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April 25 2012


Worldcrunch wants to be the Internet’s Rosetta Stone for news

As the translation-based news service Worldcrunch approaches the one-year anniversary of their launch, it’s also tweaking its business approach in three key ways that co-founders Jeff Israely and Irène Toporkoff hope will help it thrive.

Worldcrunch’s central goal is to find news that wouldn’t otherwise appear in English-speaking news sources at a time when U.S. news organizations have slashed their budgets for international coverage. You may recognize Israely, a former Time correspondent, from his regular column for Nieman Lab about the process of launching a news startup. A year in, he’s getting a better sense of what it takes to keep one going.

First, Worldcrunch has plans to increase its output. The most straightforward way to do this, as many news organizations have found, is to aggregate from other sources. But Worldcrunch will do so with a twist: Call it translaggregating — translating what you aggregate.

“That’s going to allow us to really be more dynamic, more reactive, and expand the kind of stories we can produce, and how we can produce them, and when we can produce them,” Israely told me from Paris, where Worldcrunch is based.

One way the site aims to bump up the volume of aggregated material is through a crowdsourced initiative it’s calling “Crunch It.” For now, Worldcrunch is calling on volunteers to nominate articles for translation, “English-ize” them, and vote for the best finished pieces. But Israely said the Worldcrunch team is still figuring out exactly how process will work. He calls the initative “in the neighborhood of crowdsourcing,” but he also wants to put certain quality safeguards in place. Making sure a story is right for Worldcrunch isn’t simply about impeccable multilingual skills — it has to be a story that doesn’t already appear in English.

“They think that content is self-generating, and you just need the tools to filter it, to aggregate it, to monetize it. We don’t agree with that.”

“In addition, the original story itself has to stand up,” Israely said. “It has to be a well written story. It has to be a story that has enough background material that allows it to travel. If Le Monde is writing a story about French schools, and if the story has too many references to things that only French people know, we’d have to transform the story and put in all kinds of context — our partners allow us to adapt the story and add in context when necessary — but if the whole process becomes rewriting and adding in context, it’s probably not a good story for us.”

The second key change Worldcrunch is making: it’s putting up “some kind of metered model” paywall “before summer.”

But even as the paywall goes up, Worldcrunch is shifting away from the idea that its website will be the sole hub for its readers. Arguably the most important development to the Worldcrunch business model is that it’s forging partnerships with English-language publications that will pay for translated content. Worldcrunch is already selling content to the Toronto Star, and is in talks with a U.S. publication about a similar deal.

Here’s how it works: A non-English news organization gives Worldcrunch permission to translate its content. Worldcrunch then posts the translated content to its website, and offers to sell it to English-language news organizations. Those organizations pay Worldcrunch an undisclosed amount, and Worldcrunch gives the original content producer a 40 percent cut.

Israely and Toporkoff see this distribution model as a win-win-win: The original publication gets a much wider audience for its stories (plus some extra revenue); English-language publications provide valuable international news to their readers; Worldcrunch can pay its bills and keep the cycle going.

With the slogan “all news is global,” the site operates with three editors and about a dozen freelance translators. Working with media partners across Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America, Worldcrunch translates about 30 articles per week into English from German, Turkish, French, Italian, Russian, Portuguese, Chinese, Arabic, and Spanish. Worldcrunch aims to do what even the old network of foreign bureaus had trouble doing: providing original, domestically produced coverage for an international audience.

Some examples that stand out for Israely and Torpokoff include diverse viewpoints about the economic situation in Turkey, coverage of tensions in the Middle East, an interview with maligned Italian former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi about his plans to resign, Russian election coverage by and for Russians, and a French-authored article about why French people reacted differently to the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal than residents of other countries. (Israely also points out the benefit of getting original French perspective about more lighthearted topics like perfume and food.)

Press freedom as a moving target

Earlier this month, German-language newspaper Die Welt published a column about a controversial poem penned by Nobel Prize winner and former Nazi Günter Grass (the poem was published in another German newspaper, Süddeutsche Zeitung), and Worldcrunch translated it.

While you could have read about the scandal in The New York Times, that story — published three days after the Worldcrunch piece — didn’t provide the same direct cultural perspective (the Times coverage has a joint byline from Israel- and Berlin-based correspondents). The Times reports that Grass’ views “are relatively common among European intellectuals,” though “strung together” in a way that incited outrage. But Henryk Broder’s column for Die Welt actually articulates those views in the context of the Grass imbroglio.

“The fact that [Grass] is accused of being anti-semitic and here you have the German press — this German writer in the German press — saying he is anti-semitic, and it’s not normal — I think that makes it interesting,” Toporkoff said. “Within Germany, there is debate. We have chosen to publish something that we found very interesting that says a lot about what’s happening in Germany, but also what happened in general.”

Then there is the “meta-example” that Israely gives of an article — from China’s Economic Observer — highlighting the global scarcity of press freedom.

“This was the Beijing paper reporting on this almost over-the-top sort of rabid, gossipy Hong Kong press right before the elections there,” Israely said. “Sort of explaining to Chinese readers how this is what a free press looks like with all its warts, and the beauty of being truly free and going after a candidate and sticking cameras into his backyard.”

Along those same lines, working with a (relatively) independent newspaper out of China can be unpredictable. Though there are certain boundaries he says The Economic Observer won’t cross (they won’t write about Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei, for instance), he has been surprised by how provocative, lively, and sometimes irreverent the paper can be.

“It’s a moving target, because it’s changing before our eyes,” Israely said. “The Economic Observer in Beijing actually does get shut down now and again. The site does get shut down, and our contact there says they’re in the penalty box essentially.”

Israely says that establishing partnerships in the first place is the hardest part. His job is to convince them of a principle that he says was best summed up in a recent TechCrunch article: Whoever creates the best content at the lowest cost possible will create the most value over time.

“It’s a very simple formula, but I think a lot of energy has been spent over the past few years where people — particularly on the tech side, thinking about the news business — they think that content isn’t an issue,” Israely said. “They think that there’s no shortage of content. They think that content is self-generating, and you just need the tools to filter it, to aggregate it, to monetize it. We don’t agree with that. We don’t think that news content just produces itself. It has to be produces and I don’t care about the labels — whether it’s journalists producing it, or in our case translators. But there needs to be a layer of journalism, or layers of journalism, to make it quality content.”

Photo of Earth by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center used under a Creative Commons license.

September 27 2010


Jeff Israely: Juggling on a tightrope, aiming for a news startup’s launch

[Jeff Israely, a Time magazine foreign correspondent in Europe, is in the planning stages of a news startup — a "new global news website." He details his experience as a new news entrepreneur at his site, but he'll occasionally be describing the startup process here at the Lab. Read his first, second, third, fourth, and fifth installments. —Josh]

For any startup dude or dudette, impatience is a virtue…and delays a necessary evil. You must insist, insist, insist and then keep insisting: with gurus, colleagues, developers, designers, potential partners and funders, and that eternal beast of institutional inertia. But you must also remember that all those people essential to your success can never share the same degree of urgency you have in getting your project off the ground.

So we must always guard against our own over-eagerness, that hunger to start actually producing what we have spent months preparing to produce, to finally have something to show for yourself. The journobeast is a creature used to having his work out there to see and touch, and so we must adjust to the longer rhythms and anonymity that go with planning, lining up ducks, laying groundwork. Succumb to your own anxiety and vanity, attempt to stick to timetables linked more to your (tunnel) vision and psychology than to the facts on the ground, and you can start to make mistakes: You frighten away people who might otherwise (in due time) be on board; you overlook key details; you oversell the proximity of your target launch date.

Even in this space, for example, I’d desperately wanted my first after-the-summer post to include a sign-up page — and perhaps the announcement of our name — to add some grist to these musings. That ain’t happening here and now, though it does feel as though we are close enough for me to say (ever impatiently!) that over the next two posts the who and what we are will begin to come into focus, as we head toward the alpha launch of our website.

Still, as always, I hope there may be something from the startup experience itself that may be worth sharing with others wading through the wreckage and sawdust and buzz of heavy machinery of this global information retrofitting. In the final countdown phase of my little piece of it, five distinct areas are staring me in the face: product, partnerships, team, fundraising, the company. Like a watch, all are interconnected, and must be properly calibrated to keep the thing moving forward. But things move forward (or backward) at unpredictable paces. Progress on one of the five components can spur on the others, and the whole project suddenly lurches forward; conversely, one aspect getting sidetracked can send the whole thing unraveling. It’s a confidence game. A juggler on a tightrope. Last week, I taught our French lawyer Serge Vatine the expression Catch-22. The road of a startup is filled with countless such binds and potential binds. They are what keeps me up at night…and alas, what sometimes slows things down.

Smarter, more seasoned people who have already crossed the threshold and beyond can tell you from experience what worked and didn’t work in the weeks before launch. Instead, here I can tell you what it looks and feels like now: facing the unknown of all those moving parts. Scared. Hopeful. Too dumb to know any better.

PRODUCT: One could break down the building of a news website into two component parts: the journalism/information and the how-to-get-it-delivered/consumed/interfaced-with. Content and functionalities. In an ideal world, they should serve each other. But the reality of this early stage, when you’re not quite sure what you have, when your time and resources (that’s what polite folk call cash money) are limited, extra attention on one can sacrifice the other.

We have the good fortune to have found Lili Rodic, who began her career as a journalist, to project manage the development of the site. Though she may not be able to provide us with everything on our wish list, within the constraints of time and money, it’s never because she doesn’t understand what we are after. She knows perhaps better than us — too often entranced by some cool feature or design — that the functionality is not an end in itself, but a tool to bring out the best in the journalism. That is, in fact, our product.

PARTNERSHIPS: In the networked future-of-news, doing it alone is not an option. Gotta partner up, link out, look for love. Partnerships are fundamental to the content we will be offering, and we are perhaps farther along on this aspect of our project than any other — and pleasantly surprised by the relative lack of institutional inertia. But the Internet’s immediacy and accessibility is a double-edged sword: It makes it much easier to actually get a product up and visible. And that means some people will want to wait to see you in operation before committing. That’s been particularly true on the distribution side, where the good feedback from would-be partners has stopped short of actually talking turkey on sales, syndication, links, etc. Instead it’s been some variation on “Let us know when you have something live.” (See above overeagerness to launch!)

TEAM: I have had conversations, in one form or another, with some 20 journalists — of all ages, locations, levels of experience and ranges of interests — who could potentially take part at launch. My network from my years as a foreign correspondent is key to all of this. Still, others have found me via my more recent blogging and tweeting. It’s obviously a buyer’s market — lots of talented people trying to figure out how to continue (or begin) making a living in this line of work. But it’s also a moment of great uncertainty. Talk is plenty, ideas abound, and many by now have had brushes with startups, some of which have never gotten off the ground. Or gotten people paid. So the conversations, on some level, must remain just that until…

FUNDRAISING: It was a full 13 months after the first draft of my business plan that I actually asked anyone for money. Sure, I’d been thinking about it, talking about it, reading about it from people on both sides of the proverbial table. Once I have more perspective on the process, I plan to write a separate post on what it’s like for a longtime staff journalist (read: employee), who is used to asking just about anything from complete strangers except money, to find himself seeking out serious people who might be willing to bet their hard-earned cash money on him.

I am lucky to have a business partner, Irene Toporkoff, who has plenty of experience dealing with money, contracts, and the like…though for her too, this is the first pure fundraising startup experience. We are still gathering advice, getting reactions to our project. But I am now no longer shy about telling just about everyone I speak to that investment is at the very top of our to-do list. Though we still have a scenario for launching first in pure bootstrap mode in order to show what we have to potential investors, we are convinced that we can show much more clearly what we we can do at launch if we have the proper, er, resources.

THE COMPANY: We have decided after some initial wavering to incorporate the company in France, though we know that we can always expand our operations and company to the U.S. Our choice to launch here is in part because that is where we are based. We also like the idea of a new English-language global news source that was born here in the rest of the world. A global perspective is key to the product we will be offering.

But we have also found that France has quite a lively Internet business environment, with smart, forward-looking people and new laws to encourage entrepreneurship. That doesn’t mean there isn’t paperwork to take care of, documents to fill out, a bank account to open. That, it turns out, is high on our to-do list this week. And by October 1, this would-be world news startup will be a living, breathing company. A champagne toast will be in order, then right back to work…and plenty more impatience on the way.

September 15 2010


Localizing national and international stories

An earthquake strikes Chile, killing hundreds of people and displacing thousands. The federal government passes new health care legislation that will extend coverage to millions. Israeli and Palestinian leaders gather at an Egyptian resort in an attempt to forge a peace plan. A gunman takes 15 hostages at a college campus halfway across the country.Every minute, important news stories break

September 09 2010


US journalism groups join forces on global health reporting

Two US journalism organisations – the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting – are partnering in an attempt to support greater coverage of international news.

The collaboration, which will have a focus on worldwide health news, is part of the Nieman Foundation’s fellowship in global health reporting, which was launched in 2006 and includes a four-month reporting project at the end of the academic year, an announcement on the Nieman Foundation’s website explains.

Journalists in the program travel to the developing world to learn and report about health issues firsthand and recent participants have produced important, groundbreaking international health stories. However, due to the many recent changes affecting journalism, and international reporting in particular, placing those stories in mainstream media outlets is becoming increasingly difficult

(…) In collaboration with the Nieman Foundation, the [Pulitzer] Center’s staff will help Nieman Global Health Fellows with story planning and placement.

The partnership will also see Pulitzer Center journalists invited to Harvard University for events on underreported international stories and an annual workshop for Nieman fellows.

See the full announcement here…Similar Posts:

July 13 2010


Jeff Israely: With partners found, figuring out how best to link up

[Jeff Israely, a Time magazine foreign correspondent in Europe, is in the planning stages of a news startup — a "new global news website." He details his experience as a new news entrepreneur at his site, but he'll occasionally be describing the startup process here at the Lab. Read his first, second, third, and fourth installments. —Josh]

Dating-but-eager-to-marry is the metaphor I’ve used before to describe the search for a partner for my world news startup. Save a few cultural or religious contexts, said metaphor works less well once there is more than one potential partner. And I now have two, which adds new requirements of proper symmetry, good chemistry…and, yes, good lawyers.

Like plenty of other big and small things that have happened over the past year, it wasn’t a matter of seeking out this particular set of circumstances, but rather the result of a more general seeking fundamental to trying to launch something from scratch. So here we are: Irene, Jed, and Jeff…already facing a long list of hard questions about the future of digital news — from story selection and crowdsourcing to content management and business models — to which we must add another eternal question: Is three a crowd….or the magic number?

On paper, we three create excellent symmetry: Irene Toporkoff is a successful internet executive who knows what moves eyeballs and balance sheets online. She brings a global perspective and a strategic mind. Jed Micka is a computer engineer and project manager who knows how to turn digital concepts into concrete solutions. He too brings a global perspective and a strategic mind. My 12 years as a foreign correspondent provide the journalistic chops for our world news brand, and yes, some more global perspective. And the best proof of my strategic mind is that I found Irene and Jed!

At the 10th arrondissement café where we have begun meeting regularly, we also appear strong on chemistry. Ideas flow, we don’t speak over each other, we listen, there’s the kind of energy that convinces all that not only are the big bases covered by our different resumes but that the whole is (even!?) greater than the sum of its parts.

Over the past month, with Irene’s connections in Paris now added on top of my continuous plugging away at contacts in the news business, the pace of the project has picked up notably. We have also continued a general policy I have had from the start to meet with just about anyone who wants to listen: business people, advertising executives, journalism gurus, potential future employees. But as we get closer to our autumn launch, we are zeroing in on finding what we will need to actually be operative. And so the meetings have increasingly been with potential funders, and would-be media partners of our project — both to help provide the content, as well as distribute it to the readers.

I can say with both pride and trepidation that the interest has been quite high, though the questions are not few. One key lesson I’ve learned pitching our project is the difference between what we are currently immersed in — the sweat and strategy for getting the thing up off the ground, i.e., The Launch — and what the thing is going to be, i.e. The Vision. In a certain sense, both funders and partners assume that you are taking care of lining up the ducks: They want to know what it is you will become.

Still, the launch is ever more central now. And high on our agenda right now is solidifying our own partnership. Like questions about where and when to incorporate, copyright, branding…the three-way partnership agreement is part bureaucratic, part strategic, part everything.

It was, in other words, time to find a lawyer. Serge Vatine is a go-to attorney in the French startup world, whose Paris-based firm 11-100-34.com specializes in media and intellectual property law. Last week, the three of us were seated around a large rectangular table in Serge’s sunny sixth-floor office trying to hash out the framework for incorporation and the pacte d’actionnaires.

From my point of view, especially after having had some false starts from potential partners, I have some issues of well, er, commitment. Before divvying up the shares of a project that for many reasons is my baby, I want to see if there’s a way to more or less lock the others in for at least the next 12 months. Jed and Irene have each in their own way assured me of their allegiance to the project, but they know “I’m committed, just trust me!” is not enough in this kind of circumstance. Things change. Tides turn. Other offers arrive. Serge has suggested different possibilities, including setting certain objectives in each of our spheres of competence that must be met by a fixed date. Still, at a certain point, the startup lawyer turns would-be marriage counselor. “There’s a certain amount of trust and loyalty that goes into it,” Serge says. “There’s no way to guarantee everything.”

Indeed, Jed said after the meeting: “This is the pre-nup.” It means having a legal framework in place if the marriage fails. (Or, in the case of business, succeeds!) Indeed, 98 percent of the time my energy is focused on creating the conditions for things to go well. It’s looking lately that I am not the only one. More and more other optimists seem to be out there in the scrum that is reshaping of the news. Not that anyone thinks a lasting, society-wide solution is either easy or close. Not that there isn’t major foot-dragging and pessimism in some corners of the established media. But maybe the industry as a whole has turned a corner, and opportunities are appearing.

One sign is how much energy there is for an endeavor supposedly in such crisis from non-journalists, which prompted me to ask the two non-journalists in this project why they’re committed to it. No one as smart and strategic -– and grownup -– as Jed and Irene is going to be doing this for kicks. Each would have all kinds of professional opportunities that steered clear of the uncertainty reigning over the future of news. Of course, much of attraction of this particular project is the product itself, which will be unveiled this autumn. In the meantime, though, I wanted to share their thoughts about both why they want to join me in trying to build a new world news site, and where they think the digital media is heading:

Irene: When you called I thought, Oh no, not another Internet startup! But working on something that is editorial at its heart is different. I believe there are new ways for the Internet to add value, and also economic value, to the way information circulates. Branded news is struggling, but it will not disappear. The value these organizations have is too often underestimated. But we need to look for innovative ways to rethink the way they do business, to build bridges between the old and the new. People in the traditional media are starting to understand that many of us who work in the digital space are actually on their side. We are business people who can help make their activities sustainable. I have worked in the U.S., Brazil, Germany, France, and I know certain differences exist in the international media, from country to country. But there are two central questions that all should be asking: How do we get the most out of technology? How do we define what is news?

Jed: The paradox is that right now, with the flood of information readily available on the Internet, there is actually a shortage of quality information. Many people see blogs as the future of journalism, but a blog is merely one person’s effort; it lacks the resources and the structure necessary to ensure the same level of quality as a professionally edited piece. Like in a café discussion, the blogger is never forced to respond to the criticism raised by an independent editorial team. But this makes my job as a reader much more time-consuming because I then have to verify the information and identify the biases myself. You might draw an analogy to the debate about open and closed source software: In open source, developers choose which part of the code they will develop, with a tendency for the most glamorous aspects to be treated in great detail, at the expense of some features that will never showcase their intellectual prowess. MySQL is a great open source database that excels in certain tasks, but falls short compared to Oracle’s flagship database, a product that contains a much more robust feature set precisely because Oracle pays developers to work on the issues that are ignored by the “crowd.” Similarly, journalists must be paid too. The challenge is to find both the methods and business models to allow professional journalism to thrive alongside the voluntary efforts of the blogging community.

June 25 2010


The Wikipedia of news translation: Yeeyan.org’s volunteer community

BEIJING — Yeeyan.org has 150,000 registered users, who collectively translate 50 to 100 news articles every day from English to Chinese. Since its inception in 2006, the site has grown into a key gateway for Chinese speakers who want to follow international news. It has been so successful that it has attracted the attention of major news sources like The Guardian and ReadWriteWeb — and also the Chinese government, which abruptly shut Yeeyan down last year for several months.

But this is not a story about China. I believe that Yeeyan is pioneering cost-effective solutions to a major global problem: the ghettoization of information by language. This is a change with potentially far-reaching implications for journalism. I met Kitty Wang, the vice general manager, and Walter Wang, Yeeyan’s community manager (no relation), in a Beijing cafe and asked them to explain to me how Yeeyan works, from technological, social, and business perspectives.

The name Yeeyan derives from the Chinese characters 译 (yi) and 言 (yan), which together mean something like “translate the information,” and Kitty and Walter told me that the site’s primary aim is to increase the flow of information between cultures. Yeeyan.org looks like a news site, with headlining photos and editor-selected hot stories on the front page. (English readers can check out the Google translation.) Stories are arranged into typical sections such as business, sports, technology, and life. The difference is that all of the Chinese-language material on the site has been translated from English sources by members of the Yeeyan community, almost always for free.

The success of the site in producing a continual stream of translations — over 60,000 so far — is the result of careful community management and well-designed social features. And it’s a model that seems like it could be replicated for other languages.

Putting the community to work

Aside from reading stories, users can perform two basic actions: recommend a story or a URL for translation, or translate a recommended story. All visitors to the site are readers, many are recommenders, and only a few thousand — a couple percent — actually create translations. That turns out to be enough, but Yeeyan’s existence depends on getting people to translate.

The site’s design encourages participation in a number of different ways. The front page prominently displays a staff-curated selection of recommended but as-yet-untranslated articles. Users can create “projects,” collections of articles around a specific topic, such as “foreign affairs,” “film lovers,” or “Toyota recall,” and active topics are featured on the front page. Each user has a profile which shows a history of their recommendations and completed translations, and a number of typical social networking features are supported, such as comments on articles and messages between users.

Yeeyan has also recently adopted a badge system, to encourage both participation and quality. There are automatically awarded badges for things like “most translations this week” and “most comments this week,” as well as a series of overall “levels” that users can attain by translating and commenting. Kitty says participation has shot up since the introduction of these incentives.

“Amazing ah?” says Kitty. “Even this little thing can intrigue passion.” As Napoleon once said, a soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.

But clever software can never replace the involvement of human community managers. Yeeyan’s staff must read each translation before it is posted to ensure that it does not violate government taboos on reporting. (Since reopening in January, Yeeyan has dropped its “current events” category and now avoids all overtly political news, including stories from erstwhile partner The Guardian.) All websites in China are required to self-censor in this manner, but Yeeyan also takes this opportunity to interact with its translators.

“We are the first readers, so we comment first, we encourage users first, we proofread first,” says Kitty. “Those are all important to build up [the] community phenomenon.”

Participation over quality

Kitty told me that there had been much early discussion over whether the site should publish only “good” translations, but in the end they decided that “the gate should be opened to everyone.” Part of their strategy is to encourage readers to become translators. Beginning translators tend to produce rough texts and make many mistakes, says Kitty, but “it is cruel if we don’t even provide a chance.” The policy occasionally drives good translators away from the site, but the Yeeyan team sees translator training as an important part of their social mission.

Nonetheless, Yeeyan has recently debuted a proofreading feature. The original text and a user translation are displayed side by side, and the proofreader can comment on each paragraph. Participation is encouraged by awarding badges for proofreading.

Copyright and the business

Under international law, permission from the copyright holder is generally required to create or publish a translation. By publishing user-supplied translations of arbitrary news material, Yeeyan creates a public good in a legally dubious fashion. But it’s worth remembering that many of the vital information services we now take for granted began on similarly vague principles. The web search engine could not exist without wholesale duplication of the entire web onto local servers, a move which was by no means obviously legal when the first commercial search engines appeared — and which some news organizations still aren’t sure about. The legality of Google scanning books is similarly being challenged.

Even so, Yeeyan is actively seeking agreements with copyright holders to create and publish translations of their work. “We do not want to use content for business illegally, but how to get authorization is a big problem,” Kitty said. “That’s why we are trying to talk to [copyright holders] to have win-win-win business model.”

The three parties in “win-win-win” are the content producer, Yeeyan, and the translator. Yeeyan has just such an agreement with ReadWriteWeb. All RWW articles are translated by a paid freelancer and posted on rwwchina.com, with the ad revenue split between Yeeyan and RWW.

Yeeyan is reluctant to put too much advertising on the main site, both because of the legal questions raised by commercial use of translations and for fear of alienating its all-volunteer community. But there’s money to be made offline if you have access to a huge pool of translation talent, and connections to publishers on both sides of the language divide. Yeeyan hopes to make its money out of brokering translations for foreign firms eager to enter the Chinese market, both online and offline. The company already handles the Chinese language versions of Men’s Health and several other magazines and has brokered more than 20 book deals. Translators are drawn from the best of Yeeyan’s volunteer talent pool. As an incentive to reach professional proficiency, translators who have earned the “Level 4″ badge can apply to be Yeeyan partners. If approved, these skilled translators get the “Partner” badge, plus 3 RMB for every 1,000 views of their translated articles — and possibly a translation job offer later.

Journalism in an era of cheap translation

Yeeyan’s success raises broader questions for journalists and journalism. First, could the model be replicated? Could, say, the Associated Press cultivate a community that actively translated their reporting into other languages? I don’t see why not, though any organization that tried this would need a deep understanding of “community” and everything that implies — and deliver such an obvious public good that thousands of people would be willing to volunteer their time. The business model might also be different, but I can think of a number of ways to monetize a pool of translators and an audience eager for foreign-language news.

But suppose that a news organization was able to deliver a substantial amount of content to foreign-language audiences for very little cost, through communities like Yeeyan, or machine translation, or a combination of the two as in the hybrid World Wide Lexicon project. Such translations would not be up to professional quality initially — if ever — and publishers may be hesitant to endorse error-prone representations of their work. But asking about absolute accuracy and brand dilution misses the point — it’s like critiquing Wikipedia for its (improving) accuracy without discussing the net benefit to humanity. How would cheap translation change foreign reporting, and the very concept of international news? It’s a question which will soon be forced upon the profession by rising technological tides.

For the curious, and because I have repeatedly advocated that reporters make available their full source material, here’s a transcript of my followup IM chats with Kitty. In it we discuss further details of the site’s origin and operations, and their experience with the Chinese censors.

May 12 2010


NGOs and the News: Civil society’s place in the new news ecosystem

If you’ve followed our NGOs and the News collaboration with Penn’s Annenberg School, you may remember Laura’s coverage of the Milton Wolf Seminar in Austria. It was a conference to discuss the same questions raised in the series: What role should non-governmental organizations play in the new news ecosystem? As budgets for international reporting disappear, can NGOs fill the gap? Does thinking of themselves as media outlets change the way NGOs do the rest of their work? How should readers treat information coming from an organization that is also a player in the area it’s reporting from?

In the buildup to the conference, organizers held a competition to find the best student essays on NGO media and diplomatic strategies. There were seven winners; I’ve posted excerpts of the essays of five of them below. The winners were Columbia’s Kate Cronin-Furman, Tufts’ Galen Tan, and:

Tori Horton, USC: On using new media as an agent for change within organizations
Felicity Duncan, Penn: NGO journalism from a global perspective
Burcu Baykurt, University of London: Risks and rewards of NGO/media collaboration
Maria Egupova, Central European U.: NGOs and media in the South Ossetia conflict
Silvia Lindtner, UC Irvine: NGOs in the Chinese context

More information about the contest and all seven winners can be found in this document, which also serves as a nice summary of the conference’s discussions.

Tori Horton: Developing new media strategies and exploring potential consequences for governments, NGOs, and journalism in a blurred, flat and transparent global society

In 2005 I helped launch the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication explorations into the virtual world of Second Life. At that time virtual worlds as a medium for communication were just beginning and organizations were working to understand how best to utilize a virtual world. Governments, NGOs, foundations, universities, journalists, hospitals, corporations, and advocacy groups all converged; struggling to adapt to the Second Life culture, defend why engagement in virtual spaces was valuable to their mission, educate skeptics, acclimatize to a flat hierarchical structure void of traditional status signals, overcome fears of trust, re-create their brand for this new medium and ultimately define and work to achieve success.

To name a few organizations: Sweden launched an official Second Life embassy, The American Cancer Society began hosting virtual relays for life — complete with fundraising — CNN and Reuters opened news offices, NPR ran Second Life “Science Fridays”, Harvard taught classes, NASA opened a lab, the MacArthur Foundation explored education and learning, and IBM used it for internal communication and operations. Many of these projects were tremendously successful despite a long list of challenges. A few have determined that their project was more work to maintain than the effort was worth and have retreated; others continue and represent successful models of engagement. It is fair to say that as technology advanced, organizations that desired to leverage new technology had to be flexible in their media strategies and adapt.

NGOs are currently facing parallel challenges to those described above when dealing with disruptive media that forces them to innovate and explore media and Web 2.0 engagement beyond their traditional role. Becoming an intermediary for news organizations is not historically how these groups have operated, yet there are incentives to participation that have lured these organizations to experiment with news production among other new media awareness and engagement strategies. Based on my experience in virtual worlds, I believe that when NGOs and other organizations take on new media strategies industry lines blur, organizational structure shifts and transparency increases. As changes occur it is probable to expect a reorganization among global corporations and countries as they respond to paradigm shifts.

The first change is a massive blurring among industries when organizations compete for attention in a saturated media market. In Second Life, NGOs and other organizations worked to compete for attention, not just within their particular industry but at large in the virtual world. While this may be disheartening for those who preferred organizations that focus on the job at hand, it is exciting to see how new technology and corporate practices are more quickly achieving Keck and Sikkink’s “boomerang effect” by using new media to leverage internal and external pressure points producing change. In order for a group like the American Cancer Society to run a successful virtual relay for life in the world of Second Life they needed to create virtual representations of themselves and ignite the interest of the community. They were then able to use the event to heighten awareness of the relay in both the real and virtual world through a strategic press campaign, including an article in The New York Times.

The second shift occurs as organizations adapt to disrupting technologies and encounter challenges to traditional hierarchical organization models. This shift most often occurs when individuals on the “front-lines” tasked with communicating on behalf of their organization are no longer given time to clear messages before releasing them. It forces these individuals to become real-time spokespersons for the organization. In the virtual world they actually become the face of their organization, a spot traditionally reserved for the CEO.

The final change that is taking place due to new media strategies is a higher demand among end users for transparency as the new model to differentiate among news agencies, NGOs, governments and other organizations moving forward. For many journalists, transparency is the new objectivity. David Weinberger sums up the demand this way: “What we used to believe because we thought the author was objective we now believe because we can see through the author’s writings to the sources and values that brought her to that position.” All organizations are forced to either show more transparency in their choices or face questions when their motives are further exposed and challenged.

As a student of public diplomacy with an interest in new technology I have watched governments around the world struggle to adapt to new media in a similar process as NGOs and journalists. While they have not become information intermediaries for news, governments continue to push their own agendas and content. Governments can now be found in virtual worlds, on Facebook, YouTube, and Flickr. They can be found twittering and blogging. They have created entire offices such as the U.S. Bureau International Information Programs’ Office of Innovative Engagement, designed specifically for media outreach to foreign publics through engagement in networked mediums. Spaces like Second Life are at the convergence of these practices as traditional organizations adapt to new technology and create networks.

NGOs, news media, and governments are adapting to new technology. NGO media strategies affect journalistic and diplomatic practices, but they are also indicative of changes across industries from a broader perspective. Strict industry lines are blurring, organizational structure is shifting, and transparency is increasing. The consequences will be varied, but connected and engaged citizens from around the world will tap into knowledge networks in ways that have not been possible until now. Consciously embracing NGOs (as well as other trusted organizations) as information intermediaries does not necessarily represent a positive or negative change for news, but rather a shift in information networks for society.

Tori Horton earned a master’s degree in public diplomacy from the University of Southern California. She has worked in the field of public diplomacy for the past five years. Her areas of interest include new technology, cultural exchange, communication, civil society, and humanitarian aid.

Felicity Duncan: NGOs, journalism and diplomacy: Conceptual murkiness clouds enquiry

The role that contemporary non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are playing in the fields of news and journalism, and diplomacy, has generally been understood in fairly narrow terms, leading to a number of conceptual problems that undermine discussions on the topic. First and most important among these problems is the prevailing understanding of journalistic practice and news organizations. The often-unstated assumption here is that when we talk about “journalistic practices” and “news organizations,” what we are talking about is a particular model of journalism, Anglo-American and liberal in orientation and ideology, which is primarily engaged in the collection and neutral, unbiased presentation of objectively verified facts with the intention only of informing and educating audiences.

If we assume this model to be normatively and actually dominant, then concerns about NGOs polluting and undermining journalistic independence and purity naturally emerge. However, should we be so quick to assume that this is the most important or accurate model for journalism and news media, and, as a corollary, that this is how practicing journalists themselves understand the news/NGO nexus?

In fact, journalism as it is practiced in various regions of the world is a more complex and variable phenomenon than the Anglo-American or liberal model suggests (Hallin & Mancini, 2004).

Some journalism traditions focus on a more narrative, literary form of reportage with more explicitly political objectives and a diminished focus on neutrality and balance as guiding principles (Hallin & Mancini, 2004). In other, often poorer and thus marginalized regions, journalism is not yet a well-developed, autonomous field, but rather it is the provenance of amateurs and correspondents who play multiple social roles outside of the news media and have less concern with objectivity (Rugh, 2004). Yet other nations have news media that are generally controlled or managed by governments with more interest in stability than in factual reporting, and in such locations a totally different model of journalistic praxis applies. What’s more, in today’s information technology context, worldwide audiences have access to the production of all these forms of journalistic practices, so it makes little sense to focus exclusively on traditionally conceived Western media. Instead, perhaps, we need to think in terms of more diverse and variable mediascapes (Appadurai, 1996). In the context of these different and overlapping mediascapes, then, the emerging role of NGOs in the news field may well be seen in a different light, perhaps not as a confrontation with or source of ethical awkwardness for journalists, but rather as an enrichment of the pool of information, debate and opinion available.

Journalists, particularly those outside the liberal paradigm, may themselves understand the situation in ways that are very different from those of Western journalists. Furthermore, in certain societies, NGOs may be perceived by audiences to be a preferred alternative to media that are state-controlled or heavily censored (Gomez, 2005), rather than as a threat to the purity or independence of the media. Finally, it is worth noting that even within those nations whose media are seen to exemplify the dominant Anglo-American journalism paradigm, such as the United States, news and journalism is changing with the advent of new, low-cost technologies that enable the production of “news” by ordinary citizens. Although this has often been greeted with suspicion and resistance by established journalists and news media, it is a process that shows no sign of abating, and is changing audience conceptions of what constitutes news and who is a credible source thereof. We should, in other words, develop a more sensitive understanding of what constitutes journalism in a given context, and for a particular audience, rather than assuming that a single model applies and investigating the role of NGOs in the light of that model. Seen from a different angle, the news/NGO nexus may present totally different problematics.

Another crucial point is the implicit assumption that, while NGOs bring a particular agenda to the creation of news, journalists and existing news media are somehow agenda-free. Only if this holds true does it make sense for us to be concerned about the seepage of NGO agendas into the supposedly pristine space of news. But of course, this is by no means the case. All news media are institutions with particular histories, structures and imperatives that guide their agendas just as surely as any other set of institutions. American media are in many cases part of global corporations with the profit motive as one core driver behind their models of news-making; some media are backed by political parties with particular agendas, some by states with agendas of their own. There is no unsullied field of news-making that must be defended against NGO invasion. Instead, we should consider the ways in which the growing involvement of NGOs in the creation of news alters or influences media agendas. Perhaps this will prove to be a change for the better, but to explore this question we must start with the assumption that news creation is already an ideological enterprise.

NGOs’ new media strategies are part of a broader evolution in news mediascapes, and a consequence of the growing importance of media in diplomacy efforts for actors ranging from states to mining companies — basically for all groups with a stake in global policy and negotiation. We should not fall into the trap of assuming that there is a clean, traditional news space into which NGOs are moving, or that journalists view NGO involvement with hostility. Furthermore, we should be careful about Western-centrism in a world in which Western dominance is under threat from many sides, and non-Western powers wield increasing diplomatic clout. If we ask, for example, what NGO information-provision does to news media in China, I suspect that our perspective on the debate will change dramatically. Given the degree to which contemporary diplomacy is a multi-polar, unstable and heavily mediated process, any exploration of the role of NGOs in this process must be sensitive to nuances, or risk irrelevance.

Felicity Duncan is a PhD candidate in communication at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania. She was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, where she attended university, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in communication. She has worked as a journalist and editor and holds a master’s degree in journalism (as a Fulbright scholar) from the University of Missouri.

Burcu Baykurt: NGOs and the media in global civil society

According to contemporary democratic theory, NGOs represent the democratic values of civil society, while the media is assumed to have a watchdog role. Therefore, the increase in NGO-generated international news content and its distribution to journalists is important not only for the future of journalism, but also because of its potential political outcomes. News agencies have long been criticized for offering homogenous content as well as providing stories that fail to challenge the ideological dominance of the U.S. and the U.K. (Hachten and Scotton, 2002). The new form of interdependence between the NGOs and the media could lead to the production of international stories that would not be told at all if there was no cooperation between them. So could this collaboration lead to the enhancement of the political capacity of global civil society? I would argue that although this collaboration may be positive, we need to address some issues in order to develop a better model through which the NGOs and the media could work more effectively.

First, leaving the provision of international news to the NGOs (and disregarding the journalists) does not comply with the ideal democratic public sphere, which assumes a watchdog role for the media in addition to the maintenance of the plurality of voices. As Natalie Fenton argues earlier in this series, NGOs that pursue certain goals and values cannot ensure impartiality. Although their perspectives and stories should be reflected in the media, no matter how subjectively they are presented, they will remain the views of a certain group. As Ethan Zuckerman points out, NGOs could either be manipulating facts in line with their ideological standpoint or interpret the events differently in order to advocate certain goals. Therefore, stories reported by NGOs need to be critically reviewed. Moreover, we still need professional journalists who can disseminate the voices of different groups, as well as address ideological or political perspectives through their critical point of view. In other words, we should always ensure that the collaboration between the NGOs and the journalists fulfils the democratic standards of objectivity and diversity.

A second risk that should be taken into account is related to the market logic of the media. This could have a transformative effect in the world of some NGOs in the choice of content as well as in the presentation of the news. Natalie Fenton describes this as following a certain pattern of ‘news cloning.’ The NGOs have already learnt how to attract media publicity by using celebrity spokesmen, creating sensational content or relying on dramatic images. While trying to disseminate their values or news, they rely on existing marketing strategies to attract the mass media as well as the audience. One striking example is a campaign by ActionAid, one of the UK’s leading charities, in which a model dressed like Marilyn Monroe announces the launch of the Dying for Diamonds project (Gaber and Willson, 2005).

By assimilating mainstream publicity and media strategies, NGOs may reinforce stories tailored according to the needs of media corporations instead of channeling the untold stories of the world to the global citizens. Media reliance on a few major NGOs presents a further risk. If the audience only hears the voices of NGOs that are trained according to the mainstream news logic, have established close relations with the major news organizations and provide the expected content and presentation of stories, NGO-media cooperation could threaten the political enhancement of global civil society with respect to plurality and the right to information.

Risks aside, NGO-media cooperation can provide an opportunity for the inclusion of citizens in the global public sphere. NGOs — as the civil voices of individuals related to certain humanitarian or political goals and values — and the media — as the watchdog of the power centers in society — could cooperate to activate the global audience or citizens to challenge the power structures. Their relationship should not be passive — in which an NGO representative provides the content and the media utilize it. Rather it should be active. Citizens should be empowered to frame their stories and broadcast their critical comments to the world. The Hub and Ushahidi are two examples of such NGO-media cooperation that have not only provided an innovative and extensive dissemination of news but also enabled citizens to participate to the public sphere. These initiatives have become global now thanks to the internet.

All in all, within the perspective of constructing a global civil society in a world that is rapidly becoming interdependent, strong collaboration between NGOs and the media has the potential to enhance politics and society. Although there are certain risks that could obstruct this potential as well as further opportunities that need to be explored, I believe that this evolving cooperation has implications not only for journalism studies but also for the civic engagement of citizens globally.

Burcu Baykurt holds a B.A. in political science from Boğaziçi University in Istanbul. Following her three years of work experience in marketing for a multinational company, she currently studies in Goldsmiths, University of London. As a Fulbright fellow she will continue her studies in the United States in 2010-2012. Her research interests are mainly the impact of the new media on the future of journalism and democratic experiences of countries as well as political and economic forces that influence the new media landscape.

Maria Egupova: NGO-media cooperation in Russia

As other contributors to the NGOs and the News series have argued, NGOs now play an ever-more-important role in foreign news coverage. But can NGOs really cover all regions in the world? In some countries, NGO-media collaboration works effectively. While in others it does not. In Russia, relations between the domestic media and NGOs do not work properly and are not yet fully developed. This lack of cooperation is also evident on the international stage between Russian NGOs and foreign media. As a result, Russian NGOs are not reaching international audiences and their efforts are insignificant; and international NGOs have increased awareness about events in Tibet, but do not cover the news about human rights abuses in Russia.

The 2008 South Ossetia war between Russia and Georgia provides one of the best examples of the ineffective work of Russian NGOs and the failure of NGO-media relations. While there were several NGO representatives in the war zone they asserted very little influence over the situation. They did not attract much international attention or raise awareness about the conflict. While they managed to stop the destruction and plunder of Georgian villages, they had little broader impact. In addition, they did not change the image of the war created by Russian media. For example, Alik Mnatsakanyan of DEMOS Centre, a Moscow-based research center for NGOs, argues that only one Russian battalion was located on the territory of South Ossetia on the eve of the conflict and these troops were a part of a peacekeeping force. Therefore he assumes that this conflict was not planned beforehand as Western media claim. Yet this information did not reach global audiences.

Domestic NGOs in Russia are making a relatively small impact on changing the political agenda or building a civil society because of the problems they experience. While representatives of large international NGOs such as Greenpeace or Médecins Sans Frontières can afford to hire a PR specialist, domestic NGOs have limited funding and abilities to reach a broader audience, nor do they have well developed web pages and competent PR specialists. This is worsened by the current economic crisis; an increase in charitable activities over the past two years (in 2008, Russian companies devoted about 14 million rubles (approximately US$467,000) to NGOs working in the social sector) came to a halt at the beginning of 2009. According to the Russian Ministry of Justice, there are 30 branches and 251 representative offices of foreign NGOs registered in Russia as of November 2009, the majority of which deal with adoption. In such a large and diverse country like Russia there are too many social and political layers and the limited number of NGOs presented in Russia cannot cover all of them. The majority of NGOs are located in Moscow or Saint Petersburg, and cannot respond quickly enough to events happening in different regions. For example, there were huge protests in Vladivostok, the largest port on the Russian Far East and a hub for importing used cars from Japan, on December 12 and December 21, 2008. People went to the streets of the city in order to express their disagreement with the policy of higher tariffs on imported used cars and on housing and public utilities. During the first protest people blocked the main roads of the city and access to the airport. On December 21, the Kremlin sent riot police in; people were reeling around the Christmas tree on the central square when riot police started dragging them into vans, including a few journalists from Moscow and Japan.

These events were completely ignored by the government-controlled national media. To fill the gap, the role of citizen journalists increased; they started uploading videos on YouTube and other sources. In my view, the citizen journalists were not trying to change international coverage, but news within the country. In the meantime their reports unintentionally contributed to the coverage of this story by Western media. For example the British Times Online covered this story without any reference on the source and without the name of the author; the New York Times cited the “Amateur video posted online by people who said they were at Sunday’s demonstration in Vladivostok”; BBC World included voices of some witnesses, protesters, “the independent Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy” and “the BBC’s Richard Galpin in Moscow.”

Yet I did not find any NGO voices presented in this story. This again proves the failure of NGO-media cooperation in Russia; even foreign attention to this event did not change the situation and did not make the Russian government bear responsibility for its actions, and the international community reacted in a modest manner.

There are some exceptions. For example, the Memorial Human Rights Center together with Nezavisimaya Gazeta (Independent Newspaper) published several articles about the history of Gulags, the penal labor camps during the Soviet era, which were widely debated in the society. However, centralization, strong governmental control over NGOs, and threat of closures makes such involvement difficult.

NGO-media cooperation in Russia should strengthen civil society and increase the awareness about the events happening in the country; it should also contribute to diplomatic relations. Currently, however, this cooperation does not work properly and civil society is unable to affect the diplomacy of government and other international actors.

Outside of Russia, numerous international NGOs have increased awareness of global events — for instance in Somalia, Burma, Sudan — and media and governments take them seriously. Russian NGOs cannot do the same job; their presence does not really change the journalistic and diplomatic practices of the country. During the conflict with Georgia, Russian NGOs did not contribute to shaping the news, and the international community supported the Georgian point of view. The same situation occurred in Vladivostok; NGOs did not provide assistance and did not cooperate with the media, and this story was largely ignored by the Russian media. I believe that Russian NGOs are on their way to improving their position in society and that they will follow the Western trend and increase their watchdog function so the Russian government will start taking them into consideration.

Maria Egupova is an MA student in Political Science at the Central European University, Budapest, Hungary. Her main research interests are in the media communication field, print media analysis, media-Internet relations, and the challenges new Internet media present to traditional media. She graduated from the Far Eastern National University in 2008 in Vladivostok with an honors diploma specializing in regional studies of the U.S., Canada, and Latin America.

Silvia Lindtner: Media consumption and production in a networked society: Mixed media and NGOs in China

Other essays in the NGOs and the News series have explored the question of collaboration between mainstream media and NGOs. I would like to take this debate a step further and explore how NGOs, as well as other activist collectives, act across a range of media: What are the kinds of relations collectives like the NGO establish across and with diverse media sites? What are the kinds of publics that emerge at the intersection of activism and new media? How are these publics bridging across different localities and local politics? And once we speak of networked media sites and publics, how do local politics and issues at stake shape global relations and vice versa?

NGO activity in China presents an interesting case study for these questions, as China continues to receive heightened attention in broader debates of the impact of new media and technologies on social and economic change. While the number of Chinese internet users continues to increase, internet policies and legislation, ranging from mass closings of public media and internet access to the installation of control mechanisms on computer terminals, have impacted media practice and information sharing. Such changes have led to numerous debates over the impact of free press and the internet in China and the nation’s image on a global stage. New media, in particular, are considered by the Chinese government as a site of potential social unrest and of the formation of larger collectives whose opinions diverge from the one advertised through the tightly controlled mainstream media.

Setting up an NGO in China is a difficult and regulated process that often requires close relations to the government or the maintenance of informal networks. In light of China’s context of media and internet control, the question of the potentially beneficial relationship between the media and NGO worlds takes on a new meaning. While Chinese NGOs are technically not government agencies, the Chinese government still has an influence over them through various establishment and oversight mechanisms inherent in the national legislation.

In an earlier essay in this series, Kimberly Abbott describes how a tight collaboration between ABC’s Nightline and an international NGO called Crisis Group constituted a win-win situation for both. An alliance of such sorts might have quite different consequences in a climate of tight control and political and economic change as is the case in China. Some activist collectives and NGOs, for example, have chosen alternate routes, building informal networks across multiple media publics and engaging on a local and international level. At times, success is dependent on the anonymity available through social media sites. Just as important, however, are the ways in which diverse stakeholders imagine themselves as participants in a broader collective of media consumers and producers. While not necessarily directly interacting, participants in these webs of networked connections think of themselves as linked through an ideal, a shared philosophy or passion that spans beyond a single site or cultural context.

In China, the relationship between media, new media and NGOs and other activist collectives is an ambivalent one, and one that is clearly not limited to a single media site. For example, as much as social activists and NGOs exploit anonymity to circumvent restriction, so do large anonymous collectives of patriotic cyber-hackers that undertake attacks on international cyber-infrastructures.

This suggests an alternate route towards exploring the many possible relationships between media and NGOs. Media practices are diverse forms of participation that include both creation and consumption, and a mix of old and new technologies. New media systems should not be idealized as the guarantees for counter-action and resistance, nor seen as determining social practice. Rather what is required is a careful engagement with the local yet global dimensions of these new forms of media productions and usages as they play an increasingly central role at the intersection of conflicting political values, international relations and formations of new collaborations.

Silvia Lindtner is a PhD candidate in the department of informatics at the University of California Irvine. Her research interests include media studies and China studies, anthropology, science and technology studies and social informatics. Her main research focuses on the role of digital media in relation to urban development, political discourse and state legislation in China.

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