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May 22 2013

15:00

Objectivity and the decades-long shift from “just the facts” to “what does it mean?”

1960S ART

If I had only one short sentence to describe it, I’d say that journalism is factual reports of current events. At least, that’s what I used to say, and I think it’s what most people imagine journalism is. But reports of events have been a shrinking part of American journalism for more than 100 years, as stories have shifted from facts to interpretation.

Interpretation: analysis, explanation, context, or “in-depth” reporting. Journalists are increasingly in the business of supplying meaning and narrative. It no longer makes sense to say that the press only publishes facts.

New research shows this change very clearly. In 1955, stories about events outnumbered other types of front page stories nearly 9 to 1. Now, about half of all stories are something else: a report that tries to explain why, not just what.

rise-of-context-over-events-chart

This chart is from a paper by Katharine Fink and Michael Schudson of Columbia University, which calls these types of stories “contextual journalism.” (The paper includes an extensive and readable history of all sorts of changes in journalism in the 20th century; recommended for news nerds.) The authors sampled front-page articles from The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in five different years from 1955 to 2003, and handcoded each of 1,891 stories into one of four categories:

  • conventional: a simple report of an event which happened in the last 24 hours
  • contextual: a story containing significant analysis, interpretation, or explanation
  • investigative: extensive accountability or “watchdog” reporting
  • social empathy: a story about the lives of people unfamiliar to the reader

Investigative journalism picks up after the 1960s but is still only a small percentage of all front-page stories. Meanwhile, contextual journalism increases from under 10 percent to nearly half of all articles. The loser is classic “straight” news: event-centered, inverted-pyramid, who-what-when-how-but-not-so-much-why stories, which have become steadily less popular. All this in the decades before the modern Internet. In fact, previous work showed that the transition away from events began at the dawn of the 20th century.

Investigative journalism may have pride of place within the mythology of American news, but that’s not really what journalists have been up to, by and large. Instead, newspaper journalists have been producing ever more of a kind a work that is so little discussed it doesn’t really have a name. Fink and Schudson write:

…there is no standard terminology for this kind of journalism. It has been called interpretative reporting, depth reporting, long-form journalism, explanatory reporting, and analytical reporting. In his extensive interviewing of Washington journalists in the late 1970s, Stephen Hess called it ‘social science journalism’, a mode of reporting with ‘the accent on greater interpretation’ and a clear intention of focusing on causes, not on events as such. Although this category is, in quantitative terms, easily the most important change in reporting in the past half century, it is a form of journalism with no settled name and no hallowed, or even standardized, place in journalism’s understanding of its own recent past.

From this historical look, fast forward to the web era. The last several years have seen a broad conversation about “context” in news. From Matt Thompson’s key observation that a series of chronological updates don’t really inform, to Studio 20′s Explainer project, to a whole series of experiments and speculations around story form, context has been a hot topic for those trying to rethink Internet-era journalism.

I believe this type of contextual journalism is important, and I hope we will get better at understanding and teaching it. The Internet has solved the basic distribution of event-based facts in a variety of ways; no one needs a news organization to know what the White House is saying when all press briefings are posted on YouTube. What we do need is someone to tell us what it means. In other words, journalism must move up the information food chain — as, in fact, it has steadily been doing for five decades!

Why does this type of journalism not even have a name?

I have a suspicion. I think part of the problem is the professional code of “objectivity.” This a value system for journalism that has many parts: truth seeking, neutrality, ethics, credibility. But all of these things are different when the journalist’s job moves from describing events to creating interpretations.

There are usually multiple plausible ways to interpret any event, so what are our standards for saying which interpretations are right? Journalism has a long, sorry history of professional pundits whose analyses of politics and economics turn out to be no better than guessing. In concrete fields such as election forecasting, it may later be obvious who was right. In other cases, there may not be a “right” answer in the traditional, positivist sense of science. These are the classic problems of framing: Is a 0.3 percent drop in unemployment “small” or is it “better than expected”? True neutrality becomes impossible in such cases, because if something has been politicized, you’re going to piss someone off no matter how you interpret it. (See also: hostile media effect.) There may not be an objectively correct or currently knowable meaning for any particular set of factual events, but that won’t stop the fighting over the narrative.

This seems to be a tricky place for truth in journalism. Much easier to say that there are objective facts, knowably correct facts, and that that is all journalism reports. The messy complexity of providing real narratives in a real world is much less authoritative ground. Nonetheless, we all crave interpretation along with our facts. Explanation and analysis and storytelling have become prevalent in practice. We as audiences continue to demand certain types of experts, even when we can’t tell if what they’re saying is any good. We demand reasons why, even if there can be no singular truth. We demand narrative.

What this latest research says to me is that journalism has added interpretation to its core practice, but we’re not really talking about it. The profession still operates with a “just the facts, ma’am” disclaimer that no longer describes what it actually does. Perhaps this is part of why media credibility has been falling for decades.

Photo of Sol LeWitt’s “Objectivity” (1962) via AP/National Gallery of Art.

April 13 2010

14:30

Can explainers be the basis for a revenue stream? Voice of San Diego’s Scott Lewis thinks so

You may have seen Megan’s post a couple weeks ago about how lauded news nonprofit Voice of San Diego is trying to hire an “engagement editor” to help push its stories into social media and public consciousness. That piece references VOSD’s two-part mission:

To consistently deliver ground-breaking investigative journalism for the San Diego region.

To increase civic participation by giving residents the knowledge and in-depth analysis necessary to become advocates for good government and social progress.

It’s that second part that’s the subject of this video interview with Scott Lewis, VOSD’s CEO (whew, lots of initials there). Telling stories is one thing, but providing the analysis needed for public action is another. Led by Matt Thompson, the quest for context and explanation has been a hot topic for some time in future-of-journalism circles. But Scott explains here that he thinks explainers might be part of a business model, too: the kind of added value that convinces people to become a member of VOSD or otherwise contribute financially.

…if our mission is to help educate people about these issues so that they can become the advocates that the community needs to progress, then, perhaps, educating them means more than simply putting news up on the site. And that, perhaps, education means providing these explainers. Maybe it means providing a graphic novel on the top 10 stories of San Diego. Or maybe, it’s a book or a curriculum that they receive…We can have a rolling system of clinics from our reporters where they literally just say, “This is how the education system’s working right now.” And, maybe, for a fee or for a membership benefit, that’s something that you can participate in.

This interview is actually a few months old — our former staffer Zach Seward recorded it in October, back before he (and Megan! and Matt!) became “next generation digital visionaries.” I emailed Scott to see if anything he talked about in the interview needed an update; I’ve added those updates — including how VOSD has moved ahead with explainers on a big local platform — below the transcript.

Zach Seward: All right, I’m with Scott Lewis, CEO of Voice of San Diego. I was interested in what you were talking about explainers and context and a recent story sort of involved with that?

Scott Lewis: Yeah. Our mission is in two parts. One is to deliver ground-breaking investigative journalism. And by investigative, we mean stories that help people understand why things are the way they are, rather than just simply passing along information. And the second part of our mission, though, is broader. It actually says, “providing residents the information they need to become advocates for good government and social progress.” Well, I’ve embraced that latter part of the mission a lot more. And that means more than just simply putting out news and letting, you know, people make their own conclusions and figuring things out from what is available on the latest news.

What it might mean, we think, is also helping them understand San Diego better, understand how the government works better, understand how the education system works better. And we think that there’s a tool to do that in stories that are not just news and not just traditional investigative-type stories, but actually explainers, ways for people to understand these situations better. So, if we’re covering a complex topic, a story can go through the process of — even the first person, sometimes — of saying, “I don’t know how this works. Let’s go through this together and try to figure it out together. And I called this person, and he added this perspective. I called this person, they added this perspective. And this is a full presentation of everything I know about this topic.”

Because reporters have that, they have that experience and they have that. And a lot of times they’ll come up to me and they’ll say, “You know, we need, I want the inside scoop.” But what they really want when they say that, it seems like, is for you to break it down in plain English and help them understand, you know, the issue, the way that you might tell your girlfriend about or your friend about, in just words that help you paint a picture for them. So we think there’s incredible value in that that might actually transfer to a membership model, too.

Zach: Now, you just had a reporter go out and do that with a particular story?

Scott: Yeah. Liam Dillon covers government for us and politics. And there’s a big issue in San Diego about whether to expand the Convention Center. And the editor, Andrew Donohue, told him to, well, go find out about that and literally just explain what you find out. And he did it, and he did it in a first-person account, and he did it in a way that was really engaging as far as just explaining the entire situation, so that if you weren’t following it — you may have heard the debate. You may have heard updates about costs and about anger and conflict about the issue, but finding that story, it gave you everything that everyone had about where we were at with it, in a way that you could digest, and that was written in a conversational, easy-to-digest way.

And we received tons of comments and emails from people saying, “Wow, that was really. That was the best story yet about it.” They took it as a news story, and they took it really well. They said, “Wow, you really helped. This is the best, most comprehensive news story about this.” And in — I don’t know that in the past, a journalist would have thought of that as a news story, in particular, in the sense that it was really just an explanation. And I think there’s incredible power in that.

Zach: Did it pay off in terms of traffic?

Scott: Yeah, it was our most-read story for that week. It was a — and again, the engagement, the discussion level rose after that. We got letters and comments, and it was a powerful piece.

Zach: And you said also you’re having reporters be in charge of individual pages around subjects that they cover?

Scott: Oh, no.

Zach: No, okay.

Scott: No, that was Salon’s doing that. I took some. It seems cool.

Zach: Maybe, it’s a possibility in the future? Fair enough.

Scott: I’m trying to figure out. It seems like that issue, and you’ve been talking about it at Nieman, and Matt Thompson, and others have talked about it, about re-forming the news story around topic pages and that. I think there’s a design problem I’d love to help solve with that. And if we could figure out what that page looks like and why you would want to continue going to it and how you represent it on a front page or a home page. If we could help be part of what that looks like, I think there’s definite power in it, for sure.

Zach: So, the thing you mentioned earlier, understanding of course it’s entirely speculative, is the possibility that a membership model could include, you know, paying members of Voice of San Diego have special access to some of these kind of explainers? Is that the thought or…

Scott: Yeah, we’re thinking about if — and there’s a lot of things to work out — but if our mission is to help educate people about these issues so that they can become the advocates that the community needs to progress, then, perhaps, educating them means more than simply putting news up on the site. And that, perhaps, education means providing these explainers. Maybe it means providing a graphic novel on the top 10 stories of San Diego. Or maybe, it’s a book or a curriculum that they receive.

Zach: A one-hour, in-person class.

Scott: Exactly, exactly. We can have a rolling system of clinics from our reporters where they literally just say, “This is how the education system’s working right now.” And, maybe, for a fee or for a membership benefit, that’s something that you can participate in.

You know, what we want to do is learn from how these other organizations that have started to build their own membership programs, how some of them crossed the line that a lot of people felt was, you know, unethical with like what The Washington Post was thinking of doing as far as special events. But I think that if it’s just reporters talking and simply sharing, that this kind of explainer — it could be pretty powerful. Again, it’s just something to think about and work on. But the idea of membership having more benefit than simply a bumper sticker and then, maybe, even having some benefit as far as helping, you know, more clearly understand San Diego, that’d be really cool.

Right now, we do a thing somewhat like this. Every month we host a members’ coffee. So if you’ve given us money or if you’ve renewed your membership that month, then you’re invited to come to this thing. And, you know, between five and a dozen people usually show up, and they and tell us about what they’re interested in. We usually end up talking about city politics or city education issues or new media issues, mostly. And it’s fun for them. They enjoy getting that sort of in-plain-English explainer of both what we think is happening to the newspaper world and what we think’s happening to City Hall.

Zach: Sure. At this point, what are your current revenue streams?

Scott: Five. We have major donors, minor donors. And those are separate for a very good reason. I mean, they’re just completely different animals. Foundation grants and then corporate sponsors. And by corporate sponsors, we mean any organization that hosts an ad or a sponsorship message on the site. And so that can be a union or a nonprofit or whatever. We get a lot of that.

And then the fifth is a syndication revenue we’re trying to develop more and more. And this is — we realize we’re not just a website. We’re a source of information. So, if others want to package and distribute it better than we can, all the power to them.

Zach: You say that you’re ahead of revenue projections this year?

Scott: Yeah.

Zach: Is the largest chunks of those five sources still foundation support?

Scott: No, the largest chunk, I think, would be our two main major donors, which amount to about 35 percent of our budget right now. And that would be the two big donors. Then foundations are about that same level. And it’s all going to fall into place, I think, interestingly. And then the rest is split between the small donors and the corporate sponsors.

Zach: And, obviously, one goal is to grow the whole pie, but within the pie, is the goal to even that out? Like you’d like to have 20 percent from each, or is that too facile?

Scott: No, no, no — that’s exactly it. I don’t know what sustainability is. But to me, it means diversification to the point where, if one source falls or something, that it’s not crippling. And in that sense, then, I have two obsessions: One is to diversify the revenue inside those sources and then pursue other sources to diversify the sources. Do you know what I mean?

Zach: Sure, sure.

Scott: So, it’s a two-part obsession. And, yeah, I won’t be happy until we’ve gotten to the point where no single person has, or entity or grant has more than, you know, say, 10 or 15 percent of the budget responsibility. So that’s the goal. Ideally, it would be one percent over, you know, a thousand different types of sources. No, that wouldn’t —

Zach: Oh, yeah, well, that would be pretty good, in any event. [Laughter] That would be the future of news.

Scott: You know, ideally, it would get to — and it’s diversity, I think, that has the power. That if you have a lot of different sources of revenue, it provides for credibility and it provides for sustainability. And that’s why it’s such an obsession. And I think MinnPost and us and others are equally obsessed with that holy grail.

Zach: Sure. Well, thanks, Scott.

Scott: Yeah, thank you.

Updates and followups from Scott Lewis:

— Comments weren’t actually allowed on VOSD at the time Liam’s story ran, so by “comments” he meant direct feedback and what they called “letters” to the editor.

— Efforts to diversify VOSD’s revenue streams are ongoing. Scott: “We have begun to collect revenue from our content services or syndication effort, especially in regard to our new San Diego Explained series with the local NBC affiliate.”

So explainers might be a revenue source after all. But when it comes to a membership model, Scott typed this from his iPhone: “Finally, yes I believe that context explainers etc can serve as a basis for membership engagement but it’s a lot easier said than done and we’re still trying to figure it out. But haven’t abandoned it.”

December 02 2009

02:11

Journalists use RSS to track rivals, news, tweets & other info

This post sponsored by the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

RSS is an incredibly useful way for journalists to keep track of beats by watching what is being published online, whether on news sites, blogs, Twitter, saved Google search terms, etc.

I spoke to three journalists about how they use RSS for research and reporting. They also each gave one really good tip for diving into RSS.

For those unfamiliar with RSS, Wikipedia has this to say about RSS:

RSS (most commonly expanded as “Really Simple Syndication” but sometimes “Rich Site Summary”) is a family of web feed formats used to publish frequently updated works—such as blog entries, news headlines, audio, and video—in a standardized format. Web feeds benefit publishers by letting them syndicate content automatically. They benefit readers who want to subscribe to timely updates from favored websites or to aggregate feeds from many sites into one place. RSS feeds can be read using software called an “RSS reader”, “feed reader”, or “aggregator”, which can be web-based, desktop-based, or mobile-device-based.

Eric Berger

Eric Berger has been a reporter at the Houston Chronicle for 10 years and has been covering science for the last eight years. He has been blogging about science since 2005, creating a community to discuss science at SciGuy.

“When I first started blogging I found science blogs and used RSS as a means to keep track of the flow of information,” Berger said. “It’s too difficult and time-consuming to visit 100 blogs a day.”

Berger uses Bloglines, a popular RSS feed reader, to follow around 80 Web sites and blogs. He estimates seeing 300 new items a day.

“Back in the dark ages (five -six years ago), if I was working on a story I might be solely focused on that and not seeing what else what happening in science,” Berger said. “Now it’s impossible to escape that.”

He follows scientists of various disciplines, so he can keep track of various scientific communities. He also collects news releases via RSS, which sometimes turn into blog entries.

“If that strikes a chord in the community, then you can spin it into a story for the newspaper,” he said.

One Tip:

“Just experiment with it [RSS] and put new feeds in and don’t be afraid to add or delete feeds. Your feed reader shouldn’t be static, your list of feeds should fluctuate with what you’re working on.”

David Brauer

David Brauer covers media and occasionally politics for MinnPost.com.

Using RSS became a critical part of Brauer’s job in March of 2008, when he started writing a aggregated morning briefing for MinnPost.com.

“You have to make sure to pay attention to local news sources,” Brauer said. “The only way to do it is with RSS. RSS makes it very efficient to know what’s going on in the area I cover.”

Brauer no longer does the morning briefing, but RSS has remained vital in more general work. He is subscribed to 138 feeds in Google Reader, primarily local media feeds such as public radio, tv stations, alt weeklies and of course, the local newspapers.

“It’s one of the tools I use most as a reporter. RSS and Twitter,” he said. “RSS is good for checking things I already know to check; Twitter is good for finding things I wouldn’t have known to follow.”

His feeds are organized with 24 tags, categorizing feeds into sections such as sports, tech, big, little and suburban, public radio, local aggregators, local blogs, local papers, college journalists, national and politics.

“I see over 1,000 new items a day, but experienced users know you can just mark all items as read and move on,” Brauer said. “Be somewhat aware of balance so you don’t spend all day in RSS.”

One Tip:

Brauer suggests that journalists look into the sync features offered by many RSS readers, and to make sure that your RSS reader of choice is available for multiple platforms. (Google Reader has Web and mobile versions that sync.)

Sean Blanda

Sean Blanda is an editor at Vital Business Media and a co-founder of Technically Philly.

Blanda started using RSS around 2005, with Bloglines.

“It was coolest thing in the world that I didn’t have to put up with email and could still get content sent to me,” he said. “When I figured out you could get feeds of Google Alerts (and now Twitter mentions) it really spiraled out of control.”

Most of his ideas for stories at Vital come from media news feeds he gathers. He also runs Technically Philly part time and uses RSS to gather information quickly and get a large cross-section of sources.

“Our readership is very active on social media and blogging, so I have alerts for people’s names, companies, locations in Philadelphia, etc.”

Blanda uses Google Reader instead of Bloglines now, attracted by the social tools Google has been adding recently. Users can follow friends, share stories and comment on content together.

“I can see what my friends think is important too,” he said. “Most of my college newsroom was using Google Reader and it became a better way to stay in touch and shoot story ideas back and forth.”

He keeps 377 subscriptions organized by purpose, so for Vital he has folders by industry and for Technically Philly he sorts by beat and general news.

“I check all of the feeds related to my job everyday, every story,” Blanda said. “The other stuff, I get to it when I can, if not, no big deal. And sometimes I declare bankruptcy and mark all as read.”

Blanda can’t estimate how many news items he gets in a day: “It [Google Reader] always says 1000+ (unread items). I’d say I check around 500-600 a day.”

One Tip

“My one tip would either be to get other people on your beat to share on Google Reader or to not forget Yahoo Pipes as a way to filter info…something I haven’t taken enough advantage of. With enough work you could always be sure to get relevant information.”

Do you use RSS to research and report? How do you organize your feeds and fight information overload? What creative uses do you put RSS to? Can you offer other tips?

November 12 2009

04:19

GothamSchools targets loyal and casual users with different content

gothamschools

This post sponsored by the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

GothamSchools, like most news Web sites, serves multiple audiences: one part loyal readers and insiders and another part casual readers. But does the same kinds of content appeal to both of these audiences?

Regular readers are much more knowledgeable about a beat and some of these readers are even experts. The kind of content that appeals to these people is much different than drive-by readers, who may be new to an issue. These differing audiences with differing expectations and knowledge levels have led editors at GothamSchools to develop different kinds of content to appeal to each audience.

GothamSchools attracts a lot of insiders in the New York City education scene: teachers, principals, parents, education policy makers, other education journalists, etc. This audience is very knowledgeable and they’re coming to GothamSchools for the latest information on New York City schools. These people don’t need to wait until the dust has settled around a story; they’re fine with learning tidbits along the way.

For this segment of the audience, GothamSchools has short blog posts under the heading “Margin notes” that break news, report a story as its unfolding, excerpt another blog, give thoughts from someone in the education community, link to content around the Web and more. These blog posts can either help tell more about a previously reported story or they can help tell tidbits as a story begins to take shape. This is content, however, that most likely won’t appeal to casual readers and may even confuse some.

These posts don’t have to identify everyone because insiders know who the players are. These posts may also crowdsource and solicit user suggestion. GothamSchools’ editors view these blog posts as a place to get users involved with reporting.

“When we’re tapping into our insider pool, that’s a blog post,” writer and editor Elizabeth Green said.

On the other hand, most casual readers would be lost if they just stumbled upon a short blog post that didn’t contain any background information or identify all key players. For this audience, GothamSchools offers longer content that is written much like a newspaper story. These pieces are thoroughly reported, involve talking to lots of sources and never contain information from one side of an issue. These stories are self contained and don’t rely on other GothamSchools content to tell a larger story.

These stories serve regular readers fine, but they’re more aimed at casual and drive-by readers. A parent who may have received a link in her e-mail would benefit much more from a thorough, self-contained piece than from a short blog post that excerpts another blog or just has a tidbit about an issue.

“We’re certainly a niche site, but we have a lot of general readers,” Green said about GothamSchools ability to appeal to casual users.

This may seem like arguing semantics. How do readers even know which content is aimed at them? GothamSchools recently rolled out a new visual design that indents blog posts from the rest of the page and puts a double carrot, >>, next to these posts. By having a visual way of differentiating between stories and blog posts, GothamSchools is making it easier for readers to see which kind of content they are viewing.

gothamschools2

Green believes that it is important to make it clear to readers when GothamSchools is reporting a story versus when it has a completed reporting story. For instance, editors may have information from one side of a story (a principal on budget cuts, for instance) and want to get that out there, but editors don’t want readers thinking that’s the whole story.

“I don’t think it’s fair to put a full story out there with information only from one side,” Green said.

In fact, sources became confused by the different kinds of content that GothamSchools offered and some even accused GothamSchools of being “just some rag,” before they realized that GothamSchools offered in-depth content to go along with short blog posts. Editors and writers were having issues with these sources who didn’t understand the difference between a blog post and a fully-reported story. Editors are hoping this new visual design will help sources realize what’s a fully-reported story and what’s a blog post that may contain only one viewpoint.

Green and other editors debated the merits of this change. There were concerns that users would not get the distinction, but so far users and sources have been receptive to the changes. Editors wrote a blog post detailing this change and others that helped users understand what was happening.

The blog posts and stories work hand in hand though. As a story is unfolding, writers and editors will file blog posts with new tidbits, links to what else has been reported, thoughts from insiders and more. After a story settles and has been thoroughly reported, editors will go back and write a complete story that will sum things up for regular readers, while also telling a complete story for casual readers.

“It’s a balance of giving a good first draft of history and with being rigorous,” Green said.

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