web, I hunt for the date of the Battle of Trafalgar. Hundreds of files show up, and it takes 15 minutes to unravel them - -one's a biography written by an eighth grader, the second is a computer game that doesn't work and the third is an image of a London monument. None answers my question, and my search is periodically interrupted by messages like, "Too many connections, try again later." Won't the Internet be useful in governing? Internet addicts clamor for government reports. But when Andy Spano ran for county executive in Westchester County, N.Y., he put every press release and position paper onto a bulletin board. In that affluent county, with plenty of computer companies, how many voters logged in? Fewer than 30. Not a good omen.

Because the article resurfaced, Stoll is being re-berated. Everyone knows he was wrong. In fact, when BoingBoing picked up the piece, Stoll himself left a comment owning up to his mistaken view.

Pew Study

But we can't leave well enough alone, because this week the Pew Internet and American Life Project released a new study, Understanding the Participatory News Consumer, that contained actual statistics about how wrong Stoll was. From the study:

The Internet is now the third most-popular news platform, behind local and national television news and ahead of national print newspapers, local print newspapers and radio.

Getting news online fits into a broad pattern of news consumption by Americans; six in ten (59%) get news from a combination of online and offline sources on a typical day.

The Internet and mobile technologies are at the center of the story of how people's relationship to news is changing. In today's new multi-platform media environment, news is becoming portable, personalized, and participatory:

  • Portable: 33% of cell phone owners now access news on their cell phones.
  • Personalized: 28% of internet users have customized their home page to include news from sources and on topics that particularly interest them.
  • Participatory: 37% of internet users have contributed to the creation of news, commented about it, or disseminated it via postings on social media sites like Facebook or Twitter.

Take it Easy, Optimists

But does that mean the optimists were entirely right? Not really. The 1995 version of Cliff Stoll can take intellectual, if not actual, comfort in the fact that all of these new methods of access haven't resulted in greater "source diversity" or better news comprehension. Americans haven't increased the number of sources they routinely check -- and yet they feel overwhelmed by those they do. The study found that:

Despite all of this online activity, the typical online news consumer routinely uses just a handful of news sites and does not have a particular favorite. And overall, Americans have mixed feelings about this "new" news environment. Over half (55%) say it is easier to keep up with news and information today than it was five years ago, but 70% feel the amount of news and information available from different sources is overwhelming.

In other words, rather than Stoll's predicted "wasteland of unfiltered data," the Internet today is more like the Big City, where residents can feel deeply connected to their neighbors, while at the same time being wary of ever asking "Who else is out there?" -- because the answer is overwhelming.

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