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April 21 2011


The newsonomics of a single investigative story

Editor’s Note: Each week, Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of news for the Lab.

It’s a week to celebrate great investigative work. ProPublica made some history with its Pulitzer for online-only work about the financial meltdown, and the Los Angeles Times crowned its success with the larger-than-life Bell corruption tale, winning its own top prize. Both well deserved.

Meanwhile, as journalists sat around their terminals awaiting the Pulitzer bulletin, an investigative series broke across California, perhaps reaching more audience more quickly than any previous investigative piece. There were no bodies to count, nor billions or millions of ill-gotten gains to uncover.

Rather, California Watch’s “On Shaky Ground” series is aimed at preventing disaster, getting ahead of the Grim Reaper. The series took a big look at the likely safety issues in the state’s schools when (not if, right?) The Big One hits. It found, not surprisingly, that although state law mandated seismic preparations, all kinds of bureaucratic nonsense has contravened that intent. It found that about 1,100 schools had been red-flagged as in need of repair, with no work done, while tens of thousands of others were in questionable and possibly illegal shape. The so-what: Some of the very institutions providing for the kids of California have a certain likelihood of actually falling on top of them and killing them.

It’s old-fashioned, shoe-leather, box-opening, follow-the-string journalism, and it is well done.

While it’s fun to celebrate great journalism, anytime, it’s vital to look at the newsonomics of this kind of investigative journalism. What did it take to get it done? How much did it cost and who paid for it? And, to look at the plainly fundamental question: How do we get lots more of it done in the future?

The series took more than 20 months to complete. The interactive timeline, “On Shaky Ground: The story behind the story,” tells that tale with tongue in cheek; it’s a great primer for any beginning journalism class. Corey G. Johnson, freshly hired from North Carolina and part of a young reporting contingent that has been mixed and mentored well by veterans like editorial director Mark Katches, stumbles on a list of 7,500 “unsafe schools” as he’s doing a routine story on the 20th anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake.

Along the way, the story grows in import and paperwork. California Watch, the less-than-two-year-old offshoot of the Berkeley-based Center for Investigative Journalism (CIR), adds other staff to the effort, including reporter Erica Perez, public engagement manager Ashley Alvarado, distribution manager Meghann Farnsworth, and director of technology Chase Davis, among other reporters.

In the end, the series rolled out in three parts — with maps, databases, historical photos, its own Twitter hashtag, a “My Quake” iPhone app — and a coloring book (“California Watch finds a new consumer group, kids“), intended to reach kids, the most important subject and object of the reporting. Already, the state legislature has scheduled hearings for April 27.

The reach of the roll-out is one of the new lessons here. Six major dailies ran at least some part of the series. ABC-affiliate broadcasters took the story statewide. Public radio news leaders KQED, in the Bay Area, and KPCC, in L.A. ran with it. KQED-TV. The ethnic press signed on: La Opinion ran two seismic stories Sunday and Monday, while at least two Korean papers, one Chinese paper, and one Chinese TV station included coverage as well. More than 125 Patch sites in the state (California is major Patch turf) participated.

A number of the distributors did more than distribute. They localized, using data from California Watch, and reporting on their local schools’ shape. KQED-TV produced a 30-minute special that is scheduled to air on at least 12 PBS affiliates in the state.

San Francisco Chronicle managing editor Steve Proctor is frank about how priorities and resource use have changed in the age of downsizing. When Proctor came to the paper in 2003, he says, the paper had five to seven people assigned to a full-time investigative team. Now there’s no team per se, with the Chronicle investing investigative resources in an “investigate and publish” strategy, getting stories out to the public more quickly and then following up on public-generated leads they create. It’s an adjustment in strategy and in resource allocation — and the California Watch relationship makes it even more workable. “We’ve been pretty sympatico with them from the beginning,” he said. “We’ve used the majority of what they’ve produced.”

So let’s get deeper into some numbers, informed by this series, and see where this kind of work can go:

  • “On Shaky Ground” cost about $550,000 to produce, most of that in staff time, as the project mushroomed. That’s now a huge sum of money to a newsroom, even a metro-sized one. Ask a publisher whether he or she is willing to spend a half a million on a story, and you know the answer you’ll usually get. It’s a sum few newsrooms can or will invest. Consequently, the economics of getting a well edited, well packaged series for a hundreth of that price is an offer few newsrooms can (or probably should) refuse.
  • California Watch, not yet two years old, runs on a budget of about $2.7 million a year. That budget supports 14 journalists, whose funding takes up about 70 percent of that $2.7 million number. That’s an intriguing percentage in and of itself; most daily newspaper newsrooms make up of 20 percent or less of their company’s overall expenses. So, disproportionately, the money spent on California Watch is spent on journalists — and journalism.

The project is about midway through its funding cycles. The ubiquitous Knight Foundation (which has contributed about $15 million to a number of investigative projects nationwide through its Investigative Reporting Initiative), the Irvine Foundation, and the Hewlett Foundation, all of which have provided million-dollar-plus grants, are reviewing new proposals.

The key word, going forward here, is “sustaining.” Will foundations provide ongoing support of the “public good” of such journalism? There’s lots of talk among foundations, but no clear consensus among journalism-facing ones. “There really isn’t a foundation community that thinks with a common brain — same situation as in the news community,” Knight’s Eric Newton told me this week. “Each foundation makes its own decisions using different criteria. Some foundations see their role as launching new things and letting nature take its course.” CIR executive director Robert Rosenthal is among those trying to find a new course. Although he’s a highly experienced editor, he finds that most of his time is found fund- and friend-raising.

  • California Watch is building a syndication business, feeling its way along. Already, six larger dailies — the San Francisco Chronicle, the Sacramento Bee, the Orange County Register, the San Diego Union-Tribune, the Fresno Bee, and the Bakersfield California — are becoming clients, paying a single price for the all-you-can-eat flow of daily and enterprise stories California Watch produces. They, a number of ABC affiliates (L.A.’s KABC, the Bay Area’s KGO, 10 News San Diego, 10 News Sacramento, KSFN in Fresno), and KQED public radio and TV in the Bay Area are also annual clients pay between $3,000 and $15,000 a year each. A la carte pricing for individual projects can run from $3,000 to $10,000. The California Watch media network, just launched in January, is an important building block of the evolving business model. It is clear that while syndication can be a good support, at those rates, it’s a secondary support.
  • So, if California Watch were to be totally supported by foundation money, it would take an endowment of $54 million to throw off $2.7 million a year, at a five percent spend rate. Now $54 million raised one time isn’t an impossible sum. Consider just one gift: Joan Kroc left NPR more than $200 million eight years ago. Consider that the billionaires’ club started by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett (encouraging their peers to give away half of their wealths) is talking about newly raising a half a trillion dollars for the public good. Last summer, I suggested the group tithe a single percentage point of the club’s treasury for news-as-a-public-good. It seems to me that stories like “On Shaky Ground” make that pivotal education/health/journalism connection; send “Shaky Ground” to your favorite billionaire and urge him to sign on.
  • Let’s do some cost-benefit analysis. How much is a single child’s life worth? How about a school of 250? We could consult a liability lawyer, who undoubtedly would put assign a six- and seven-figure number per life, and then tie up the courts, post-disaster, making the math work. So if California, bereft as it is of capital, were to invest in the infrastructure, per its own laws, wouldn’t it be ultimately cost-effective? Of course it would be, and in this case we see in microcosm, the question of American infrastructure writ large. Are we a country that will let more bridges fall into mighty rivers, more schools fall onto our children and more poor roads cause preventable injury and death? You don’t need my political rant here. Rather, let us just make the point that journalism — old-fashioned journalism, newly digitally enhanced — is a key part of forcing America to face its own issues, whatever the solutions.

In this project and in California Watch generally, we see the reconfiguring of local media. An owner — whether AOL, Hearst, or private equity — can hardly reject the offer of paying one-hundreth of the cost for space-filling, audience-interesting content. Welcome to a new kind of content farm, to use that perjorative for a moment. Yes, California Watch operates on the same Demand Media-like principle of create-once-distribute-many, realizing the digital cost of the second copy is nil. Let’s consider it the organic, cage-free content farm. It makes sense for a state the size of a country (California = Canada); smaller versions of it make equal sense for Ohio, North Carolina, or Illinois.

Older media outsources journalism and in-sources (affordable) passion. There are lots of lessons here (“3 Reasons to Watch California Watch“), but that fundamental rejiggering of who does the work and how it is distributed and customized is a key one. As Mark Katches points out, “They [distributing partners] put their voices on our story.” That’s a new system in the making.

Old(er) editors can learn new tricks. For a good show-and-tell of that principle, check out Rosenthal’s talk to TEDxPresidio two weeks ago. I first saw him give the talk at NewsFoo in Phoenix in December. Amid more tech-oriented talks, his stood out and was much applauded. It’s a clarifying call for real journalism, perfected for the digital age. Share it.

February 01 2010


Printcasting 1.5 Boosts Design for On-Demand Publishing

A funny thing happens when you win a contest like the Knight News Challenge. Suddenly, what was once just a wacky idea that you threw into a web form becomes a long list of things you have to do. And those of you who are lucky enough to be filling out a full Knight News Challenge proposal this week for the second phase of the competition should take note: If you win, you have to do all of it.

If you haven't seen the list of features we originally promised to build into Printcasting, let's just say it was pretty darned long. So it's with great satisfaction that I can say that, 18 months after our Knight-funded Printcasting project started, we have finally completed all of the features we promised.

But that doesn't mean we're finished. If anything, we've made our list even longer thanks to constant feedback from people who call us up to say, "Printcasting would perfectly fit my needs if you could just add this one extra thing..."

Introducing Printcasting 1.5

To those of you who have been asking for more control over publishing and design -- pay attention. This week we'll take a huge step forward by rolling out Printcasting 1.5, which is all about giving more control to publishers. You can see a quick preview of some of the 1.5 features here:

The elevator pitch for those who don't want to watch the video is that Printcasting 1.5 has much more professional-looking templates, more options for how text and pictures can be arranged on a page, more control over fonts, and some really cool design features for header images.

We call this a "dot-five" release because it's really an incremental step toward the even more ambitious Printcasting 2.0, which will be a complete rewrite in Drupal 6 that will be more usable by the open source community. (We will also open source the Drupal 5 version once we're satisfied with where it's at).

We say that this release is all about publishers because, until relatively recently, we were still working on an extremely complicated self-serve advertising system. It was important to get the advertising system to work (and it was an important part of our Knight News Challenge proposal); but, to be frank, we haven't seen a lot of interest from the small businesses it was designed for.

One reason is the economy. Many of those businesses either cut their marketing budgets or flat out went out of business in 2009. You could say that it was the second worst time in American history to launch an advertising tool, with the first worst being the Great Depression. I continue to be a believer in the idea of "democratizing" print ad publishing, but it will take more time to get the features just right, and attract interest from time and cash-starved businesses.

Surprise! Businesses Need Democratized Publishing, Too

While we haven't seen interest from businesses in buying ads, we have seen a ton of interest from companies and organizations that want to use Printcasting, or utilize the democratized workflow that's behind it. The common thread with these large organizations is something we never anticipated but which now makes sense: They need help spreading the work of publishing within their own walls, democratizing from the inside out.

These organizations run the gamut from publishers (including but not limited to newspapers) to membership organizations, and their needs seem to increase as the economy forces companies to do more with less. We hope to be able to work with some of these organizations as partners.

We also continue to get attention from the tech community. MIT included us in a list of Research to Watch, and O'Reilly will include us in a session at their Tools of Change in Publishing conference, along with our friends from RIT's Open Publishing Lab and Spot.us.

Looking Ahead

So where does this leave us for June 1, the first day after our Knight News Challenge grant runs out? When we're not designing and coding, we're also thinking quite a bit about how to keep Printcasting.com going. We also want to make it do even more, and have been working on ideas. I naturally can't get into details about those plans, but they're exciting and I hope to be able to talk more publicly about them after they firm up.

In the meantime, we'll maintain laser-like focus on the user experience. Among our top priorities are:
  • Launch Printcasting 2.0 on Drupal 6. My challenge to the development team is to complete this by the end of February.
  • Roll out more partnerships We've inked one to-be announced partnership with a Latin American newspaper, with a second in the wings, and are deep in discussions with a well-known membership organization. We also hope to work with some smaller non-profit news organizations that have reached out to us. Think your company and organization could make for a good Printcasting partner? Fill out this form and we'll get in touch with you. (On a side note, we've had many discussions with U.S. newspapers, but sadly most have stalled as most of those papers deal with collapsing business models).
  • More promotion in Bakersfield through our sponsor / partner The Bakersfield Californian. After Printcasting 1.5 launches, the Californian plans to seriously ramp up marketing of the service in both print and online. We've already seen some increases in usage from some test promos.
  • Experiment with e-book formats starting with ePub, which is what Apple is using for the recently announced iPad. I was really excited to see Apple adopt this open standard, rather than promote a new proprietary format. Those of you who think Printcasting is all about paper may be surprised to hear that we're thinking about e-books, but the truth is that Printcasting has never been just about print. It's a digital technology platform that creates content that is designed to be read in your hand. The more visual e-readers become, the more important layout and design will be. We hope to make our service an integral part of the e-book and e-publishing ecosystem.

So that's what we're up to. Please give Printcasting 1.5 a try this week (we'll post an update on our Twitter feed when it's ready), and get ready for more fun stuff in the future.

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