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December 21 2010

17:00

At #Niemanleaks, a new generation of tools to manage floods of new data

Whether it’s 250,000 State Department cables or the massive spending databases on Recovery.gov, the trend in data has definitely become “more.” That presents journalists with a new problem: How do you understand and explain data when it comes by the gigabyte? At the Nieman Foundation’s one-day conference on secrecy and journalism, presenters from the New York Times, Sunlight Foundation, and more offered solutions — or at least new ways of thinking about the problems.

Think like a scientist

With the massive amounts of primary documents now available, journalists have new opportunities to bring their readers into their investigations — which can lead to better journalism. John Bohannon, a contributing correspondent for Science Magazine, said his background as a scientist was great preparation for investigative reporting. “The best kind of investigative journalism is like the best kind of science,” he said. “You as the investigator don’t ask your readers to take your claims at face value: You give them the evidence you’ve gathered along the way and ask them to look it with you.”

It’s not a radical idea, but it’s one being embraced in new ways. For Bohannon, it meant embedding with a unit in Afganistan and methodically gathering first-hand data about civilian deaths — a more direct and reliable indicator than the less expensive and safer method of counting media-reported deaths. He also found his scientific approach was met with more open answers from a military known for tight information control. “Sometimes if you politely ask for information, large powerful organizations will actually give it to you,” he said.

The future will be distributed: BitTorrent, not Napster

Two of the projects discussed, Basetrack and DocumentCloud, invite broader participation in the news process, the former in the sourcing and the latter with the distribution.

Basetrack, a Knight News Challenge winner, goes beyond the normal embedding process to more actively involving the Marines of First Battalion, Eighth Marine Regiment as they deploy overseas in reporting their experiences. Teru Kuwayama, who leads the project and deployed with the battalion to Afghanistan, said ensuring that confidential information wasn’t released, putting lives in danger, was essential to building trust and openness with the project. So Basetrack built a “Denial of Information” tool that allowed easy, pre-publication redactions, with the caveat that the fact of those redactions — and the reasons given for them — would be made public. It’s a compromise that promises a greater intimacy and a collaborative look at life at war while ensuring the safety of the soldiers.

Fellow News Challenge winner DocumentCloud, on the other hand, distributes the primary documents dug up through traditional investigative journalism, such as historical confidential informant files or flawed electoral ballot designs. Aron Pilhofer, editor of interactive news at The New York Times, said he was unsure about whether journalists would actually use it when his team began working on the project — but since then dozens of organizations have embraced it, happy to take readers along for the ride of the investigative process.

These new ways of distributing reporting were just the beginning, Pilhofer said, with a trend that will likely push today’s marquee whistleblower out of the limelight. “WikiLeaks was very much a funnel going in and very much a funnel going out,” he said. “Distributed is the future.” A new project, called OpenLeaks, will embrace a less centralized model, building technology to allow anonymous leaks without a central organization to be taken out.

Big data’s day is here

The panel also tackled how to digest truly massive data sets. Bill Allison, editorial director of the Sunlight Foundation, detailed how his organization collected information on everything from earmarks to political fundraising parties. Allison said making this data actually meaningful required context, which could be simple as mapping already available data or scoring government databases based on understandable criteria.

“We try to make the information easy to use,” he said. But beyond the audience of curious constituents who use Sunlight’s tools, a much broader audience is reached as hundreds of journalists around the country use Sunlight’s tools to dig up local stories they might not otherwise have noticed — creating a rippling effect of transparency

16:00

Tablet-only, mobile-first: News orgs native to new platforms coming soon

Editor’s Note: We’re wrapping up 2010 by asking some of the smartest people in journalism what the new year will bring.

Here are 10 predictions from Vadim Lavrusik, community manager and social strategist at Mashable. Mashable, where these predictions first appeared, covers the heck out of the world of social media and have an honored place in our iPhone app.

In many ways, 2010 was finally the year of mobile for news media, and especially so if you consider the iPad a mobile device. Many news organizations like The Washington Post and CNN included heavy social media integrations into their apps, opening the devices beyond news consumption.

In 2011, the focus on mobile will continue to grow with the launch of mobile- and iPad-only news products, but the greater focus for news media in 2011 will be on re-imagining its approach to the open social web. The focus will shift from searchable news to social and share-able news, as social media referrals close the gap on search traffic for more news organizations. In the coming year, news media’s focus will be affected by the personalization of news consumption and social media’s influence on journalism.

Leaks and journalism: a new kind of media entity

In 2010, we saw the rise of WikiLeaks through its many controversial leaks. With each leak, the organization learned and evolved its process in distributing sensitive classified information. In 2011, we’ll see several governments prosecute WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for his role in disseminating classified documents and some charges will have varying successes. But even if WikiLeaks itself gets shut down, we’re going to see the rise of “leakification” in journalism, and more importantly we’ll see a number of new media entities, not just mirror sites, that will model themselves to serve whistle blowers — WikiLeaks copycats of sorts. Toward the end of this year, we already saw Openleaks, Brusselsleaks, and Tradeleaks. There will be many more, some of which will be focused on niche topics.

Just like with other media entities, there will be a new competitive market and some will distinguish themselves and rise above the rest. So how will success be measured? The scale of the leak, the organization’s ability to distribute it and its ability or inability to partner with media organizations. Perhaps some will distinguish themselves by creating better distribution platforms through their own sites by focusing on the technology and, of course, the analysis of the leaks. The entities will still rely on partnerships with established media to distribute and analyze the information, but it may very well change the relationship whistleblowers have had with media organizations until now.

More media mergers and acquisitions

At the tail end of 2010, we saw the acquisition of TechCrunch by AOL and the Newsweek merger with The Daily Beast. In some ways, these moves have been a validation in the value of new media companies and blogs that have built an audience and a business.

But as some established news companies’ traditional sources of revenue continue to decline, while new media companies grow, 2011 may bring more media mergers and acquisitions. The question isn’t if, but who? I think that just like this year, most will be surprises.

Tablet-only and mobile-first news companies

In 2010, as news consumption began to shift to mobile devices, we saw news organizations take mobile seriously. Aside from launching mobile apps across various mobile platforms, perhaps the most notable example is News Corp’s plan to launch The Daily, an iPad-only news organization that is set to launch early 2011. Each new edition will cost $0.99 to download, though Apple will take 30%. But that’s not the only hurdle, as the publication relies on an iPad-owning audience. There will have been 15.7 million tablets sold worldwide in 2010, and the iPad represents roughly 85% of that. However, that number is expected to more than double in 2011. Despite a business gamble, this positions news organizations like The Daily for growth, and with little competition, besides news organizations that repurpose their web content. We’ve also seen the launch of an iPad-only magazine with Virgin’s Project and of course the soon-to-launch News.me social news iPad application from Betaworks.

But it’s not just an iPad-only approach, and some would argue that the iPad isn’t actually mobile; it’s leisurely (yes, Mark Zuckerberg). In 2011, we’ll see more news media startups take a mobile-first approach to launching their companies. This sets them up to be competitive by distributing on a completely new platform, where users are more comfortable with making purchases. We’re going to see more news companies that reverse the typical model of website first and mobile second.

Location-based news consumption

In 2010, we saw the growth of location-based services like Foursquare, Gowalla and SCVNGR. Even Facebook entered the location game by launching its Places product, and Google introduced HotPot, a recommendation engine for places and began testing it in Portland. The reality is that only 4% of online adults use such services on the go. My guess is that as the information users get on-the-go info from such services, they’ll becomes more valuable and these location-based platforms will attract more users.

Part of the missing piece is being able to easily get geo-tagged news content and information based on your GPS location. In 2011, with a continued shift toward mobile news consumption, we’re going to see news organizations implement location-based news features into their mobile apps. And of course if they do not, a startup will enter the market to create a solution to this problem or the likes of Foursquare or another company will begin to pull in geo-tagged content associated with locations as users check in.

Social vs. search

In 2010, we saw social media usage continue to surge globally. Facebook alone gets 25% of all U.S. pageviews and roughly 10% of Internet visits. Instead of focusing on search engine optimization (SEO), in 2011 we’ll see social media optimization become a priority at many news organizations, as they continue to see social close the gap on referrals to their sites.

Ken Doctor, author of Newsonomics and news industry analyst at Outsell, recently pointed out that social networks have become the fastest growing source of traffic referrals for many news sites. For many, social sites like Facebook and Twitter only account for 10% to 15% of their overall referrals, but are number one in growth. For news startups, the results are even more heavy on social. And of course, the quality of these referrals is often better than readers who come from search. They generally yield more pageviews and represent a more loyal reader than the one-off visitors who stumble across the site from Google.

The death of the “foreign correspondent”

What we’ve known as the role of the foreign correspondent will largely cease to exist in 2011. As a result of business pressures and the roles the citizenry now play in using digital technology to share and distribute news abroad, the role of a foreign correspondent reporting from an overseas bureau “may no longer be central to how we learn about the world,” according to a recent study by the Reuters Institute for the Study of of Journalism. The light in the gloomy assessment is that there is opportunity in other parts of the world, such as Asia and Africa, where media is expanding as a result of “economic and policy stability,” according to the report. In 2011, we’ll see more news organizations relying heavily on stringers and, in many cases, social content uploaded by the citizenry.

The syndication standard and the ultimate curators

Syndication models will be disrupted in 2011. As Clay Shirky recently predicted, more news outlets will get out of the business of re-running the same story on their site that appeared elsewhere. Though this is generally true, the approach to syndication will vary based on the outlet. The reality is that the content market has become highly fragmented, and if content is king, then niche is certainly queen. Niche outlets, which were once curators of original content produced by established organizations, will focus more on producing original content. While established news brands, still under pressure to produce a massive amount of content despite reduced staff numbers, will become the ultimate curators. This means they will feature just as much content, but instead through syndication partners.

You already see this taking place on sites like CNN.com or NYTimes.com, both of whose technology sections feature headlines and syndicated content from niche technology publications. In this case, it won’t only be the reader demand for original content that drives niche publications to produce more original content, but also its relationship with established organizations that strive to uphold the quality of their content and the credibility of their brand. Though original content will be rewarded, specialized, niche publications could benefit the most from the disruption.

Social storytelling becomes reality

In 2010, we saw social content get weaved into storytelling, in some cases to tell the whole story and in other cases to contextualize news events with curation tools such as Storify. We also saw the rise of social news readers, such as Flipboard and Pulse mobile apps and others.

In 2011, we’ll not only see social curation as part of storytelling, but we’ll see social and technology companies getting involved in the content creation and curation business, helping to find the signal in the noise of information.

We’ve already heard that YouTube is in talks to buy a video production company, but it wouldn’t be a surprise for the likes of Twitter or Facebook to play a more pivotal role in harnessing its data to present relevant news and content to its users. What if Facebook had a news landing page of the trending news content that users are discussing? Or if Twitter filtered its content to bring you the most relevant and curated tweets around news events?

News organizations get smarter with social media

In 2010, news organizations began to take social media more seriously and we saw many news organizations hire editors to oversee social media. USA Today recently appointed a social media editor, while The New York Times dropped the title, and handed off the ropes to Aron Pilhofer’s interactive news team.

The Times’ move to restructure its social media strategy, by going from a centralized model to a decentralized one owned by multiple editors and content producers in the newsroom, shows us that news organizations are becoming more sophisticated and strategic with their approach to integrating social into the journalism process. In 2011, we’re going to see more news organizations decentralize their social media strategy from one person to multiple editors and journalists, which will create an integrated and more streamlined approach. It won’t just be one editor updating or managing a news organization’s process, but instead news organizations will work toward a model in which each journalist serves as his or her own community manager.

The rise of interactive TV

In 2010, many people were introduced to Internet TV for the first time, as buzz about the likes of Google TV, iTV, Boxee Box and others proliferated headlines across the web. In 2011, the accessibility to Internet TV will transform television as we know it in not only the way content is presented, but it will also disrupt the dominance traditional TV has had for years in capturing ad dollars.

Americans now spend as much time using the Internet as they do watching television, and the reality is that half are doing both at the same time. The problem of being able to have a conversation with others about a show you’re watching has existed for some time, and users have mostly reacted to the problem by hosting informal conversations via Facebook threads and Twitter hashtags. Companies like Twitter are recognizing the problem and finding ways to make the television experience interactive.

It’s not only the interaction, but the way we consume content. Internet TV will also create a transition for those used to consuming video content through TVs and bring them to the web. That doesn’t mean that flat screens are going away; instead, they will only become interconnected to the web and its many content offerings.

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14:56

December 20 2010

15:00

The changing of the gatekeeper: Adapting to the new roles for journalists, sources and information

We’re continuing our recaps of the Secrecy and Journalism in the New Media Age conference that took place at the Nieman Foundation on Thursday with the second panel discussion — entitled “Whither the Gatekeeper? Navigating New Rules and Roles in the Age of Radical Transparency.”

The discussion centered on the issue of how has journalism responded to WikiLeaks and others doing some of the work traditionally done by journalists — namely ferreting out documents and information — and how reporters and editors remain important as the interpreters and analysts of news.

The panel includes Walter Pincus, intelligence and national security reporter for The Washington Post, Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, Clint Hendler, staff writer for the Columbia Journalism Review, and Maggie Mulvihill, senior investigative producer for the New England Center for Investigative Reporting. Below you’ll also find the archived liveblog and online discussion from the session.

December 15 2010

15:00

#Niemanleaks on Thursday: After WikiLeaks, a flood of new questions

While WikiLeaks’ recent document dumps have answered questions large and small (How many civilians have been killed in Iraq? Does Muammar al-Gaddafi prefer blondes or brunettes?), the organization’s controversial brand of journalism has raised a lot more questions that scholars, working journalists and legal systems around the world are just now beginning to tackle. The Nieman Foundation is hosting “From Watergate to WikiLeaks: Secrecy and Journalism in the New Media Age,” at which speakers ranging from The New York Times’ executive editor Bill Keller to The Washington Post’s Walter Pincus will offer their insight into how the rules are changing.

Here are a few of the questions we’ve seen raised, and where you might begin to figure out some answers tomorrow. If you won’t be in attendance, check back here Thursday morning for the live video stream, or watch #niemanleaks on Twitter.

Is WikiLeaks journalism? What does that mean when everyone can blog, Tweet and share instantly with an audience around the world?

Check out the 2:30 p.m. (EST) panel, “Secrets 2.0: Exploring Entrepreneurial Answers to Journalistic Obligations,” which will feature the Sunlight Foundation’s Bill Allison, Basetrack’s Teru Kuwayama, the New York Times’ Aron Pilhofer and others who are helping answer that question through innovative approaches to what journalism is, while pushing back on the notion of what it isn’t. For example, Knight News Challenge winner Basetrack pairs professional war correspondence with the thoughts and reactions of U.S. Marines and their families, who are also blogging their experiences. The Sunlight Foundation, on the other hand, takes massive data sets and made them more accessible and useful, often leaving it up to the reader to connect the dots in creative new ways.

What should we make on all the legal and political pressure being put on WikiLeaks and other news organizations? Should the law dictate how and what is reported, and where do you draw the line on either side?

The “Prosecuted, Banned, Blamed: Reporters Push Boundaries as a Voice of Public Accountability” panel at 10:00 a.m. features a global perspective from current and past Nieman Fellows, including Stefan Candea, who helped map out Romania’s complex web of political and media ownership, as well as fellows from Chile, Cambodia, and South Africa. It will be moderated by the Nieman Foundation’s Stefanie Friedhoff.

For a more local perspective, head to “Whither the Gatekeeper? Navigating New Rules and Roles in the Age of Radical Transparency.” It’ll feature The Washington Post’s Walter Pincus, Clint Hendler from Columbia Journalism Review, Maggie Mulvihill from the New England Center for Investigative Reporting and Danielle Brian from the Project on Government Oversight. It’ll be moderated by Nieman Reports‘ Melissa Ludtke.

So in the end, what’s changed post-WikiLeaks?

The conference’s keynotes will tackle the big question of what changes between media and their sources as those sources can increasingly go direct to the audience with their message. Kathleen Carroll executive editor of the Associated Press, will discuss freedom of information in the digital age at 9:10 a.m., while the Times’ Bill Keller will address secrecy, national security, and the press at 1:15 p.m.

December 14 2010

19:47

When we can’t believe our own eyes: Balance, objectivity, or transparency?

Time magazine's Wikileaks correction

It’s been a good week for followers of that endangered beast objectivity. On Friday Glenn Greenwald reported on factual inaccuracies in Time’s Wikileaks article, and the ‘correction’ that was then posted (reproduced above). Greenwald writes:

“The most they’re willing to do now is convert it into a “they-said/he-said” dispute.  But what they won’t do — under any circumstances — is state clearly that the Government’s accusations are false, even where, as here, they unquestionably are.”

Meanwhile, the BBC is facing a viral backlash (described as “lobbying” by a spokesperson) over Ben Brown’s interview with Jody McIntyre (transcript here):

Kevin Bakhurst has responded to the complaints and the copious comments on his post are worth reading in full – not only because many of them flesh out the debate extremely well (and others would sit well in a textbook on interviewing technique), but because they provide a compelling story of how people’s relationship with the media is changing.

In particular, on the subject of balance one journalist comments:

“This story demonstrates the fallacy of ‘balanced reporting’. On the evidence of the video Mr McIntyre is almost certainly a victim of an assault and battery, he should sue, and if he does – he will almost certainly win. Even if were he found to be in some way contributorily negligent ‘for rolling towards the police’ as it were – the Tort will still have been committed by the police. The Law makes it clear there is no such balance, yet through this kind of aggressive cross examination, perpetrator and victim are reduced to the same standing in the eyes of the viewer: both are placed under suspicion. And – vitally – to begin with such suspicion is not sceptical, but cynical. There’s a considerable difference.”

Meanwhile Kevin Marsh makes a strong argument against the swing from objectivity towards “transparency” as “replacing one impossibility with another”.

I lay all these out as fertile ground for any discussion on objectivity, transparency and ethics.

December 10 2010

11:30

Me & media on Wikileaks

Here are some appearances I’ve been making regarding Wikileaks, transparency, and press freedom.

On CNN with John King Thursday night talking about the hacking of MasterCard et al, quoting this Guardian editorial arguing that the attacks are a form of civil (cyber) disobedience in defense of a free internet:

Here’s a link to BBC audio, on the same subject, discussing the shift from power-to-power to peer-to-peer architecture.

The Berliner Zeitung asked for a brief op-ed. Here’s the English text:

Should Wikileaks be stopped? The question is somewhat irrelevant. The movement it exemplifies – transparency – cannot be stopped.

I’m not saying that secrecy is dead. We still need secrets – about security, crime, privacy, diplomacy. But we have far too many secrets in government. One thing that Wikileaks reveals is the abuse of government secrecy.

But now governments will have to learn how to operate under the assumption that anything they do can be seen on the front page of this newspaper. Is that a bad thing? I don’t think so. I say that government must become transparent by default, secret by necessity.

Transparency breeds trust. Whether for government or journalism or business, operating in the open enables the opportunity to collaborate with constituents.

We in journalism must recognize that Wikileaks is an element of a new ecosystem of news. It is a new form of the press. So we must defend its rights as media. If we do not, we could find our own rights curtailed. Asking whether Wikileaks should be stopped is exactly like asking whether this newspaper should be stopped when it reveals what
government does not want the public to know. We have been there before; let us never return.

December 04 2010

19:40

Wikileaks: Power shifts from secrecy to transparency

Welt am Sontag in Germany asked me for an op-ed on Wikileaks. Here it is, auf Englisch. Hier, auf Deutsch.

Government should be transparent by default, secret by necessity. Of course, it is not. Too much of government is secret. Why? Because those who hold secrets hold power.

Now Wikileaks has punctured that power. Whether or not it ever reveals another document—and we can be certain that it will—Wikileaks has made us all aware that no secret is safe. If something is known by one person, it can be known by the world.

But that has always been the case. The internet did not kill secrecy. It only makes copying and spreading information easier and faster. It weakens secrecy. Or as a friend of mine says, the internet democratizes leaking. It used to be, only the powerful could hold and uncover knowledge. Now many can.

Of course, we need secrets in society. In issues of security and criminal investigation as well as the privacy of citizens and some matters of operating the state—such as diplomacy—sunlight can damage. If government limited secrecy to that standard—necessity—there would be nothing for Wikileaks to leak.

But as we can see from what has been leaked, there is much we should know—actions taken in our name—that government holds from us. We also know that the revelation of these secrets has not been devastating. America’s and Germany’s relationship has not collapsed because one undiplomatic diplomat called Angela Merkel uncreative. Wikileaks head Julian Assange told the Guardian that in four years, “there has been no credible allegation, even by organizations like the Pentagon, that even a single person has come to harm as a result of our activities.”

So perhaps the lesson of Wikileaks should be that the open air is less fearsome than we’d thought. That should lead to less secrecy. After all, the only sure defense against leaks is transparency.

But that is not what’s happening. In the U.S., the White House announced a new security initiative to clamp down on information. The White House even warned government workers not to look at Wikileaks documents online because they were still officially secret, which betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the definition of secret as something people do not know. I fear that one legacy of Wikileaks’ work will be that officials will communicate less in writing and more by phone, diminishing the written record for journalism and history.

I have become an advocate of openness in government, business, and even our personal lives and relationships. The internet has taught me the benefits of sharing and connecting information.

This is why I have urged caution in not going overboard with the privacy mania sweeping much of modern society and especially Germany. Beware the precedents we set, defaulting to closed and secret, whether in pixelating public views in Google Street View, or in disabling the advertising targeting that makes online marketing more valuable and will pay for much of the web’s free content.

I fear that a pixel fog may overcome us, blurring what should be becoming clearer. I had hoped instead that we would pull back the curtain on society, letting the sunlight in. That is our choice.

In researching my book on the benefits of publicnness (to be published as Public Parts in the U.S. and Das Deutsche Paraoxon in Germany), I have found that new technology often leads to fears about exposure of privacy. The invention of the Gutenberg press, the camera, the mass press, the miniature microphone, and now the internet have all sparked such worry.

Now, in Wikileaks, we see a new concern: that secrecy dies. It does not; secrecy lives. But it is wounded. And it should be. Let us use this episode to examine as citizens just how secret and how transparent our governments should be. For today, in the internet age, power shifts from those who hold secrets to those to create openness. That is our emerging reality.

Business, be warned: You are next.

: More: This Economist post thinks likewise.

With or without WikiLeaks, the technology exists to allow whistleblowers to leak data and documents while maintaining anonymity. With or without WikiLeaks, the personel, technical know-how, and ideological will exists to enable anonymous leaking and to make this information available to the public. Jailing Thomas Edison in 1890 would not have darkened the night.

: Jay Rosen is concerned that Julian Assange ducked the question of how diplomacy can operate without assurances of secure communication.

December 03 2010

15:00

This Week in Review: Making sense of WikiLeaks, a Daily tablet paper, and Gawker leaves blogging behind

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week's top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

We’re covering two weeks instead of the usual one in this review, so there’s a ton to pack in here. I’ll try to zip through it a little more quickly than usual.

What to make of WikiLeaks: WikiLeaks made its third big document drop since this summer this week, releasing about 250,000 confidential diplomatic cables. Here’s coverage by The New York TimesThe GuardianDer Spiegel, and a roundup by The Columbia Journalism Review. Time talked to WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange about the leak, and Forbes published an interview and long piece about Assange’s next target — corporate America.

As for the leak itself, The Guardian detailed the documents’ path from the alleged leaker, U.S. soldier Bradley Manning, to Assange, to a Guardian reporter. Yahoo’s Michael Calderone looked at The Times’ editorial process with the cables, including the revelation that they got them from The Guardian, not WikiLeaks. The Wall Street Journal and CNN both declined to sign agreements with WikiLeaks to see the documents in advance, and The Journal examined news orgs’ decisions on whether or not to publish. The Times explained its own publishing decision, then (quite eloquently) responded to readers’ objections.

The reaction against WikiLeaks was quicker and harsher than those following each of its last two leaks. Before the documents were released, its site was hacked, the U.S. and British governments issued pre-emptive condemnations, and senators called for WikiLeaks to be prosecuted. After the release, the Obama administration said it was indeed pursuing a criminal investigation, Interpol revealed it has put out a call for Assange’s arrest (ostensibly for his rape accusations), and Amazon booted WikiLeaks from its servers under pressure from U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman.

WikiLeaks’ actions left many journalists and media observers divided: An Economist blogger accused WikiLeaks of degenerating into gossip, and Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger called them enemies of the American people. Assange and WikiLeaks had their defenders, too: Slate’s Jack Shafer praised them for puncturing “the prerogative of secrecy,” and another Economist blogger made a similar argument. The Guardian’s Simon Jenkins noted that “the job of the media is not to protect power from embarrassment.” Meanwhile, Northeastern j-prof Dan Kennedy wrestled with the balance between transparency and secrecy.

Others’ primary concern was not value judgments, but classification. Is WikiLeaks espionage? Journalism? Radically open government? Or, as Lab contributor C.W. Anderson argued, is it a facilitator of real-time history documentation? NYU j-prof Jay Rosen hashed out his thoughts on WikiLeaks as a stateless news organization on video, concluding, “The watchdog press died, and what we have is WikiLeaks instead.” Paul Balcerak wondered why WikiLeaks gets so much more attention than the press’s own reporting.

If you really want to spend the weekend pondering the meaning of WikiLeaks, it’s best to start with two posts: Some incisive questions by Salon’s Dan Gillmor, and a brilliant post by Aaron Bady sifting through Assange’s own words to determine his motivations behind WikiLeaks’ radical transparency.

Rupert’s big tablet splash: We’ve heard bits and pieces about Rupert Murdoch’s planned tablet-based national news publication, but we got the first substantive report on the subject two weeks ago from Women’s Wear Daily. Among the key details: It’s going by The Daily, it has a staff of 100, it’ll cost 99 cents a week, and it’ll come out once a day. The New York Observer gave us some more information about the publication’s design (it’s text-first and will be published overnight, but apparently looks pretty cool). Other tidbits: John Gruber at Daring Fireball heard that it’ll pioneer a new app subscription API from Apple, and New York’s Gabriel Snyder said it will have a centrist editorial outlook.

The reasons why this project is getting so much pre-launch attention seem pretty readily evident: Murdoch, original tablet news org, iPad news subscriptions, you know the rest. As The Columbia Journalism Review noted, what’s new about this publication is that it won’t even have a website. The initial response from the media-watching world was predominantly negative, with skepticism coming from The New York Times’ David Carr, Gawker’s Ryan Tate, Scott Rosenberg, Sam Diaz of ZDNet, GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram, Fast Company’s Kit Eaton, The Guardian’s Emily Bell, and paidContent’s Andrew Wallenstein.

Many of those critics made similar points, so here’s a roundup of the main ones: 1) It’s trying to impose slow print-think onto the speed-oriented world of mobile media (this is Rosenberg’s main point); 2) The fact that it won’t have inbound or outbound links means it can’t share in the virality that makes news on the Web work; 3) The folks on board don’t exactly seem like the tech revolutionaries they might need to be (Wallenstein’s main point); and 4) How many people are actually going to pay for this, and can it really cover The Daily’s costs? (Carr’s main objection)

Several of those people also noted a few factors in Murdoch’s favor: Carr argued that people will be more likely to pay for news in an app world than on the web, and both Tate and Eaton noted that Apple’s Steve Jobs (who is reported to be tied to the project) is a pretty powerful guy with a history of success in ventures like these. We got a few good suggestions for Murdoch’s project, too: TechCrunch’s Erick Schonfeld said to make it local, real-time, and social; Frederic Filloux wanted it speedy, simple, beyond Apple, and with adjustable pricing; and at paidContent, Nic Newman wanted to see a mixture of free and paid content.

Designing apps for tablets and mobile media: Murdoch isn’t the only one with a big new tablet app to unveil: Yahoo’s Joe Pompeo summarized two others — mini-magazines called Nomad Editions and a new iPad magazine by Virgin called Project. Of those, Project, announced Tuesday, got a bit more attention. PaidContent had some details about its video cover and “living magazine” mindset, and All Things Digital’s Peter Kafka pointed out the magazine’s rather intimidating instruction page, though David Carr told NPR it’s still pretty magazine-like.

Also in the process of launching: Next Issue Media, a joint venture by several magazine magnates, will launch its digital newsstand early next year and gave some details to MediaWeek, and Swedish publisher Bonnier, whose Mag+ everyone loved, is expanding into News+. Meanwhile, the Financial Times’ iPad app is doing well, but The Guardian’s Dan Sabbagh remained skeptical that most newspapers’ iPad apps will be able to stand out among the sea of more enjoyable apps.

A couple more smart thoughts on mobile media: PaidContent founder Rafat Ali talked about designing for touchscreens, and Poynter’s Damon Kiesow argued that smartphones are fundamentally a mobile device, while the iPad is a leisure device, so their apps can’t be imposed onto each other: “To fully serve and engage an audience, an app needs to target one distinctive strength — either location or leisure — and make the content and experience fit that use.”

Gawker grows beyond the blog: In advance of its coming overhaul early next year, Gawker head Nick Denton wrote a manifesto explaining why the network of sites is going beyond the blog format (his post at the previous link is in the sites’ new design). Denton said he’s discovered the new formula for online media success: Not so much Gawker’s former trademark snarky meta-analysis, but a few huge juicy scoops accompanied by a steady stream of aggregation, all with a visual bent. He extended the model to include advertising and branding as well.

Reuters’ Felix Salmon responded with a meticulous analysis of Gawker’s new direction, noting that while Denton was the first person to make blogging into “a large-scale commercial venture,” he’s now aggressively dumping blogging’s defining reverse-chronological format. Ron Mwangaguhunga of eMedia Vitals compared Gawker’s new model with a TV business model, and Anil Dash said that while Gawker is still a blog, it’s borrowing Twitter’s design that emphasizes both content and the stream of news. “By allowing that flow to continue regardless of which particular piece of embedded content has caught your eye, Gawker and Twitter are just showing the vibrancy and resilience of the format.” Terry Heaton didn’t like the change, arguing that it’s a statement that Denton doesn’t trust his readers enough to find their way to the best material.

Why Twitter matters: Speaking of Twitter, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger offered a stirring defense of Twitter’s meaning for journalism as part of a lecture on the state of the Fourth Estate. His list of 15 reasons Twitter matters covers most everything: Reporting, conversation, aggregation, search, marketing, authority, writing. Likewise, GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram argued that Twitter’s real cultural power “could well be that it is the simplest, the easiest and arguably one of the most efficient forms of mass publishing — or at least micro-publishing — ever invented.”

Later, Ingram took Twitter co-founder Biz Stone’s apparently off-the-cuff statement that Twitter could develop a news network as an opportunity to think about how news orgs could filter Twitter into a usable crowdsourced newswire. And MediaBistro talked with Canada’s National Post to get a sense of how one major newspaper uses Twitter.

Business-model developments and discussion: A few notes on the ever-evolving paid-content front: At least two more news organizations are using the Press+ system of Steve Brill’s Journalism Online for their online revenue goals — ProPublica, which is using it to solicit donations online, and Oklahoma State’s Daily O’Collegian, which will charge outside-the-area readers. Over at The Guardian, Cory Doctorow examined The Times of London’s paywall numbers, and CrunchGear’s Devin Coldewey thought out loud about a possible online paid-content system.

Meanwhile, British journalist Kevin Anderson wrote a post arguing that value-added journalism has to be developed with specific revenue streams in mind. Howard Owens of The Batavian countered that would-be entrepreneurial journalists need to focus more on basic local events journalism than “adding value” or analytical journalism, and TBD’s Steve Buttry tried to bring the two perspectives together.

Reading roundup: Here’s what else you should see this week, in the quickest-hit form I can give it to you:

— A British court upheld a stipulation that news organizations can charge paid online news monitoring agencies for using their content. The Telegraph, TechCrunch Europe, and the Press Gazette explain why it’s bad news for aggregators.

— No less an authority than World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee joined the chorus of people extolling the value of data journalism during a panel. A somewhat related debate broke out when Mark Luckie opined on the myths about digital journalism skills. Journalist Andy Boyle disputed Luckie’s claims about what new-media skills journalists need (and don’t need) to know, and j-prof Mindy McAdams and journalist Brian Manzullo chimed in. Anthony DeBarros and Robert Hernandez turned the discussion toward data journalism, with Hernandez asserting that programming doesn’t replace the story. That got Michelle Minkoff kind of riled up.

— The New York Times ran an article looking at the ways technology is creating increased distractions for young people, which was met by smart rebuttals by Duke prof Cathy Davidson and the Lab’s own Megan Garber.

— Also at the Lab: USC prof Henry Jenkins on his concept of “spreadable” media.

— Mashable’s Vadim Lavrusik wrote a great roundup of what’s going on at the intersection of investigative journalism and social media.

— Finally, if you’re looking for a single document to answer the question, “How should newspapers adapt to this new media environment?” you can’t do much better than John Paton’s presentation on how he’s turned around the Journal Register Co. It’s brilliant.

November 12 2010

16:00

This Week in Review: An objectivity object lesson, a paywall is panned, and finding the blogger’s voice

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week's top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

Olbermann and objectivity: Another week, another journalist or pundit disciplined for violating a news organization’s codes against appearances of bias: This week (actually, late last week) it was Keith Olbermann, liberal anchor and commentator for the cable news channel MSNBC, suspended for donating money to Democratic congressional candidates, in violation of NBC News policy. Olbermann issued an apology (though, as Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici noted, it was laced with animus toward MSNBC), and returned to the air Tuesday. There were several pertinent peripheral bits to this story — Olbermann was reportedly suspended for his refusal to apologize on air, it’s unclear whether NBC News’ rules have actually applied to MSNBC, numerous other journalists have done just what Olbermann did — but that’s the gist of it.

By now, we’ve all figured out what happens next: Scores of commentators weighed in on the appropriateness (or lack thereof) of Olbermann’s suspension and NBC’s ban on political contributions. The primary arguments boiled down to the ones expressed by Poynter’s Bob Steele and NYU’s Jay Rosen in this Los Angeles Times piece: On one side, donating to candidates means journalists are acting as political activists, which corrodes their role as fair, independent reporters in the public interest. On the other, being transparent is a better way for journalists to establish trust with audiences than putting on a mask of objectivity.

Generally falling in the first camp are fellow MSNBC host Rachel Maddow (“We’re a news operation. The rules around here are part of how you know that.”), Northeastern j-prof Dan Kennedy (though he tempered his criticism of Olbermann in a second post), and The New York Times’ David Carr (“Why merely annotate events when you can tilt the playing field?”). The Columbia Journalism Review was somewhere in the middle, saying Olbermann shouldn’t be above the rules, but wondering if those rules need to change.

There were plenty of voices in the second camp, including the American Journalism Review’s Rem RiederMichael Kinsley at Politico, and Lehigh j-prof Jeremy Littau all arguing for transparency.

Slate media critic Jack Shafer used the flap to urge MSNBC to let Olbermann and Maddow fly free as well-reported, openly partisan shows in the vein of respected liberal and conservative political journals. Jay Rosen took the opportunity to explain his phrase “the view from nowhere,” which tweaks traditional journalism’s efforts to “advertise the viewlessness of the news producer” as a means of gaining trust. He advocates transparency instead, and Terry Heaton provided statistics showing that the majority of young adults don’t mind journalists’ bias, as long as they’re upfront about it.

On The Media’s Brooke Gladstone summed up the issue well: “Ultimately, it’s the reporting that matters, reporting that is undistorted by attempts to appear objective, reporting that calls a lie a lie right after the lie, not in a box labeled “analysis,” reporting that doesn’t distort truth by treating unequal arguments equally.”

Commodify your paywall: We talked quite a bit last week about the new numbers on the paywall at Rupert Murdoch’s Times of London, and new items in that discussion kept popping up this week. The Times released a few more details (flattering ones, naturally) about its post-paywall web audience. Among the most interesting figures is that the percentage of U.K.-based visitors to The Times’ site has more than doubled since February, rising to 75 percent. Post-paywall visitors are also visiting the website more frequently and are wealthier, according to News Corp.

Of course, the overall number of visitors is still way down, and the plan continued to draw heat. In a wide-ranging interview on Australian radio, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger expressed surprise at the fact that The Times’ print circulation dropped as their print-protectionist paywall went up. That, he said, “suggests to me that we overlook the degree to which the digital forms of our journalism act as a kind of sort of marketing device for the newspapers.” ResourceWebs’ Evan Britton gave five reasons why news paywalls won’t work, and Kachingle founder Cynthia Typaldos argued that future news paywalls will be tapping into a limited pool of people willing to pay for news on the web, squeezing each other out of the same small market.

Clay Shirky used The Times’ paywall as a basis for some smart thoughts about why newspaper paywalls don’t work in general. The Times’ paywall represents old thinking, Shirky wrote (and the standard argument against it has been around just as long), but The Times’ paywall feels differently because it’s being taken as a “referendum on the future.” Shirky said The Times is turning itself into a newsletter, without making any fundamental modifications to its product or the basic economics of the web. “Paywalls do indeed help newspapers escape commodification, but only by ejecting the readers who think of the product as a commodity. This is, invariably, most of them,” he wrote.

A conversation about blogging, voice, and ego: A singularly insightful conversation about blogging was sparked this week by Marc Ambinder, who wrote a thoughtful goodbye post at his long-running blog at The Atlantic. In it, Ambinder parsed out differences between good print journalism (ego-free, reliant on the unadorned facts for authority) and blogging (ego-intensive, requires the writer to inject himself into the narrative). With the switch from blogging to traditional reporting, Ambinder said, ”I will no longer be compelled to turn every piece of prose into a personal, conclusive argument, to try and fit it into a coherent framework that belongs to a web-based personality called ‘Marc Ambinder’ that people read because it’s ‘Marc Ambinder,’ rather than because it’s good or interesting.”

The folks at the fantastically written blog Snarkmarket used the post as a launching point for their own thoughts about the nature of blogging. Matt Thompson countered that Ambinder was reducing an incredibly diverse form into a single set of characteristics, taking particular exception to Ambinder’s ego dichotomy. Tim Carmody mused on blogging, voice, and authorship; and Robin Sloan defended Ambinder’s decision to leave the “Thunderdome of criticism” that is political blogging. If you care at all about blogging or writing for the web in general, make sure to give all four posts a thorough read.

TBD’s (possible) content/aggregation conflict: The new Washington-based local news site TBD has been very closely watched since it was launched in August, and it hit its first big bump in the road late last week, as founding general manager Jim Brady resigned in quite a surprising move. In a memo to TBD employees, TBD owner Robert Allbritton (who also launched Politico) said Brady left because of “stylistic differences” with Allbritton. Despite the falling-out, Brady, a washingtonpost.com veteran, spoke highly of where TBD is headed in an email to staff and a few tweets.

But the immediate questions centered on the nature of those differences between Allbritton and Brady. FishbowlDC reported and Business Insider’s Henry Blodget inferred from Allbritton’s memo that the conflict came down to an original-content-centric model (Allbritton) and a more aggregation-based model (Brady). Brady declared his affirmation of both pieces — he told Poynter’s Steve Myers he’s pro-original content and the conflict wasn’t old media/new media, but didn’t go into many more details — but that didn’t keep Blodget from taking the aggregation side: The web, he said, “has turned aggregation into a form of content–and a very valuable one at that.” Lost Remote’s Cory Bergman, meanwhile, noted that while creating content is expensive, Allbritton’s made the necessary investments and made it profitable before with Politico.

A new iPad app and competitor: There were two substantive pieces of tablet-related news this week: First, The Washington Post released its iPad app, accompanying its launch with a fun ad most everyone seemed to enjoy. Poynter’s Damon Kiesow wrote a quick summary of the app, which got a decent review from The Post’s Rob Pegoraro. For you design geeks, Sarah Sampsel wrote two good posts about the app design process.

The other tablet tidbit was the release of Samsung’s Galaxy Tab, which runs on Google’s Android system. Kiesow rounded up a few of the initial reviews from All Things Digital (a real iPad competitor, though the iPad is better), The New York Times (beautiful with some frustrations), Wired (more convenient than the iPad, but has stability problems) and Gizmodo (“a grab bag of neglect, good intentions and poor execution”). Kiesow also added a few initial impressions of the Galaxy’s implications for publishers, predicting that as it takes off, it will put pressure on publishers to move to HTML5 mobile websites, rather than developing native apps.

In other tablet news, MediaWeek looked at the excitement the iPad is generating within the media industry, but ESPN exec John Skipper isn’t buying the hype, telling MarketWatch’s Jon Friedman, ”Whenever a new platform comes up, people want to take the old platform and transport it to the new platform.” It didn’t work on the Internet, Skipper said, it won’t work on the iPad either.

Reading roundup: More thoughtful stuff about news and the web was written this week than most normal people have time to get to. Here’s a sample:

— First, two pieces of news: First, word broke last night that Newsweek and The Daily Beast will be undergoing a 50-50 merger, with the Beast’s Tina Brown taking over editorship of the new news org. The initial news accounts started to roll out late last night and into this morning at The New York Times, Washington Post, and NPR, who posted an interview with Brown. Obviously, this is a big, big story, and I’m sure I’ll have much more commentary on it next week.

— Second, U.S. News & World Report announced last week that it’s dropping its regular print edition and going essentially online-only, only printing single-topic special issues for newsstand sales. The best analysis on the move was at Advertising Age.

— Two great pieces on journalism’s collaborative future: Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger in essay form, and UBC j-prof Alfred Hermida in audio and slide form.

— Poynter published an essay by NYU professor Clay Shirky on “the shock of inclusion” in journalism and the obsolescence of the term “consumer.” Techdirt’s Mike Masnick added a few quick thoughts of his own.

— Two cool posts on data journalism — an overview on its rise by The Columbia Journalism Review’s Janet Paskin, and a list of great tools by Michelle Minkoff.

— Finally, two long thinkpieces on Facebook that, quite honestly, I haven’t gotten to read yet — one by Zadie Smith at The New York Review of Books, and the other by The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal. I’m going to spend some time with them this weekend, and I have a feeling you probably should, too.

Olbermann photo by Kirsten used under a Creative Commons license.

October 29 2010

15:30

This Week in Review: WikiLeaks’ latest doc drop, the NPR backlash, and disappointing iPad magazines

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

WikiLeaks coverage gets personal: There were two big stories everyone spent the whole week talking about, and both actually happened late last week. We’ll start with what’s easily the bigger one in the long term: WikiLeaks’ release last Friday of 400,000 documents regarding the Iraq War. The Iraq War Logs were released in partnership with several news organizations around the world, including Al-Jazeera, The New York Times, Der Spiegel and Le Monde. (The Columbia Journalism Review wrote a good roundup of the initial coverage.)

The Guardian and The Times in particular used the documents to put together some fascinating pieces of data journalism, and The Columbia Journalism Review’s Lauren Kirchner looked at how they did it. The folks at Journalism.co.uk wrote a couple of posts detailing WikiLeaks’ collaborative efforts on the release, particularly their work with the new British nonprofit Bureau of Investigative Journalism. A French nonprofit that also worked with WikiLeaks, OWNI, told its own story of the project.

Despite all that collaborative work, the news coverage of the documents fizzled over the weekend and into this week, leading two reporting vets to write to the media blog Romenesko to posit reasons why the traditional media helped throw cold water on the story. John Parker pointed to the military press — “Too many military reporters in the online/broadcast field have simply given up their watchdog role for the illusion of being a part of power” — and David Cay Johnston urged journalists to check out the documents, rather than trusting official sources.

There was another WikiLeaks-related story that got almost as much press as the documents themselves: The internal tension at the organization and the ongoing mystery surrounding its frontman, Julian Assange. The Times and the British paper The Independent both dug into those issues, and Assange walked out of a CNN interview after repeated questions about sexual abuse allegations he’s faced in Sweden. That coverage was met with plenty of criticism — Assange and The Columbia Journalism Review ripped CNN, and Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald joined Assange in tearing into The Times.

After being chastised by the U.S. Defense Department this summer for not redacting names of informants in its Afghanistan leak this summer, WikiLeaks faced some criticism this time around from Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici and Gawker’s John Cook for going too far with the redaction. A few other WikiLeaks-related strains of thought: Mark Feldstein at the American Journalism Review compared WikiLeaks with old-school investigative journalism, Barry Schuler wondered whether the governmental animosity toward WikiLeaks will lead to regulations of the Internet, and CUNY j-prof Jeff Jarvis wrote about the way WikiLeaks is bringing us toward the dawn of the age of transparency. “Only when and if government realizes that its best defense is openness will we see transparency as a good in itself and not just a weapon to expose the bad,” he said.

NPR, Fox News and objectivity: The other story that dominated the future-of-news discussion (and the news discussion in general) was NPR’s firing last week of news analyst Juan Williams for comments about Muslims he made on Fox News. Conversation about the firing took off late last week and didn’t slow down until about Wednesday this week. NPR kept finding it tougher to defend the firing as the criticism piled up, and by the weekend, NPR CEO Vivian Schiller had apologized for how she handled the firing (but not for the firing itself). NPR got a bomb threat over the incident, and even PBS, which has had nothing whatsoever to do with Williams, was deluged with angry emailers.

Conversation centered on two issues: First, and more immediately, why Williams was fired and whether he should have been. Longtime reporter James Naughton and The Awl’s Abe Sauer thought Williams should have been fired years ago because he appeared on Fox, where he’s only used as a prop in Fox’s efforts to incite faux-news propaganda. NYU professor Jay Rosen put it more carefully, saying that given NPR’s ironclad commitment to the objective view from nowhere, “there was no way he could abide by NPR’s rules — which insist on viewlessness as a guarantor of trust — and appear on Fox, where the clash of views is basic to what the network does to generate audience” — not to mention that that viewlessness renders the entire position of “news analyst” problematic.

Along with Rosen, Time media critic James Poniewozik and Lehigh j-prof Jeremy Littau advocated for greater transparency as a way to prevent needless scandals like these. Former NPR host Farai Chideya emphasized a different angle, asserting that Williams was kept on for years as his relationship with NPR eroded because he’s a black man. Said Chideya, who’s African-American herself: “Williams’ presence on air was a fig-leaf for much broader and deeper diversity problems at the network.”

The other issue was both broader and more politically driven: Should NPR lose its public funding? Republican Sen. Jim DeMint said he would introduce a bill to that effect, and conservatives echoed his call for defunding (though NPR gets only 1 to 2 percent of its budget from direct public funding — and even that’s from competitive federal grants). Politico noted how difficult it would be to actually take NPR’s public funding, and a poll indicated that Americans are split on the issue straight down party lines.

Those calling for the cut got some support, however indirect, from a couple of people in the media world: Slate’s Jack Shafer said NPR and public radio stations should wean themselves from public funding so they can stop being tossed around as a political pawn, and New York Sun founding editor Seth Lipsky argued that NPR’s subsidies make it harder for private entrepreneurs to raise money for highbrow journalism. There were counter-arguments, too: The Atlantic’s James Fallows gave a passionate defense of NPR’s value as a news organization, and LSU grad student Matt Schafer made the case for public media in general.

Magazines disappoint on the iPad: Advertising Age collected circulation figures for the first six months of magazines’ availability on the iPad and compared it to print circulation, getting decided mixed results. (Science/tech mags did really well; general interest titles, not so much.) The site’s Nat Ives concluded that iPad ad rates might drop as result, and that “Magazines’ iPad editions won’t really get in gear until big publishers and Apple agree on some kind of system for subscription offers.”

Former New York Times design director Khoi Vinh gave a stinging critique of those magazines’ iPad apps, saying they’re at odds with how people actually use the device. “They’re bloated, user-unfriendly and map to a tired pattern of mass media brands trying vainly to establish beachheads on new platforms without really understanding the platforms at all,” he said. In a follow-up, he talked a bit about why their current designs are a “stand-in for true experimentation.”

Meanwhile, news organizations continue to rush to the iPad: The New York Post came out with an iPad app that The Village Voice’s Foster Kamer really, really liked, The Oklahoman became another one of the first few newspapers to offer its own iPad subscription outside of Apple’s iTunes payment system, PBS launched its own iPad app, and News Corp. is moving forward with plans for a new tabloid created just for tablets.

Two opposite paid-content moves: It was somewhat lost in the WikiLeaks-Williams hoopla, but we got news of three new online paid-content plans for news this week. The biggest change is at the National Journal, a political magazine that’s long charged very high prices and catered to Washington policy wonks but relaunched this week as a newsstand-friendly print product and a largely free website that will shoot for 80 updates a day. The Lab’s Laura McGann looked at the National Journal’s new free-pay hybrid web plan, in contrast to its largely paid, niche website previously.

Meanwhile, Politico said it plans to move into exactly the same web territory the Journal has been in, launching a high-price subscription news service on health care, energy and technology for Washington insiders in addition to its free site and print edition. And the Associated Press gave more details on its proposed rights clearinghouse for publishers, which will allow them to tag online content and monitor and regulate how it’s being used and how they’re being paid for it. We also have some more data on an ongoing paid-content experiment — Rupert Murdoch’s paywall at The Times of London. Yup, the audience is way down, just like everyone suspected.

Reading roundup: Outside of those two huge stories, it was a relatively quiet week. Here are a few interesting bits and pieces that emerged:

— The awful last few weeks for the Tribune Co. came to a head last Friday when CEO Randy Michaels resigned, leaving a four-member council to guide the company through bankruptcy. The same day, the company filed a reorganization plan that turns it over to its leading creditors. The Chicago Reader’s Michael Miner gave a good postmortem for the Michaels era, pointing a finger primarily at the man who hired him, Sam Zell.

— Wired’s Fred Vogelstein declared Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon our new (media) overlords. (No indication of whether he, for one, welcomes them.) MediaPost’s Joe Marchese mused a bit about where each of those four companies fits in the new media landscape.

— The Atlantic’s Michael Hirschorn wrote a thought-provoking expression of a popular recent argument: If the Internet gives all of us our own facts, how are we supposed to find any common ground for discussion?

— And since I know you’re in the mood for scientific-looking formulas, check out Lois Beckett’s examination here at the Lab of Philly.com’s calculation of online engagement, then take a look at her follow-up post on where revenue fits in.

October 25 2010

14:00

Building a university sandbox for news orgs: UNC’s new digital newsroom nearing Nov. 1 launch

A journalism school launching an outward-facing online news outlet is nothing new these days, as more schools are creating in-house laboratories for students to learn online skills. Next Monday, though, there will be a new and interesting entrant to the field: The University of North Carolina’s Reese Felts Digital News Project is launching a news site Nov. 1 that will cover the campus and region with a 21-student staff. What makes the project different is its secondary purpose: It wants to be an R&D lab for the news industry, using its students as testing grounds for new ideas while sharing the results with the rest of us. Essentially, the students are taking requests.

Monty Cook, the project’s executive producer who had been senior vice president and editor of The Baltimore Sun and baltimoresun.com, describes a dual imperative to both give students needed skills while pushing the industry forward. The editorial focus will be on long-form journalism, particularly investigative journalism in many formats, including documentary videos and data visualization. To create and present that content, the students will be cooperating with outside companies that need a sandbox. There’s space set aside so that a browser plug-in, news application, or emerging social media platform could test a product on the site for 30 to 60 days, using the staff in a trial run.

“We’re not here to make anyone money,” Cook said. “But if we can help provide greater understanding not only for ourselves and our students but for the companies that are working hard to make the transition, then we should do that.”

That industry-aiding focus means openness. Cook said they will open-source the WordPress theme they built for the site’s back end, and iPhone and Android apps will also be available. And unlike news organizations that play stingy with their internal metrics, Cook said they will be willing to share the site’s Omniture numbers. That could come in handy as the students experiment with alternate forms of storytelling or reporting, as those lessons would be shared through a research component of the site. Cook said students will be reflecting on their successes and failures, while other UNC faculty members will contribute their thoughts and research. Some news organizations have already asked if Reese Felts students could eventually train their journalists.

As with any startup, the initial version will lack many of the features Cook visualizes down the road. The staff — 19 undergraduates and two graduate students, all paid a stipend, plus freelancers and volunteers — still needs to learn some of the skills they’ll need to produce ambitious content, Cook said. And as of now, don’t expect any revolutionary business ideas. The site will not have advertising, and is paid for by a major gift from late UNC alumnus Reese Felts.

The largest news organizations can afford their own R&D efforts and can try fresh ideas on their own. But a radio station without the resources to build a mobile app could watch as the students fine-tune theirs, or a mid-sized newspaper can observe what Cook says are exciting ideas on how to moderate discussions. The key, Cook said, is that the program is considered an audience research lab first, news organization second. And, incidentally, the students will get to learn some new skills, too. “We’re looking to do experimental digital news, and that means getting them to think differently about their approach to both newsgathering and news dissemination,” Cook said.

October 23 2010

16:23

Big Brother’s Big Brother

Here are paragraphs about Wikileaks I just inserted into the chapter of Public Parts that I happen to be writing right now about government. Very much beta. Take a look:

* * *

Wikileaks has pushed the definition and question of transparency to its limit and beyond, releasing hundreds of thousands of leaked documents about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq through media organizations including the Guardian, The New York Times, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, and OWNI, a French site devoted to digital journalism that built a crowdsourcing tool so readers could cull through the docs to find important bits. The U.S. government screeched indignantly about the leaks, calling them illegal and dangerous. But then, the leaks revealed government actions that are or should be illegal. Who holds the higher ground?

The media organizations Wikileaks worked through said they redacted names and published only documents that would not endanger individuals. So they decided, in the end, what would be secret. Whom do we trust more to make that declaration: government, the leaker, Wikileaks, or the press? And does it much matter now that any whistleblower has the power to leak information anonymously via computers that run in countries beyond the arm of the law from other countries? Wikileaks’ Twitter profile lists its location as “everywhere.” Now nothing, not even war, can be carried out in assured secrecy.

The only solution to leaks is then not more secrecy but more transparency. If we trusted government to determine what needed to be secret—if its default were public and it had nothing else to hide but things that would be harmful if public—then leaks would be a clear violation of our norms and of the common good.

One way or another—by force of through sanity—we are at the dawn of the transparent age. But it’s not going to be a pretty or easy transition. For the first facts to be dragged into the sunlight will be the ugly ones that somebody thinks need to be exposed. Only when and if government realizes that its best defense is openness will we see transparency as a good in itself and not just a weapon to expose the bad. Only when governments realize that their citizens can now watch them—better than they can watch their citizens, we hope—will we see transparency bring deterrence to bad actors and bad acts. Then we become Big Brother’s Big Brother. Or we can hope.

12:35

A taxonomy of transparency

I’m writing the section of Public Parts on truly public government — transparency leading to collaboration. I am trying to come up with a simple taxonomy of transparency, a list of what should be open by default. Help me with my definition and list of buckets:

* * *

The first step to public government is transparency. My definition: opening up the information and the actions of government at every level by default in a way that enables any citizen to take, analyze, and use that data, extracting or adding value to it and overseeing the actions of those who act in our name, with our money. That data should include:
• Our laws and regulations—as they are being considered and after they are enacted, showing who did what to each along the way.
• Government budgets and spending, including information on who is paid.
• Government’s actions. I want to see crimes, complaints, actions, conferences and other events, even useful correspondence.
• Government information of every sort. The New Republic says making weather data public “produces more than $800 million in economic value.” Global positioning data enabled the creation of now-indispensible smart phones and navigation systems. Agricultural data saves and makes money on farms. If the government knows it, we should know it.
In What Would Google Do? I joked—well, half-joked—that the Freedom of Information Act should be repealed and turned inside out so that we no longer have to ask government to open up our information; government must ask our permission to keep it from us—especially now that technology gives us the tools to make use of it. There are a legitimate reasons not to release data: because it reveals personally identifiable information about citizens (e.g., your tax bill—though, again, that’s published in Scandinavia) or it compromises security or criminal investigations. Other than that, our information is ours and so we need access to it. In our developing information economy, this data has real and growing value. So cough it up.

* * *

Of course, the discussion is all the more timely thanks to Wikileaks’ latest deluge of once-secret data. The further question is how anything can be held in secret and what the appropriate line is for secrets. In the midst of the last Wikileaks disclosure, I suggested that the only cure for leaks is transparency: when the public trusts that a secret is secret for good reason, then revealing it is more clearly a violation of norms and the common good. But when most government actions and information are held from us, then exposing them is more just but will bring the collateral damage of also exposing things that should properly be held in secret. Whom do we trust with that judgment? The government? Wikileaks? The Guardian and Times? That’s what is being wrestled down right now.

In any case, I’d appreciate any help with the organization of thinking around what’s properly public and not. Thanks.

October 21 2010

16:00

MuckRock makes FOIA requests easy, but will reporters use it?

Making freedom of information requests can be a daunting task. If it’s not an agency dragging its heels on releasing documents or asking for a fee large enough to buy a compact car, then it’s the actual process of the, well, process. You’ve got to identify the right agency, contact the right administrator, find out whether they take requests in the mail or electronically, and even then you’ve got to word your request precisely or risk ending up with liquor licenses when you wanted restaurant inspections.

It’s a system begging for simplification. While DocumentCloud is making it easier to wrangle and make sense of public records, MuckRock wants to make FOIA requests similarly effortless.

On its face MuckRock is a tool that allows journalists of all stripes (pro to amateur and in between) to make document requests easier. Think of it like Netflix: You tell MuckRock what you’re looking for and it provides suggestions, ultimately getting you what you’re looking for. But instead of Starship Troopers, you wind up with a nicely formatted request letter to your record agency of choice.

But in keeping with the idea of transparency, MuckRock also provides an online tracking service to see the progress of requests, and acts as a repository for all the records collected through the site.

“The idea we had was making a nice, modern interface for the end user on a very backwards, outdated, finicky process,” Michael Morisy, MuckRock’s co-founder told me.

The question, perhaps a bigger one than going from an analog system to a digital one, is whether journalists (particularly investigative ones known for being careful with their records) are willing to trade control over information (and potentially their scoop) for a streamlined, simplified FOIA process.

“The real tragedy is in a lot of cases a reporter will get hundreds of pages of government documents and they might use two or three sentences from them or might not use them at all,” he said. “And then they go into some filing room for all eternity where they’re lost.”

Morisy and co-founder Mitchell Kotler built a FOIA wizard of sorts that takes users through the steps of selecting federal or local agencies and the particular data they’re interested in. Among the options are areas like budgets, public contracts, sex offender lists and pet license information. From there MuckRock acts as an emissary, sending the request letter and providing the tracking tool to show whether the documents are being processed or are past due. Though the site currently only lists state and local data for Massachusetts, Morisy said they are hoping to expand. But the local level may be where MuckRock could have the most impact, making it easier for newspapers or local sites to create projects like a public employee salary database.

The idea was to build a service that anyone could use — a long-time journalist, a neighborhood blogger, or someone simply looking to get answers out of city hall. The value to bloggers or citizen journalists seems clear: Providing not just tools but guidance on the sometimes labyrinthian process of making document requests. But for journalists working at established media outlets, the pitch is a little more tricky. “We’ve kind of found our sweet spot right now is helping out anybody who’s at least that pro-am journalist or a community blogger,” said Morisy, who has written for the New York Daily News and Business 2.0. “But also the overburdened reporter who writes stories, blogs, tweets, and has to juggle investigations.” In theory, a new resource to help newsrooms expedite FOIA requests would be a help, particularly at a time when shrinking staff and rising demand on reporters may exclude investigative projects. In reality, experienced journalists are generally more comfortable undertaking FOIA requests themselves, if not for accuracy than to keep a story under wraps from competitors or the government itself.

“We want to give people as much control over what’s public and what’s private — the last thing we ever want to do is ruin a reporter’s scoop,” Morisy said. With that in mind, MuckRock now allows users to embargo their requests and documents for up to 30 days after receiving a response from an agency.

DocumentCloud, WikiLeaks, and attempts at crowdsourced document analysis show that technology has enabled better methods of obtaining, displaying and dissecting information. What may also need to adapt, Morisy argues, is the mindset around collecting and reporting on public documents. Journalists often have to commit to a balancing act, asking for documents only to keep them hidden away during their reporting, Morisy said. MuckRock encourages transparency by its design, Morisy said, and he hopes it encourages all journalists to make as much as their reporting open as possible.

“I think it’s important for people to see how these documents are obtained, and that it’s not just reporters that have access to documents — anyone can get them,” Morisy said.

September 24 2010

14:00

This Week in Review: Apple’s subscription plan, the exodus from objectivity, and startup guides galore

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week's top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

Is Apple giving publishers a raw deal?: The San Jose Mercury News’ report that Apple is moving toward a newspaper and magazine subscription plan via its App Store didn’t immediately generate much talk when it was published last week, but the story picked up quite a bit of steam this week. Bloomberg and The Wall Street Journal both confirmed the story over the weekend, reporting that Apple may introduce the service early next year along with a new iPad. The service, they said, will be similar to Apple’s iBook store, and Bloomberg reported that it will be separate from the App Store.

Those reports were met with near-universal skepticism — not of their accuracy, but of Apple’s motivations and trustworthiness within such a venture. Former journalist Steve Yelvington sounded the alarm most clearly: “Journalists and publishers, Apple is not your friend.” It’s a corporation, Yelvington said, and like all corporations, it will do anything — including ripping you apart — to pursue its own self-interest.

Several other observers fleshed out some of the details of Yelvington’s concern: EMarketer’s Paul Verna compared the situation to Apple’s treatment of the music industry with iTunes, and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram and TechCrunch’s MG Siegler wondered whether publishers would balk at giving up data about their subscribers to Apple or at Apple’s reported plans to take a 30% share of subscription revenue. Ingram predicted that publishers would play ball with Apple, but warned that they might wind up “sitting in a corner counting their digital pennies, while Apple builds the business that they should have built themselves.” Dovetailing with their worries was another story of Apple’s control over news content on its platform, as Network World reported that Apple was threatening to remove Newsday’s iPad app over a (quite innocuous) commercial by the newspaper that Apple allegedly found offensive.

Media analyst Ken Doctor broke down publishers’ potential reactions to Apple’s initiative, looking at the plan’s appeal to them (“It offers a do-over, the chance to redraw the pay/free lines of the open web”) and their possible responses (accept, negotiate with Apple, or look into “anti-competitive inquiries”). In a post at the Lab, Doctor also took a quick look at Apple’s potential subscription revenue through this arrangement, an amount he said could be “mind-bending.”

All Things Digital’s Peter Kafka noted one indicator that publishers are in serious need of a subscription service on the iPad, pointing out that Time Inc.’s Sports Illustrated can’t pay for the designers to make its iPad app viewable in two directions because, according to its digital head, it doesn’t have the money without an iPad subscription program. Gizmodo’s Matt Buchanan used the same situation to explain why iPad subscriptions would be so critical for publishers and readers.

A coup for journalism with a point of view: It hasn’t been unusual over the past year to read about big-name journalists jumping from legacy-media organizations to web-journalism outfits, but two of those moves this week seemed to mark a tipping point for a lot of the observers of the future-of-journalism world. Both were made by The Huffington Post, as it nabbed longtime Newsweek correspondent Howard Fineman and top New York Times business writer Peter Goodman.

The Wrap’s Dylan Stableford looked at what Fineman’s departure means for Newsweek (he’s one of at least 10 Newsweek editorial staffers to leave since the magazine’s sale was announced last month), but what got most people talking was Goodman’s explanation of why he was leaving: “It’s a chance to write with a point of view,” he said. “With the dysfunctional political system, old conventional notions of fairness make it hard to tell readers directly what’s going on. This is a chance for me to explore solutions in my economic reporting.”

That kind of reporting (as opposed to, as Goodman called it, “laundering my own views” by getting someone from a thinktank to express them in an article) is exactly what many new-media folks have been advocating, and hearing someone from The New York Times express it so clearly felt to them like a turning point. The tone of centrist detachment of mainstream journalism “has become a liability in keeping newsroom talent,” declared NYU professor Jay Rosen on Twitter. Others echoed that thought: Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan extolled the virtues of being “able to call bullshit bullshit,” and former Salon editor Scott Rosenberg said legacy news orgs like The Times need to find a way to allow its reporters more freedom to voice their perspective while maintaining their standards. Salon’s Dan Gillmor agreed with Rosenberg on the centrality of human voice within journalism and noted that this exodus to new media is also a sign of those sites’ financial strength.

Former McClatchy exec Howard Weaver countered that while transparency and clear voice is preferable to traditional “objectivity,” freeing traditional journalists isn’t as simple as just spilling their biases. Advocacy journalism is not just giving an opinion, he said, it’s a “disciplined, ethical posture that tries to build truth out of evidence, regardless of the outcome.”

Getting journalism startups off the ground: If you’re interested in the journalism startup scene — for-profit or nonprofit — you got a gold mine of observations and insights this week. Over at PBS’ Idea Lab, Brad Flora, founder of the Chicago blog network Windy Citizen, examined five mistakes that kill local news blogs. Here’s how he summed his advice up: “You are not starting a blog, you are launching a small business. You are no different from the guy opening a bar up the road. … You need to know something about blogging and social media, yes, but what you really need to bone up on is what it takes to run a small business.” The post has some fantastic comments, including a great set of advice from The Batavian’s Howard Owens. On his own blog, Owens also gave some pretty thorough tips on developing advertising revenue at a local news startup.

On the nonprofit side, the Knight Citizen News Network went even deeper into startup how-to, providing a comprehensive 12-step guide to launching a nonprofit news organization. It may be the single best resource on the web for the practical work of starting a nonprofit news site. Voice of San Diego is one of the most successful examples of those sites, and its CEO, Scott Lewis told the story of his organization and the flame-out of the for-profit San Diego News Network as an example of the importance of what he calls “revenue promiscuity.”

David Cohn, founder of another nonprofit news startup, Spot.Us, also looked at six new journalism startups, leading off with Kommons, a question-answering site built around Twitter and co-founded by NYU Local founder Cody Brown. Rachel Sklar of Mediaite gave it a glowing review, describing it as “a community that seeks smart, conversation-furthering answers prompted by smart, probing questions — publicly.” She also said it sneakily lures users into giving it free content, though Brown responded that anyone who’s ever asked you to interview has been trying to do the same thing — only without giving you any control over how your words get used. (Kommons isn’t being sneaky, he said. You know you’re not getting paid going in.)

Three more future-oriented j-school programs: After last week’s discussion about the role of journalism schools in innovation, news of new j-school projects continued to roll in this week. City University of New York announced it’s expanding its graduate course in entrepreneurial journalism into the United States’ first master’s degree in that area. New-media guru Jeff Jarvis, who will direct the program, wrote that he wants CUNY to lead a movement to combine journalism and entrepreneurship skills at schools across the country.

Two nationwide news organizations are also developing new programs in partnership with j-schools: Journalism.co.uk reported that CNN is working on a mentoring initiative with journalism students called iReport University and has signed up City University London, and AOL announced that its large-scale hyperlocal project, Patch, is teaming up with 13 U.S. j-schools for a program called PatchU that will give students college credit for working on a local Patch site under the supervision of a Patch editor. Of course, using college students is a nice way to get content for cheap, something Ken Doctor noted as he also wondered what the extent of Patch’s mentoring would be.

Reading roundup: As always, there’s plenty of good stuff to get to. Here’s a quick glance:

— Former Washington Post executive editor Len Downie gave a lecture in the U.K. Wednesday night that was, for the most part, a pretty standard rundown of what the U.S. journalism ecosystem looks like from a traditional-media perspective. What got the headlines, though, was Downie’s dismissal of online aggregators as “parasites living off journalism produced by others.” Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan gave it an eye-roll, and Terry Heaton pushed back at Downie, too. Earlier in the week, media analyst Frederic Filloux broke down the differences between the good guys and bad guys in online aggregation.

— The New York Times published an interesting story on the social news site Digg and its redesign to move some power out of the hands of its cadre of “power” users. The Next Web noted that Digg’s traffic has been dropping pretty significantly, and Drury University j-prof Jonathan Groves wondered whether Digg is still relevant.

— A couple of hyperlocal tidbits: A new Missouri j-school survey found that community news site users are more satisfied with those sites than their local mainstream media counterparts, and Poynter’s Rick Edmonds posited that speed is less important than news orgs might think with hyperlocal news.

— Finally, a couple of follow-ups to Dean Starkman’s critique of the journalism “hamster wheel” last week: Here at the Lab, Nikki Usher looked at five ways newsrooms can encourage creativity despite increasing demands, and in a very smart response to Starkman, Reuters’ Felix Salmon argued that one of the biggest keys to finding meaning in an information-saturated online journalism landscape is teaching journalists to do more critical reading and curating.

September 08 2010

15:26

A Groundbreaking Survey of New Media and The Courts

Late last month the Conference of Court Public Information Officers released the results of a nearly year-long study entitled, New Media and the Courts - The Current Status and a Look at the Future. I have anxiously been awaiting this report. I believe it will play a major role as we outline the activity of Order in the Court 2.0.

I first became aware of this study as I prepared my Knight News Challenge proposal. During the submission process, I consulted quite frequently with one of the co-authors of the CCPIO report, Chris Davey. Davey and I agreed that if I was fortunate enough to get funding we would test some of the ideas that surfaced in the CCPIO report.

The Survey

More than 16,000 individuals in the court community were invited to participate in the electronic survey. Of the 810 individuals who completed the full survey, 254 (or 31.3 percent) were judges or magistrates. The majority of the respondents were court system staff. Partners in the project include the National Center for State Courts, the nation's leading center for research assistance to the nation's state court systems, and the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University.

Though the response to the survey was somewhat limited, there are some compelling topics outlined in CCPIO's final report. For those of you who don't want to take the time to read the 100-plus pages of text, I've boiled down some of the highlights in the text below.

Major Objectives

From the report:

The CCPIO New Media Project had five primary objectives: (1) clearly define the current technology, (2) systematically examine the ways courts use the technology, (3) empirically measure the perceptions of judges and top court administrators toward the technology, (4) collect and analyze the literature on public perceptions of the judiciary and court public outreach programs and (5) offer a framework and analysis for judges and court administrators to use for making decisions about the appropriate use of new media.

Court Culture vs. New Media Culture

The study succinctly described the culture clash between the courts and new media realities:

  • New media are decentralized and multidirectional, while the courts are institutional and largely unidirectional.
  • New media are personal and intimate, while the courts are separate, even cloistered, and, by definition, independent.
  • New media are multimedia, incorporating video and still images, audio and text, while the courts are highly textual.

Checklist on Using Social Media in the Courtroom

Probably the most important part of the report for us at Order in the Court 2.0 is found in Appendix B. There you'll find a valuable checklist that we plan to incorporate into our project. I've edited the checklist, but have tried to retain its essence. Here's the edited checklist:

  • What do you want to achieve? Public Education? Release of decisions? Highlight the activities of individual judges or courts? Explain court processes and procedures? Develop ongoing dialogues with the public to increase transparency?
  • How will you know if the resources you are dedicating to social media technologies are a good investment of time and money?
  • Do you have an efficient mechanism to monitor these technologies on a regular basis to ensure quality control?
  • Does your organization have a policy on how to handle defamatory or inappropriate remarks posted to social media sites outside the department?
  • What kind of involvement should the court's information technology division have in the decision to use social media technologies.
  • What are the technical requirements of introducing social media technology?
  • Are there criteria in place as to what topics can and cannot be discussed?
  • What safeguards are in place to ensure nothing is posted that jeopardizes a case or trial?
  • Do you have a prepared plan of action in place in the event a spectator is inappropriately using new media technology in your courtroom?

You can see we have a lot of work ahead of us.

September 01 2010

18:12

The Challenges of Life and Transparency at Quincy District Court

Now that the celebrations and congratulations are in the past, the hard work of building Order in the Court 2.0 has begun.

The idea that received the endorsement of the Knight News Challenge is now being tested in the real world with formal meetings with officials from the Massachusetts court system. I'm happy to report that we have so far received overwhelming support and encouragement for this project.

Our first meeting took place at the Quincy District Court where we met with Judge Mark Coven, the first justice of the court, the clerk of the court, the state court's public information officer, the state court's chief information officer and the state's director of court operations.

Touring the Courthouse With Judge Coven

Judge Coven set the tone of this meeting with his welcoming remarks and reinforced his enthusiasm for this project. He stressed its importance and how it was critical for the courts to have greater accessibility in order to build confidence in the judicial branch. He also made it clear that he wanted his courthouse to serve as a national model in determining the best practices for providing digital access to the public. After introductions, the judge provided us with a tour of the court.

After taking a few steps into the courthouse's lobby, the judge was approached by a young man who didn't look a day over 14 years old. He came to court that day to specifically thank the judge for his help in getting clean of drugs. It turns out the young man was in his late teens and had been in and out of court so many times that the judge knew him very well. He recently graduated from a drug treatment program the judge had sentenced him to in order to deal with a heroin addiction. It was easy to see the judge was touched by this man's special visit. Judge Coven took a father-like pride in the fact that he had offered this man a second chance.

Our tour continued through the busy courthouse with trips to the lock-up downstairs and meetings with court officers. I then spent the rest of the morning with the assistant court clerk who will be the day-to-day facilitator of this project. He too could not have been more enthusiastic. It was humbling to see that an idea that came out of the Knight News Challenge process was going to come to fruition and was going to have tangible support.

Transparency: Rewards and Risks

Since that initial meeting at the courthouse there have been meetings with the chief information officer of the state courts, Craig Burlingame. Burlingame is one of the most highly respected people in his field. He had just returned from Australia where he was helping the national government improve its computer records processes. Burlingame is incredibly knowledgeable about the particular challenges of getting the court's data out to the public. He is aware of the rewards of transparency, but he is also helping me understand the risks.

Here's an example. One goal of Order in the Court 2.0 is to post the daily docket at Quincy District Court. The docket lists the names of each defendant and cases that are scheduled for the day. The docket is produced by the state's computer system, which is called MassCourts. The docket is sent to each court in a searchable PDF document. If Order in the Court 2.0 were to post the docket through its website (which is not yet under construction), data mining agencies would have easy access to the information it contains. This, understandably, is an issue for the court.

Burlingame explained that it could seriously impact victims of crimes coming forward if they thought it might affect future job prospects or housing, since landlords use these services. He acknowledged that the docket is a public document posted at the courthouse; but to ensure the public's safety he needs to come up with a way to provide the document in a non-searchable PDF, and to seek the input of the judge assigned to preserve the integrity of the court's digital records.

It was striking to hear how something that initially seemed simple could be so complicated and require further judicial review. It was a perfect example of how the lessons we learn from this project will make it easier for future efforts to build greater court transparency.

One final footnote to this post. During a phone call with Judge Coven to set up another meeting, he reminded me of our conversation in the lobby with the young man who had come to thank him. He told me that the man was back in custody, and his family had come forward to request that he be recommitted because he was back on heroin. You couldn't miss the sadness in the judge's voice.

18:12

The Challenges of Life and Transparency at Quincy District Court

Now that the celebrations and congratulations are in the past, the hard work of building Order in the Court 2.0 has begun.

The idea that received the endorsement of the Knight News Challenge is now being tested in the real world with formal meetings with officials from the Massachusetts court system. I'm happy to report that we have so far received overwhelming support and encouragement for this project.

Our first meeting took place at the Quincy District Court where we met with Judge Mark Coven, the first justice of the court, the clerk of the court, the state court's public information officer, the state court's chief information officer and the state's director of court operations.

Touring the Courthouse With Judge Coven

Judge Coven set the tone of this meeting with his welcoming remarks and reinforced his enthusiasm for this project. He stressed its importance and how it was critical for the courts to have greater accessibility in order to build confidence in the judicial branch. He also made it clear that he wanted his courthouse to serve as a national model in determining the best practices for providing digital access to the public. After introductions, the judge provided us with a tour of the court.

After taking a few steps into the courthouse's lobby, the judge was approached by a young man who didn't look a day over 14 years old. He came to court that day to specifically thank the judge for his help in getting clean of drugs. It turns out the young man was in his late teens and had been in and out of court so many times that the judge knew him very well. He recently graduated from a drug treatment program the judge had sentenced him to in order to deal with a heroin addiction. It was easy to see the judge was touched by this man's special visit. Judge Coven took a father-like pride in the fact that he had offered this man a second chance.

Our tour continued through the busy courthouse with trips to the lock-up downstairs and meetings with court officers. I then spent the rest of the morning with the assistant court clerk who will be the day-to-day facilitator of this project. He too could not have been more enthusiastic. It was humbling to see that an idea that came out of the Knight News Challenge process was going to come to fruition and was going to have tangible support.

Transparency: Rewards and Risks

Since that initial meeting at the courthouse there have been meetings with the chief information officer of the state courts, Craig Burlingame. Burlingame is one of the most highly respected people in his field. He had just returned from Australia where he was helping the national government improve its computer records processes. Burlingame is incredibly knowledgeable about the particular challenges of getting the court's data out to the public. He is aware of the rewards of transparency, but he is also helping me understand the risks.

Here's an example. One goal of Order in the Court 2.0 is to post the daily docket at Quincy District Court. The docket lists the names of each defendant and cases that are scheduled for the day. The docket is produced by the state's computer system, which is called MassCourts. The docket is sent to each court in a searchable PDF document. If Order in the Court 2.0 were to post the docket through its website (which is not yet under construction), data mining agencies would have easy access to the information it contains. This, understandably, is an issue for the court.

Burlingame explained that it could seriously impact victims of crimes coming forward if they thought it might affect future job prospects or housing, since landlords use these services. He acknowledged that the docket is a public document posted at the courthouse; but to ensure the public's safety he needs to come up with a way to provide the document in a non-searchable PDF, and to seek the input of the judge assigned to preserve the integrity of the court's digital records.

It was striking to hear how something that initially seemed simple could be so complicated and require further judicial review. It was a perfect example of how the lessons we learn from this project will make it easier for future efforts to build greater court transparency.

One final footnote to this post. During a phone call with Judge Coven to set up another meeting, he reminded me of our conversation in the lobby with the young man who had come to thank him. He told me that the man was back in custody, and his family had come forward to request that he be recommitted because he was back on heroin. You couldn't miss the sadness in the judge's voice.

14:00

All the web’s a stage: Scholar Joshua Braun on what we show and what we choose to hide in journalism

Joshua Braun is a media scholar currently pursuing his Ph.D in Communications at Cornell. His work is centered at the intriguing intersection of television and the web: He’s currently studying the adoption of blogging software by network news sites, and the shifts that that adoption are bringing about in terms of the relationship between one-way communication something more conversational. At this spring’s IOJC conference in Austin, Braun presented a paper (pdf) discussing the results of his research — a work that considered, among other questions:

As journalistic institutions engage more and more fully in interactive online spaces, how are these tensions changing journalism itself? How do the technical systems and moderation strategies put in place shape the contours of the news, and how do these journalistic institutions make sense of these systems and strategies as part of their public mission? What is the role of audiences and publics in this new social and technical space? And how do journalistic institutions balance their claim to be “town criers” and voices for the public with the fact that their authority and continued legal standing depend at times on moderating, and even silencing the voices of individuals?

The whole paper is worth reading. (You can also watch Braun’s IOJC talk here.) But one aspect of it that’s especially fascinating, for our purposes, is Braun’s examination of TV-network news blogs in the context of the sociology of dramaturgy (in particular, the work of Erving Goffman).

News organizations are each a mix of public and private — preparing information for a public audience, but generally doing so in a private way. As with a theater production, there’s a performance going on for the audience but a big crew backstage. Blogging represents a potential shift in this dynamic by exposing people and processes that would otherwise be kept hidden behind a byline or a 90-second news piece.

And the blogging interplay — between presentation and communication, between product and process, and, perhaps most interestingly, between process and performance — is relevant to any news organization trying to navigate familiar journalistic waters with new vessels. I spoke with Braun about that dynamic and the lessons it might have to offer; below is an edited transcript of the conversation.

Megan Garber: I’m intrigued by the idea of theater dynamics you mention in the paper — in particular, the distinction between backstage and front-stage spaces for news performances. Can you explain that in a bit more detail?

Joshua Braun: This is Steve Hilgartner’s idea. He took this idea of stage management from classic sociology, which has normally been an interpersonal theory, and decided it worked for organizations. He looked at the National Academy, and noticed the way in which they keep all their deliberations effectively secret and then release a document at the end that gives the consensus opinion of the scientific community. And there are two aspects of that. One is that it’s intended to protect the integrity of the process. So when you’re a big policy-advisory body like the National Research Council, you have senators who will call you and tell you they don’t want you working on something; you’ll have lobbyists who’ll want to influence your results; you’ll have, basically, a lot of political pressure. So there’s this aspect in which this system of enclosure — in the Goffman/Hilgartner metaphor — this keeping of things backstage, really is meant to protect the integrity of the process.

But it also has the other effect, which is that it also gives the illusion of the scientific community speaking with a single voice. So basically, all the messy process of sausages being made — and all the controversial issues that, by definition, the National Research Council is dealing with — you don’t see reflected in the reports. Or you see it in very official language. So it gives them a tremendous amount of authority, this illusion of the scientific community speaking with one voice, and they cultivate that. I was actually a graduate fellow at the National Academies, and they definitely want that — they recognize that the authority of the documents rests on that.

And many organizations that deal with information and knowledge production, including journalism, operate in this way, frequently. The publication of the finished news item and the enclosure of the reporting process — there’s a very real sense that that protects the authority of the process. So if you’re investigating a popular politician, you need that. And at the same time, it protects the brand and the legal standing and the authority of the organization, and bolsters that. Those things are very reliant on this process of enclosure, oftentimes.

And so what you see in the new media spaces, and these network experiments with blogging, is that sort of process. They’ve taken a medium that they themselves talked about in terms of accountability and transparency and openness and extended it to this traditional stage management process. They continue to control what remains backstage and what goes front-stage. And there are good justifications for doing that. But they’ve also extended that to the process of comment moderation. You’ll get pointed to a description of why comments are moderated the way they are — but you’ll never see exactly why a comment is spammed or not. That’s not unique to the news, either. But it’s an interesting preservation of the way the media’s worked for a long time.

And this has been described by other scholars, as well. So Alfred Hermida has a really neat piece on blogging at the BBC where he talks about much the same thing. He uses different terms — he talks about “gatekeeping,” as opposed to this notion of stage management — but it’s a pretty robust finding across a lot of institutions.

And I don’t want to portray it as something unique to journalism. This process of self-presentation and this performance of authority is widespread — and maybe necessary to journalism. I think the jury’s out on that.

MG: Definitely. Which brings up the question of how authority is expressed across different media. Does broadcast, for example, being what it is, have a different mandate than other types of journalism?

JB: Right. One of the remarkable things about broadcast news is the amount of stage management that you see in the traditional product. So if you look at an organization like ABC News, for instance — before their recent mass layoffs — they have several dozen correspondents: 77 or so people. But they have 1,500 total staff. And when you’re producing for a visual medium, you’re very selective about what appears on front-stage — this mise-en-scène of network news: what appears on camera and what ends up on the cutting-room floor, and so on. The vast majority of their newsgathering operation — the desk assistants and the bookers and the people who do all the pre-interviewing and the off-air correspondents — are people who never appear on-air. No network is its anchor.

So there’s that aspect, in which a large portion of the news ecosystem isn’t visible to the public — and there’s an argument to be made that having a small set of news personalities with whom audiences can identify is good for the product — and there are a lot of organizations where the vast majority of people involved in things don’t really speak. So that was one of the interesting aspects of looking at the blogging efforts of network news: Once that somewhat natural distinction between on-air and off-air talent and support staff disappears, who becomes visible online?

And you do have a lot of producers, a lot of bookers and other types of professionals who appear on the blogs, which is a really fascinating thing. The blogs are an extension of the stage management thing, but also a challenge to that model.

Image from daveynin used under a Creative Commons License.

August 24 2010

16:49

Transparent inventory & the rebirth/death of retail

The Times reports this morning on smart retailer Nordstrom making its inventory in warehouses and in stores transparent so a buyer who’s dying for a purse can find it nearby (for immediate gratification), or from the warehouse (for convenience), or at the last store that has it (which will ship to her).

The earlier rendition of this was BestBuy or B&N making it possible for customers to find whether an individual store had an individual item via their web sites; that’s not quite as easy as saying, “wherever it is, just get it to me,” but it was an important step in this direction.

The next rendition of this will be, I think, enabling the customer to search across multiple retailers and order. That will give us what Dave Winer tweeted this morning that he wants: “I wish there was an Amazon store in midtown Manhattan, where I could buy anything that is available for same-day delivery. I’d go there now.”

Well, if Amazon did that, it would be gigantic, expensive, capital-intensive, inventory-filled Wal-Marts peppered all across the country; it would be expensive to build and it wold lose the efficiency and profitabliy that Amazon enables.

But the virtual version of what Dave wants is possible with transparent — and open — inventory, enabling customers to ask, “Who has this item nearest me at the best price? Then I’ll go get it or get it delivered to me today.”

Ah, price. There’s the rub, of course. Such a network would make pricing transparent. It pretty much already is. We can search across individual retailers or use the likes of Froogle and get the lowest prices. There lies the downfall of retail’s margins, taking out the ability to arbitrage opacity in pricing. Now add transparent inventory and the ability to get the item at the lowest price now and the value of retail brands sinks as does its profitability — in an already tough-margin business.

I could imagine a new service — from Amazon or an entrepreneur — that says: Tell me what you want, Dave, and I will tell you where you can find it or I’ll get it to you. That’s the new value-add for those who want to touch an item or get it immediately. The other value-add is support and service (see: Best Buy’s Geek Squad). Putting boxes and shelves and waiting for people to buy them while carrying the cost? That no longer adds value; it only increases risk.

Retail is going to get ever-more efficient. Independent bookstores were killed by the more-efficient box stores. Box stores were wounded by Amazon and the internet. Amazon could be injured by a local value-added retail search-and-delivery service. All this is fine for the customer: more choice more quickly at lower prices.

But I think retail could be headed the way of newspapers: into a pool of endless pain. All over America, I see empty retail shells: the former Circuit City, the closed book box, the folded mom-and-pop. I think there’s much more of that to come.

This is what transparency — in price and inventory — can do to a market.

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