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February 25 2011


This Week in Review: TBD gets the axe, deciphering Apple’s new rules, and empowering more news sources

Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news.

The short, happy-ish life of TBD: Just six months after it launched and two weeks after a reorganization was announced, the Washington, D.C., local news site was effectively shuttered this week, when its corporate parent, Allbritton Communications (it’s owned by Robert Allbritton and includes Politico), cut most of its jobs, leaving only an arts and entertainment operation within the website of Allbritton’s WJLA-TV.

TBD had been seen many as a bellwether in online-only local news, as Poynter’s Mallary Jean Tenore documented in her historical roundup of links about the site, so it was quite a shock and a disappointment to many future-of-newsies that it was closed so quickly. The response — aptly compiled by TBDer Jeff Sonderman — was largely sympathetic to TBD’s staff (former TBD manager Jim Brady even wrote a pitch to prospective employers on behalf of the newly laid off community engagement team). Many observers on Twitter (and Terry Heaton on his blogpointed squarely at Allbritton for the site’s demise, with The Batavian’s Howard Owens drawing out a short, thoughtful lesson: “Legacy managers will nearly always sabotage innovation. Wall of separation necessary between innovators and legacy.”

Blogger Mike Clark pointed out that TBD’s traffic was beating each of the other D.C. TV news sites and growing as well. The Washington Post reported that while traffic wasn’t a problem, turning it into revenue was — though the fact that TBD’s ads were handled by WJLA staffers might have contributed to that.

Mallary Jean Tenore wrote an insightful article talking to some TBD folks about whether their company gave them a chance to fail. Lehigh j-prof Jeremy Littau was unequivocal on the subject: “Some of us have been talking today on Twitter about whether TBD failed. Nonsense. TBD wasn’t given enough time to fail.”

While CUNY j-prof Jeff Jarvis lamented that “TBD will be painted as a failure of local news online when it’s a failure of its company, nothing more,” others saw some larger implications for other online local news projects. Media analyst Alan Mutter concluded that TBD’s plight is “further evidence that hyperlocal journalism is more hype than hope for the news business,” and Poynter’s Rick Edmonds gave six business lessons for similar projects from TBD’s struggles. Journal Register Co. CEO John Paton ripped Edmonds’ analysis, arguing that Allbritton “can’t pretend to have seriously tried the hyperlocal business space after a six-month experiment it derailed half-way in.”

Applying Apple’s new rules: Publishers’ consternation over Apple’s new subscription plan for mobile devices continued this week, with Frederic Filloux at Monday Note laying out many publishers’ frustrations with Apple’s proposal. The New York Times’ David Carr and The Guardian’s Josh Halliday both covered publishers’ Apple subscription conundrum, and one expert told Carr, “If you are a publisher, it puts things into a tailspin: The business model you have been working with for many years just lost 30 percent off the top.”

At paidContent, James McQuivey made the case for a lower revenue share for Apple, and Dan Gillmor wondered whether publishers will stand up to Apple. The company may also be facing scrutiny from the U.S. Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission for possible antitrust violations, The Wall Street Journal reported.

The fresh issue regarding Apple’s subscription policy this week, though, was the distinction between publishing apps and more service-oriented apps. The topic came to the fore when the folks from Readability, an app that allows users to read articles in an advertising-free environment, wrote an open letter ripping Apple for rejecting their app, saying their new policy “smacks of greed.” Ars Technica’s Chris Foresman and Apple blogger John Gruber noted, though, that Readability’s 30%-off-the-top business model is a lot like Apple’s.

Then Apple’s Steve Jobs sent a short, cryptic email to a developer saying that Apple’s new policy applies only to publishing apps, not service apps. This, of course, raised the question, in TechCrunch’s words, ”What’s a publishing app?” That’s a very complex question, and as Instapaper founder Marco Arment wrote, one that will be difficult for Apple to answer consistently. Arment also briefly noted that Jobs’ statement seems to contradict the language of Apple’s new guidelines.

Giving voice to new sources of news: This month’s Carnival of Journalism, posted late last week, focused on ways to increase the number of news sources. It’s a broad question, and it drew a broad variety of answers, which were ably summarized by Courtney Shove. I’m not going to try to duplicate her work here, but I do want to highlight a few of the themes that showed up.

David Cohn, the Carnival’s organizer, gave a great big-picture perspective to the issue, putting it in the context of power and the web. Kim Bui and Dan Fenster defended the community-driven vision for news, with Bui calling journalists to go further: “Let’s admit it, we’ve never trusted the public.” There were several calls for journalists to include more underrepresented voices, with reports and ideas like a refugee news initiative, digital news bus, youth journalism projects, and initiatives for youth in foreign-language families.

The J-Lab’s Jan Schaffer gave 10 good ideas to the cause, and Drury j-prof Jonathan Groves and Gannett’s Ryan Sholin shared their ideas for local citizen news projects, while TheUpTake’s Jason Barnett endorsed a new citizen-journalism app called iBreakNews.

Three bloggers, however, objected to the Carnival’s premise in the first place. Daniel Bachhuber of CUNY argued that improving journalism doesn’t necessarily mean adding more sources, recommending instead that “Instead of increasing the number of news sources, we should focus on producing durable data and the equivalent tools for remixing it.” Lauren Rabaino warned against news oversaturation, and the University of Colorado’s Steve Outing said that more than new sources, we need better filters and hubs for them.

Blogging’s continued evolution: The “blogging is dead” argument has popped up from time to time, and it was revived again this week in the form of a New York Times story about how young people are leaving blogs for social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. Several people countered the argument, led by GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram, who said that blogging isn’t declining, but is instead evolving into more of a continuum that includes microblogging services like Twitter, traditional blog formats like Wordpress, and the hybrid that is Tumblr. He and Wordpress founding developer Matt Mullenweg shared the same view — that “people of all ages are becoming more and more comfortable publishing online,” no matter the form.

Scott Rosenberg, who’s written a history of blogging, looked at statistics to make the point, noting that 14 percent of online adults keep a blog, a number he called astounding, even if it starts to decline. “As the online population becomes closer to universal, that is an extraordinary thing: One in ten people writing in public. Our civilization has never seen anything like it.” In addition, Reuters’ Anthony DeRosa argued that longer-form blogging has always been a pursuit of older Internet users.

Reading roundup: I’ve got a few ongoing stories to update you on, and a sampling of an unusually rich week in thoughtful pieces.

— A couple of sites took a peek at Gawker’s traffic statistics to try to determine the effectiveness of its recent redesign. TechCrunch saw an ugly picture; Business Insider was cautiously optimistic based on the same data. Gawker disputed TechCrunch’s numbers, and Terry Heaton tried to sort through the claims.

— A couple of Middle East/North Africa protest notes: The New York Times told us about the response to Egypt’s Internet blackout and the role of mobile technology in documenting the protests. And Amy Gahran of the Knight Digital Media Center gave some lessons from the incredible Twitter journalism of NPR’s Andy Carvin.

— The Daily is coming to Android tablets this spring, and its free trial run has been extended beyond the initial two weeks.

— Matt DeRienzo of the Journal Register Co. wrote about an intriguing idea for a news org/j-school merger.

— Alan Mutter made the case for ending federal funding for public journalism.

— At 10,000 Words, Lauren Rabaino had some awesome things news organizations can learn from tech startups, including thinking of news as software and embracing transparency.

— And here at the Lab, Northwestern prof Pablo Boczkowski gave some quick thoughts on how we tend to associate online news with work, and what that means. He sheds some light about an under-considered aspect of news — the social environments in which we consume it.

December 30 2010


Lessons Learned from ReportingOn

In 2008, I was awarded a Knight News Challenge grant to build ReportingOn, a back channel for beat reporters to share ideas, information, and sources. The goal of the project was to provide journalists of all stripes with a place to talk about content -- not craft, or process, or skillset.

I taught myself enough Django -- and sought out advice from friends and co-workers with little regard for their interest or priorities -- to launch the first iteration of the site in October 2008. In July 2009, with fresh design and development from the team at Lion Burger, ReportingOn 2.0 launched.

And almost immediately, I stepped away from it, buried in the responsibilities of my day job, family, and other projects. To grow and evolve, and really, to race ahead of the internal and external communication tools already available to reporters, ReportingOn needed far more time, attention, and dedication than I could give it.

Yesterday, I shut down ReportingOn.

In its last state, it only cost a few bucks a month to maintain, but it has more value at this point as a story, or a lesson, or a piece of software than it has as a working site.

To head off a couple questions at the pass:

  1. No, you can't export your questions or answers or profile data. None of you have touched the site in about a year, so I don't think you're that interested in exporting anything. But if you're some sort of web packrat that insists, I have the database, and I can certainly provide you with your content.

  2. Yes, the source code for the application is still available, and you're more than welcome to take a stab at building something interesting with it. If you do, please feel free to let me know.

And a few recommendations for developers of software "for journalists":

  • Reporters don't want to talk about unpublished stories in public.

  • Unless they're looking for sources.

  • There are some great places on the Internet to find sources.

  • When they do talk about unpublished stories among themselves, they do it in familiar, well-lit places, like email or the telephone. Not in your application.

  • Actually, keep this in mind: Unless what you're building meets a very journalism-specific need, you're probably grinding your gears to build something "for journalists" when they just need a great communication tool, independent of any particular niche or category of users.

As for the problem ReportingOn set out to solve, it's still out there.

Connecting the dots among far-flung newsrooms working on stories about the same issue is something that might happen internally in a large media company, or organically in the wilds of Twitter, but rarely in any structured way that makes it easy to discover new colleagues, peers, and mentors. Sure, there are email lists, especially for professional associations (think: SEJ) that act as back channels for a beat, but not enough, and not focused on content.

(Prove me wrong, kids. Prove me wrong.)

As for me, I'm working on another (even) small(er) Knight-funded side project a few minutes at a time these days. Watch for news about that one in the coming weeks.

Sponsored post

December 05 2010


CNN Fails to Correct Mistaken Identity for New Zealand PM

CNN's broadcasts are of packed with cheerleading for the network's viewer participation opportunities. You're encouraged to "share your story" at CNN iReport or "join a live chat" at Anderson Cooper's blog or check out CNN Heroes on Facebook or follow one of the network's nearly three dozen Twitter feeds. Welcome to the brave new world of interactive news!

But what if you notice an error in a CNN broadcast and want to tell the network about it?

Welcome to the jungle.

Email Black Hole

Back on October 28, a MediaBugs user filed a bug pointing out that a CNN broadcast had misidentified the prime minister of New Zealand as a film executive. You can watch the video below:

A primary goal of MediaBugs is to help improve communication between the public and newsrooms on error reports; currently we reach out to reporters and editors to let them know when bugs are filed.

Over the ensuing two weeks, I emailed CNN twice using an email form designated on its website for reporting an error. I got no response. That wasn't entirely surprising because the form's auto-reply message says, "While we are unable to personally reply to every email, your comments are important to us, and we do read each and every one."

CNN.com provides no contact information for editorial staff. (My search engine sleuthing for CNN managing editor Jay Kernis' email address proved unfruitful.) Eventually, I came across a Twitter account on a feedback page for CNN TV, @TeamCNN, whose bio indicates it is "dedicated to assisting our viewers." After a cordial exchange of messages on Twitter, @TeamCNN asked me to submit the error using another email form, which was different from, though similar to, the one I'd used earlier. It was Nov. 18, three weeks since the bug had been filed. "We will look into it," @TeamCNN said.

After a couple more Twitter exchanges, there was still no result. Another week had passed. CNN may present itself as on the cutting edge of social media, but clearly it was time to pick up the phone. There had to be a way to reach a real live person in the newsroom, even though the only number I could find anywhere on CNN's website was buried at the bottom of this About page. It was for contacting the network's "Copyright Agent." Googling farther afield, I dug up a number for a main line at CNN headquarters in Atlanta and asked the operator to connect me to the appropriate department. I reached an editorial assistant and explained the situation. He agreed that I should email him the bug report, saying he'd look into it. I sent him the link a few minutes after we hung up. A few days later I followed up at the same email address to check on a result.

No Correction

As of this writing, CNN still hasn't provided a response. Perhaps the particular broadcast error is so far in the rear view mirror at this point that correcting it doesn't much matter to them. So what if a handful of viewers were left thinking that the creative director of WETA Workshop, Richard Taylor, is a dead ringer for New Zealand Prime Minister John Key?

Or, for all we know, the network may have already issued a correction on the air weeks ago. The problem is, there's no way to find out on its website because CNN.com has no corrections content at all.

The point of slogging through this tale isn't to pick on CNN, but rather to illuminate an endemic problem. CNN.com is hardly alone in its inaccessibility and unresponsiveness, as MediaBugs' recently published national survey of news sites reveals. We've had similar experiences reporting errors via MediaBugs with Fox News, the Los Angeles Daily News, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.

With digital platforms for news in rapid ascendancy, this status quo is untenable. Today, problems in news coverage are being discussed online by anyone and everyone; newsrooms need to welcome sincere attempts by the public to notify them about factual mistakes.

That means offering real accessibility -- a clear way to report an error and a commitment to responding. Many news sites still rely on a generic email address or a form buried deep in their pages, or on chaotic comments threads, for feedback. But if reporting an error using those channels feels like pulling back window curtains on a brick wall, why would anyone bother?

Positive Results

We've been glad to see several positive outcomes at MediaBugs, too, with timely corrections from CBSNews.com, and from KCBS and KNTV in San Francisco. Thus far these have been the exception. But the good news is that it's pretty easy for newsrooms to make effective changes on this front (see our rundown of best practices in error reporting and corrections).

And let's take it a step further, toward a real breakthrough: Maybe one day soon, the industry standard will be for all online news pages to have a prominently placed, universal button for reporting an error. A new project just launched by MediaBugs founder Scott Rosenberg and Craig Silverman of Regret the Error (and PBS MediaShift) is aiming for just that. Newsrooms of the 21st century: Please join us as a participant in the Report an Error Alliance.

December 02 2010


10 Reasons Our Student Newspaper Blog Stinks

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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 am writing an adviser's confession: Our student newspaper blog stinks.

Amid many scoops and successes this semester, The Minaret, the weekly campus paper I advise at the University of Tampa, has endured a major bust. Roughly three months in, our efforts to launch a buzzworthy and newsworthy blog have failed -- spectacularly.

But I will not go quietly into that long production night, which for us is Tuesday.

Instead, I want my staff to learn from our mistakes and grow our blog, The Crescent, into something better. I also want to ensure others do not follow in our #epicfail footsteps.

In that spirit, here are the top ten reasons I believe our student newspaper blog, so far, has flopped.

10 Reasons

1. We don't have a dedicated blog editor.
Our managing editor oversees the blog. At first glance, that makes sense. He's a workaholic new media whiz kid with design chops and an unbridled passion for journalism and the newspaper. So far though, it has been hellish for him.

I know we live in a journalism age in which everyone is supposed to be equipped to do everything. And I know that student newspaper staffers regularly double and triple up on their defined job scope for the greater good of the paper. But for our managing editor -- someone who is already enmeshed in layout, staff oversight, copy editing, reporting, and budget issues -- launching and overseeing the blog appears to be a step too far.

Even in the short time I've known him, I've been able to measure his stress not by the look on his face, but the fuzz. When he's clean-shaven, I know all's well and we have a solid issue. When he sports two-day stubble, I know there's a major misspelling in a published headline and a reporter who's gone MIA. When he periodically dives into blog work, his scruff becomes a full-blown "defeat" beard, the kind Al Gore grew after he lost the 2000 presidential election and the one Conan O'Brien continues to sport after being ousted from "The Tonight Show."

A blog is important enough to have a staffer whose sole or most significant responsibility revolves around its maintenance. Just because a staffer in a separate position has the skills, knowledge or willingness to augment their work with additional blog oversight does not mean that they should.

2. We don't have a blog-first mentality.
The Crescent should be our spot to break news and provide real-time previews and post-event reviews. But the power of print is subverting the blog's potential. Students continue to hold content for the hard copy paper, seeing their role as weekly newshounds instead of real-time watchdogs. In this sense, writing for the Crescent is not perceived as a perfect avenue to report in the moment, engage readers or experiment. Instead, it is viewed as extra work, the type most staffers do not have the time or energy to take on.

3. We haven't integrated the blog into the paper.
In our early planning, we excitedly defined the Crescent as the last piece of our puzzle, the driving engine of a three-tiered presence that also includes our print edition and website. Instead, it's been the spare tire hidden in the trunk.

There is no real interplay between the blog and other parts of the Minaret. At editorial meetings, while brainstorming story ideas, we talk about news angles, sources, photos, editorial illustrations, information graphics, and full packaging options. The Crescent rarely, if ever, comes up.

Screen shot 2010-12-01 at 10.14.00 PM.pngWe randomly run a few Crescent headlines in RSS feed-fashion on the side of our home page, but otherwise the blog exists in no-man's land. It sports its own web address and masthead. At first glance, it is not immediately clear what the blog is, why it exists or who it belongs to.

4. We don't embrace the blog's multimedia potential.
The Crescent sports bare text and Flickr photos by the truckload. We are not running podcasts, audio slideshows, news videos, Dipity timelines or PDFs of campus security reports or student government budgets. At this point, we barely offer active links.

5. We haven't made the blog feel very inviting.
The design is what I've dubbed "minimalist bleak." The text is there, presented in the classic centerpiece one-column format, but it is tiny. The sparse whiteness of the page also appears just a bit too white, overwhelming the words and images embedded within it. We also don't tease out enough of each post to entice readers to click through. And the small photos running with the text are not grabbing anyone's attention.

6. We haven't made the blog interactive.
There is no dialogue with readers. We haven't solicited crazy Halloween stories, messy dorm room photos or #epicfailatUT tweets.

We have attempted to stir up interest in a poll question asked at the end of a big story in each week's print edition that students must travel to the blog to answer. Our enthusiasm has waned after realizing that not many people are answering. I recently responded to a question, selecting one of the three choices, and found each one had been chosen by 33.3 percent of respondents. It turned out only three of us had answered, each one giving a different response.

7. We aren't promoting the blog enough.
In an informal poll a few of my students and I conducted on campus, we came across only one student who even knew the Crescent existed. He had only been to the site once. When asked how he had heard about it, he giggled, replying, "Honestly, I don't remember."

We have not yet taken advantage of the massive power of social media to hype our efforts. Heck, we haven't even handed out flyers or papered dorm hallway walls with the web address. And while we drop in occasional quarter-page promos about it in our print edition, they don't sport an image, tagline or concept that in any way stands out from the bodybuilding and "quit smoking" ads running nearby.

8. We aren't running enough fresh content.
We never expected hourly updates, but we barely scrounge together three or four solid posts a week. They tend to go live at random and rarely relate to anything timely happening on campus or in the world. The bottom line: There is absolutely no reason for anyone to check out the blog on a regular basis or in the midst of breaking news.

9. We don't have a coherent voice.
This was a planning problem. We wanted a blog, plain and simple. But at the outset, we never really established why or what we wanted it to be. Is it meant for us to let our hair down and write without objectivity? Is it for us to tackle tougher issues and be more explicit? Is it to speak with sarcasm? Is it to drop the nonsense and literally be all-interactive, letting students write in and sound off? Is it to simply flesh out our print coverage? Answers still to come...

10. We don't offer a consistent editorial slate.
Our blog content is scattered. As recent headlines reveal, we jump randomly from "Gossip Girl Spoiler Chat" and "How Real Men Treat Women" to "American League Cy Young Predictions" and "Another Reason Canada Should Apologize to Justin Bieber."

The best blogs fill a niche, providing the most relevant and comprehensive information on a single slice of life, geographical area or area of interest. By contrast, our blog is a ditch- one in which we have been throwing unwanted or unneeded content, regardless of form, quality or relevancy to our readers.

Still Have Hope

On the bright side, the beauty of the web is that failure can often turn to success -- and you can watch it happen in real-time. I hope in the months to come the Crescent will become a central part of our web presence. The dream scenario is for the blog to be the students' home page, their first check in the morning, something for which they are excited to contribute, and something that fills their information niche.

But for now, as Usher once sang, this is my confession: Our student newspaper blog stinks.

Dan Reimold is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Tampa. He writes and presents frequently on the campus press and maintains the daily blog College Media Matters, affiliated with the Associated Collegiate Press. His first book on a major modern college media trend, Sex and the University: Celebrity, Controversy, and a Student Journalism Revolution, was published this fall by Rutgers University Press.

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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.

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

September 02 2010


How to Conquer Journalism Students' Fear of Technology

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

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

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

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

A Different Approach

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

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

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

Four Elements

Here are the four main elements of my new approach:

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

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

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

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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.

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

March 23 2010


The freedom to fail and the need to experiment: What gives a citizen-journalism project a chance to work

Minnesota Public Radio’s Linda Fantin and the Sunlight Foundation’s Ellen Miller were the stars at an MIT panel a few days ago; I wrote up their discussion. But after the panel, I sat the two of them down to talk a little more about the challenges of running experiments with community-generated journalism. A few highlights:

— Miller: “I think the ability to fail is absolutely part of the culture in which we live. And so, someone will try lots of things, which you know sometimes just don’t work…there’s not much cost to the experimentation.”

— Fantin: “[I]t’s tough to let go of things that haven’t quite reached their potential, but you have to, because there’s so much more coming down the line.”

— Miller: “I think there are all kinds of questions about a community: How do we nurture a community? How do we let them do their own work? Is there top-down control about what they do? What degree? How much can we let go and still have it operating in a single campaign framework? And we all figure these things out as we go along, and no doubt we’ll make mistakes out of it.”

— Fantin: “Talk to anyone who started a citizen journalism site or community. They’ll say, ‘Okay, it took over my life, then it took over my wife’s life, and now we actually have to make money and put food on the table, so we sort of tried to get interns, but we can’t sustain it.’”

Above’s a video of their discussion, with a transcript below. (The video’s soundtrack, if you’re wondering, is an apparently epic game of ping-pong taking place in a nearby rec room.)

Ellen Miller: I think the ability to fail is absolutely part of the culture in which we live. And so, someone will try lots of things, which you know sometimes just don’t work — but because we don’t know how people want to engage with, you know, either fairly wonky information about legislation or critical information, if we don’t build it, we never give people the opportunity to test it. And some of the things have worked far beyond — much better than — what we expected. And some of the websites just weren’t popular, and we couldn’t quite figure out why, and we said, “Oh, they weren’t popular, let’s just take it down.” So there’s not much cost to the experimentation. But partly I think it’s because you have sort of a new and largely successful of the project because Sunlight, you know, is an institution without any legacies. It’s just — it’s really built into the DNA. But it’s something major other institutions, you know, have to work on. Now you can’t really build it into the DNA of reporting a story: Failing, getting the facts wrong, telling the story that’s wrong. But there are certainly elements in terms of engaging citizens, in getting them to tell the stories that work. So, I mean, if it doesn’t work this time, you know, you might try it again or — or not. But we’re beginning to learn.

So one of our examples was — it was successful, but it was a failure in the end. We did a series of distributed research projects in the early days. We do one investigating members of Congress’ spouses, and whether they were employed by their campaigns. And then we did another one on getting people to contribute to a database on earmark requests when they started posting them. And then we realized that if people who worked on Project A, we had no idea if they’ve been secretly working on project B, or who worked on Project C. We said, “Wow, let’s stop that.” We created one platform, Transparency Corps, so that anybody who worked on A or B or C had the opportunity to see what was D, E, and F coming down the road, to begin to build more of a community. Because if you’re interested in these kinds of distributive projects, you’ll be interested in, you know, any number of them, and you get deeper engagement in them. So it worked in the individual pieces, but we knew we were losing these people because we didn’t know quite how to reach out to them again. So I think it’s that experimentation or constantly, constantly iterating on something that worked or that didn’t work until you find things that work.

Linda Fantin: And being able to let go of things that aren’t working as well as they could be and not consider it as a failure.

Miller: Oh yeah, that’s hard. What do you mean? That project is really important. How do we let it go?

Fantin: Right. Right.

Miller: One of the things we discovered partly because Sunlight was so innovative in the early days, we would describe — we would try something and say, “Wow, that’s a cool idea. Let’s do it.” We’d throw it up on the wall and we’d develop it and it would be successful. And then we got another cool idea and then we would do that. And then all of a sudden we realized that we had all these projects. We’d be, “how do we sustain them?” So if you have the image of things sliding down the wall, you know, we’d pick up one and then we became — we realized we had to not just constantly develop new things, that we had to iterate on the things that were successful.

Fantin: Well, absolutely. I mean, I know that I mentioned before we created Budget Hero and launched that in May of 2008, we had no idea that the economy would fall apart and that there would be a $787 billion bailout, and then a stimulus packet, and then suddenly the federal deficit would just bloom, and that there would be new Congressional Budget Office baselines every three months that were significantly different than the months before. And I think probably seven, maybe eight times, we’ve had to do major updates to the game. And that wasn’t something we’d planned on in the financial planning that probably created Budget Hero. And even now, part of it is that in some ways it was a game before its time, because now it’s more important than it ever was before. But, you know, having the funds and the ability to say, “Oh, well, we’re going through all the significant — invest in it yet again” is a big decision. I mean, carrying some of these projects forward, you know — it’s tough to let go of things that haven’t quite reached their potential, but you have to, because there’s so much more coming down the line.

Miller: Yeah, and I think we certainly underestimated, you know — we would always figure out what was the cost to build something, but then to —

Fantin: To maintain it?

Miller: So that’s something we’ve certainly learned. So that’s now all built in to, you know —

Fantin: It’s one of the first questions you asked, which is great: Who’s gonna own this, and who’s gonna do it, and when are we gonna shut it down?

Miller: And that’s why I asked you the question, like: How many people does it take — you built this community. How many people does it take to maintain it and to really use it, in a popular way?

Fantin: It’s a good question because —

Miller: Because most groups don’t think about that thing — about community, and you know, it’s a little like magic, which is: “The community will just thrive.” No, you have to nurture this community. You have to add to it. You have to engage with them.

Fantin: Absolutely.

Miller: There has to be a person or a team of people who work with them, and I don’t think people realize that. There was this idealistic vision of community journalists, right?

Fantin: Talk to anyone who started a citizen journalism site or community. They’ll say, “Okay, it took over my life, then it took over my wife’s life, and now we actually have to make money and put food on the table, so we sort of tried to get interns, but we can’t sustain it.” And in terms of the Public Insight Network, we made this commitment at the offset that we could contact everyone at least once a month. Well, so, two things either have to happen in it if — right now the network grows at 2,000 sources a month without any real effort on our part. That’s just simply with outreach and the spread of information.

Miller: And neighbors sharing with friends.

Fantin: Right. And so the idea is that you either have to increase the number of callouts, or you have to increase the size of the cohort that you make the callout out to. Neither of those is really great. But what’s it allowed us to do is realize: “Hey, what we really ought to do is give more control to the source and let them pick and choose and not actually have them sitting passively, waiting for us to ask them questions.” So sometimes, the problems you bump up against help you see where you need to go and you might’ve not known that was the path you were on.

Miller: As we have launched the Public Equals Online campaign, I mean, I think there are all kinds of questions about a community: How do we nurture a community? How do we let them do their own work? Is there top-down control about what they do? What degree? How much can we let go and still have it operating in a single campaign framework? And we all figure these things out as we go along, and no doubt we’ll make mistakes out of it.

Fantin: Well, Amanda Michel at ProPublica, I think, she’s very open about what she learned from her work on OffTheBus with Huffington Post, and now what’s she doing now with ProPublica, which is sort of use citizens to help do investigative journalism, and what you find is that it’s very, very hard. It’s hard because there is a certain amount of information that you can teach people, but on the back end the fact-checking and other things that have to go on in order to make sure that there’s integrity in what you’re reporting. And I’m not here to say that there’s integrity behind what every paid reporter does now. It’s just that this idea we’re gonna have a citizen corps of journalists — or an army of journalists, who for free, are gonna go out there and do the work that people are doing now is—

Miller: It’s just not quite that easy.

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