- BuzzFeed is building a new mobile app just for news — theirs and everyone else’s
- Diversified media companies are hurrying to undiversify
- A tax on aggregating in Spain?
- A stormy set of revenue numbers for The New York Times (and the broader news industry)
- What’s New in Digital and Social Media Research: What makes commenters less civil, and the rise of digital longform
- Newspaper editors “strongly support online comments about their daily content”
- First Look Media changes course on “digital magazines”
- In the (appropriate!) shift to mobile, is desktop sometimes being abandoned too quickly?
- Take these lessons from the rubble of Thunderdome
- The newsonomics of NPR One and the dream of personalized public radio
- The newsonomics of how and why
- Twitter is public, but who does that benefit?
- NowThis News drops the News from its name
- It’s time to apply for a visiting Nieman Fellowship
- A new Guardian interactive tells the story of World War I in seven languages
- Is the river behind your house rising? A British Twitter bot will tell you
- When a digital subscription costs more than a print one
- From Grumpy Cat to Ukraine: How Mashable is expanding beyond gadgets and apps
- Data visualization is good. Data visualization that works on your phone is better.
- CIR wants to turn investigative reporting into a weekly public radio show with Reveal
- This Week in Review: The Fox/Time Warner dance begins, and clickbait and its discontents
- Public records tools, reader metrics, and more among new Prototype Fund winners
- Germany is getting a data-centric nonprofit newsroom and hoping to build new models for news
- The newsonomics of the new quest for big, big, big
- A change in the IRS process for granting tax-exempt status could be a boon to nonprofit news
- I’m feeling lucky: Can algorithms better engineer serendipity in research — or in journalism?
- WFMU wants to build open tools to help radio stations (and others) raise money and build community
- ProPublica sees $30,000 in new revenue from Data Store
- It’s great to resurface old stories, but it’s also great to let readers know what you’re doing
- Was Sports Illustrated used by LeBron James, or did SI figure out the right form for the story?
BuzzFeed is hiring product and editorial leads to build a new news app for the company, starting a team which will eventually include up to six editorial staffers. The app will focus solely on news as it unfolds online, differentiating it from BuzzFeed's existing app, which is currently ranked sixth among free iPhone news apps. "I think the main reason to download that [existing] app is to be entertained," says BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith. "There's also, we think, people who want to have an app that's primarily about telling them what's going on in the world and what the big stories are. We felt like it made sense, given that we have this really strong news organization now, to really take advantage of that and build one."
As the main architects of the new product haven't yet been hired, Smith doesn't have all the facts on what the news app will look like — but he does have a few ideas. For example, he's not sure the traditional news story is the best format for sharing information in an app, a view frequently espoused by apps like Circa. In addition, push notifications are a top priority — Smith says he's very interested in NBC News Digital's Breaking News app. But he also doesn't want the content to sound like it was written by a robot, he says. "We're planning on doing something that reaches a reader who wants something more than a list of what just happened," he says. The challenge will be to create a content stream that's interesting to the individual user while also delivering top headlines. "There's a general news audience of people who don't want to know what's happening every four minutes, but are informed, educated people who want to know what's happening in the world — people who in some sense used to be known as daily newspaper subscribers," says Smith. "They probably want their news a bit more than daily, and when something big happens, they want to know immediately, but are also looking for a trusted voice to help them navigate this incredibly noisy, messy social news web."
To get a sense of what such a guide would look like, Smith plans to have the project's editor start out by writing an email newsletter — he compared it to afternoon roundup email The Skimm. BuzzFeed will use the email product to sound out a voice for the new app while it's being built. (Smith has an interesting way of defining the voice he's looking for, writing in the job posting that applicants should "write in warm, clear, non-telegraphic English.") To get a sense of what to expect content-wise from the app, Smith says to look to Twitter. "If you look at the @BuzzFeedNews Twitter feed…it's not trying to push BuzzFeed content. It's trying to be a great feed for people who want to know what's going on. I think that's been very successful for us," he says. Both the Twitter feed and the planned app are framed around the idea that there is a demand for better summarization in the current social news landscape. Smith believes that news organizations today have a responsibility to curate news feeds for their audiences that are separate from the central task of reporting and news production — a belief which will also inform his hiring decision. "The pulse of news now is Twitter," he says. "You need someone who really, deeply understand how news travels now and how to be both first and right with stuff — which is the perennial news challenge that everybody faces — and to be able to do that in that incredibly noisy ecosystem." Part of understanding that ecosystem means acknowledging that many readers don't care what outlet their news comes from — they care about getting it quickly. When it comes to breaking news, Smith says, the team working on the app won't wait for BuzzFeed to publish a story if someone else has a scoop. "I don't think you can do news well if you think that your news organization produces the only content of value. That's crazy," Smith says. "There's a humility required in doing news well now. It requires being open to the Internet, and realizing you're a part of a collaborative project with other news outlets." BuzzFeed gets more than half of its total traffic from mobile. But a very small percentage of that traffic comes from their app — 3.2 percent in February 2014, according to Digiday. Despite that, Smith says the new app won't be concerned with driving traffic. "If it's a story people are talking about and reading, we're not going to try to push people to our aggregated version," he says. "If it makes sense to summarize it in the stream, we might, but this isn't about trying to steer people to BuzzFeed content. The app itself is the goal."
Journal Communications and E. W. Scripps were media company models of diversification. For many American newspaper companies in the late 20th century, diversifying into broadcast was considered the smart move for shareholders. Companies like Gannett, Belo, Scripps, Cox, and Tribune mixed newspapers and TV in ways that Wall Street thought would made them less susceptible to cyclical revenue trends and more efficient to manage. It was an age of media conglomerates. The past decade or so has been all about _anti-_diversification. Belo (where I used to work) split into a newspaper company (A.H. Belo) and a TV one (Belo) in 2008, then sold the TV one to Gannett. The New York Times Co. sold off its TV properties back in 2007. News Corp split its more profitable TV and movie business into 21st Century Fox. Tribune will formally spin off its troubled newspapers next week to separate it from its still-profitable television empire. Even Gannett, the American _ur_-newspaper company, has been betting on TV and even been making (confusing to interpret?) noises about selling papers. Everybody's becoming a pure play. These sales have, broadly speaking, been about putting the print properties on an ice floe to fend for themselves. And now we have a quasi-merger, quasi-split that lets two companies handle that divide as one:
Two storied media firms, Journal Communications Inc. of Milwaukee and E.W. Scripps Co. of Cincinnati, announced Wednesday evening an agreement to merge their broadcast operations while spinning off their newspapers into a separate company. Under the deal, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel will serve as the flagship of a new public company, Journal Media Group, which will be headquartered in Milwaukee. Meanwhile, Journal Communications' broadcast assets, including WTMJ radio and television, will be folded into Scripps, with the headquarters in Cincinnati. The E.W. Scripps Co. name will be retained and the firm will remain controlled by the Scripps Family.As in the Belo split (and not as in the more ruthless Tribune split), the newspaper company isn't being saddled with debt: "Journal Media will get a fresh financial start in an uncertain media world. The company's balance sheet will have $10 million in cash and no debt, while Scripps keeps substantially all of the qualified pension obligations." Still, there's a reason Bloomberg framed this deal as Scripps "shedding" its newspaper assets, like a layer of skin no longer needed. The newspaper company will include papers in cities like Milwaukee, Memphis, Knoxville, Naples, Corpus Christi, Abilene, and Wichita Falls — the sort of smaller metros that have generally showed more staying power than their bigger peers. But it won't have those more reliable, not-yet-collapsing local broadcast revenues to help support the balance sheet any more.
Spain is far from the first European country whose newspapers have battled what they perceive as Google's theft of their content. But a bill currently under consideration there could have impacts beyond the search giant. According to the proposed law — passed in the lower chamber and pending in the Spanish Senate — Google and other platforms would have to pay a tax for each time it uses "non-significant fragments" of a news story. Julio Alonso is the founder of Weblogs SL, a digital media company in Spain that could stand to lose a lot via this tax. On Medium, he writes:
It is aimed generally at “electronic news aggregation systems”, and, therefore it includes basically anyone who links with anything more than an anchor text. Center on its target is Spanish aggregation site Menéame. A Spanish free software based version of Digg/Reddit launched in 2005, Menéame is a very popular destination for news discovery in Spanish. Obviously any other service that does aggregation of any type or form is also potentially affected. This includes Flipboard, Zite, Pocket, even Facebook or Twitter.Another blogger in Spain, Marilín Gonzalo, writes that Menéame has threatened to leave the country. Writes Alonso:
It is rumored that if the law is finally passed, Google is ready to shut down the Spanish version of Google News. It clearly does not want to create a precedent of a country in which it is basically paying to link.Of course, news organizations rely on these websites, especially Google News, to drive traffic to their stories, so Google abandoning the country could have major consequences for Spanish news publishers. How the law will actually be enforced remains to be seen. Over at Quartz, in a piece called "Nobody seems quite sure how Spain’s new 'Google tax' will work," Kabir Chibber says the Spanish government has insisted that Facebook and Twitter won't have to pay the tax, but the rest is still up in the air.
The fact that Spain’s law protects only its daily newspapers and not other publishers may make it harder to defend, but now that it has passed, we’ll have to wait for the first test cases. How they’ll be enforced is still unclear, but it’s worth remembering that Spain gave us the case that led to another controversial ruling that went against Google: the "right to be forgotten."
On the call for The New York Times' first quarter financials in April, executives cautioned that the bright Q1 results — up in overall revenue _and_ in print and digital ad revenue — might not hold. They were right. Mark Thompson — whose chief mandate is to get first revenue and then profit growing again — had a little momentum going: Two of the last three quarters had shown revenue growth. That doesn't sound like a lot, but it was a real outlier in an industry still struggling to grow revenues, as it has since 2007 ("The newsonomics of zero and The New York Times"). To be sure, the 0.6 percent downturn in revenues is a minor, mostly psychological setback. It does, though, point to a big problem for all dailies — the great decline in print advertising continues to swamp much of the other progress news companies are making in reader revenue and, for some, new digital ad revenue streams. Compare this Q2 report to Q1, by the numbers: Q2 2014 Q1 2014 Overall revenue -0.6% 2.6% Print ad revenue -6.6% 4% Digital ad revenue 3.4% 2% Circulation revenue 1.4% 2% Increase in digital-only subs 32,000 39,000 Net operating income $16.5 million $22.1 million It's that awful 6.6 percent print decline that's the Times' big issue. If the Times, and others, can moderate losses, then they have a fighting chance to transform the business to digital. Without getting closer to zero (or somehow turning positive, as with that surprise 4 percent in Q1), it's been near-impossible to grow overall. introduction of NYT Now in late March upped hope that a new substantial market of younger, more cost-conscious ($2/week), mobile-oriented buyers would develop. The introduction of Times Premier, at the same time, promised some upsell money for VIP-status-seeking buyers. (It also launched niche NYT Opinion in June, so we'd expect the financial impact from that product to be minor in this quarterly report.) The Times didn't release specific NYT Now, NYT Opinion, or Times Premiere numbers. We do know though that the new products accounted for a majority of the new 32,000 digital-only subs. So let's say they accounted for 20,000 or so new subs. In and of itself, that's disappointing, a small number — with lots of marketing and promotion — and small new revenue on what are already lower-priced niche products. It would also tell us that Times' all-access full-price push has really slowed, to 12,000 or so — an expected plateauing. If the fundamental growth engine for reader revenue is slowing to a crawl, and the new products aren't pumping out new customers, that points to what will be a growing problem in the quarters ahead. And for the rest of the newspaper industry — trying to figure out what it might be able to learn from from the Times' reader revenue pushes — the slow pickup on NYT Now will be a cautionary tale. In the Times' carefully chosen words, we can see that concern: "We're encouraged by the reaction of users to the products, especially the high consumer satisfaction levels we're seeing with the NYT Now app. But, while we expected the portfolio to take time to build, we want to accelerate the rate of growth in subscription sales, so over the coming months, we will refine some of the offers and the way we market the portfolio to accomplish this." The impact on profits is clear. The Times eked out $16.5 million for the quarter, down $5.5 million from a quarter earlier. That said, just about any of those numbers would be welcome at the United States' largest newspaper company, Gannett. For the company moving profoundly away from its newspaper base — becoming a TV company — its own Q2 emphasized the same issues the Times is facing. Gannett's newspapers were down 3.7 percent year-over-year overall in revenue. Print ads were down 5.1 percent, while circulation revenue went negative, down 0.6 percent. Digital revenues were up 4.3 percent. Most noteworthy is that same big print ad decline — and the red number in circulation revenue. The paywall revolution was supposed to put newspaper companies on a path to ramping reader revenue growth. But what we are seeing at Gannett (and at other companies) is that the first- and (sometimes) second-year impact of higher-priced all-access subscriptions is waning. Further pricing is constrained by too great a loss in print subscription volume. If that continues — and if regional newspaper companies either don't produce niche paid products or believe those products won't resonate with buyers — then the blush of reader revenue growth will have been a short one.
Finally, last week's Gannett quarterly call prompted a brief brouhaha. That was based on what CEO Gracia Martore said. Or did she? The company's own USA Today had to run a clarification that it had "mischaracterized" its own CEO words. To a question from financial analyst Ed Atorino about Gannett's willingness to get into the market for newspapers (as its done in TV, as a buyer), Martore (transcript for the call is available from Seeking Alpha, here) replied:
Yes, there are newspapers for sale. Look, what this company is focused on, and laser focused on, as I said before is creating additional strong shareholder value. And we are open to any opportunities that will do that. And we're the Board and I and the management team, continue to look at ways to increase shareholder value as we have successfully done with our superior returns over the last three years. We said last quarter that we were laser focused on Belo and now with the London Broadcasting stations. And as you can see from the results that was precisely the right focus for us to have, but we are an incredibly shareholder-oriented company and we are always evaluating the best ways to continue to meaningfully increase value for both the near and the long-term.It was that "newspapers for sale" line that got her into trouble. Did it mean Gannett newspapers are for sale? Listening to the audio, I doubt it. I think she meant: Yes, there are _sellers_ of newspapers out there. But it was awkward and confusing. One thing a CEO doesn't want to do is introduce public uncertainty into the fates of thousands of its employees. More interesting that what Martore said is what she didn't. She didn't take the opportunity to support Gannett's newspaper investments and their importance to her or the company's future. Instead, we heard the boilerplate of what any investor-pleasing CEO has to intone: _Job one is maximizing shareholder return._ That's fair, of course, but it would be refreshing to hear a news company CEO who is also laser-focused on the readers. Further translation of the whole episode: Gannett's newspapers aren't _now_ on the market. That, though, is more rapidly becoming a "when" rather than an "if" question.
Photo by Sam Chills used under a Creative Commons license.
EDITOR'S NOTE: There's a lot of interesting academic research going on in digital media — but who has time to sift through all those journals and papers? Our friends at Journalist's Resource, that's who. JR is a project of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, and they spend their time examining the new academic literature in media, social science, and other fields, summarizing the high points and giving you a point of entry. Here, John Wihbey sums up the top papers in digital media and journalism this month.Given this column's focus, there's no way to avoid at least a brief mention of the now-infamous and endlessly dissected "Facebook manipulates your emotions" study — formally known as "Experimental Evidence of Massive-scale Emotional Contagion through Social Networks," published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The critics of that study and its methods — modifying a Facebook algorithm to see how different users responded to different kinds of emotional messages — have largely won the battle in the court of public opinion, embarrassing associated researchers and Facebook itself. But it's worth noting that, among the community of researchers devoting their life's work to Internet-related inquiry, it has prompted some soul-searching and reflection about the way forward. What now _are_ the boundaries for leading-edge Internet research? See commentary from Jason Hong at Carnegie Mellon and from Michael Bernstein at Stanford. Both wonder whether ethical constraints designed for laboratory experiments should be strictly imposed on Internet experimentation, and they ponder the nature of research in an era where commercial A/B testing is ubiquitous — including in the game of love. On a related note, a new paper from the Berkman Center for Internet & Society and a host of other research institutions, "Integrating Approaches to Privacy across the Research Lifecycle," identifies urgent problems relating to "sensitive data describing the health, socioeconomic, or behavioral characteristics of human subjects." Here's a sampling of new studies and papers from the academic journal world over the past couple of months:
"ONLINE AND UNCIVIL? PATTERNS AND DETERMINANTS OF INCIVILITY IN NEWSPAPER WEBSITE COMMENTS": From the University of Utah and the University of Arizona, published in the Journal of Communication. By Kevin Coe, Kate Kenski, and Stephen A. Rains.
This paper contributes to the emerging literature on what some scholars have called the "nasty effect" of online user-generated comments — an area that until recently has been much neglected by social scientists. Coe, Kenski, and Rains set out to examine the relative frequency of uncivil comments, whether there are certain contexts in which they are more prevalent, and how they affect the quality of debate. They analyze data from the Arizona Daily Star during late 2011; more than 6,400 comments, attached to 706 articles, were examined. More than one in five comments (22 percent) contained incivility of some kind, and as a whole "55.5% of the article discussions contained at least some Incivility"; further, "The most prevalent form of incivility was name-calling, which took place in 14.0% of all comments." Those who commented only once over the period were more likely to demonstrate incivility than those commenting most frequently. Looking at associations with article content, the researchers found that "serious, 'hard news' topics appear to garner greater incivility. For example, articles about the economy, politics, law and order, taxes and foreign affairs all received roughly one uncivil comment for every four comments posted." One-third of articles containing a quotation from President Obama had an uncivil comment attached. However, when incivility was present, it was also more likely that someone in the discussion thread would cite evidence for her argument, suggesting that incivility can push debate in constructive ways, too. "[C]ontrary to popular perceptions," Coe, Kenski, and Rains state, "those individuals who commented most frequently were not the ones proportionally most inclined to make uncivil remarks. Our data suggest that stereotypes of frequent posters dominating news sites with barrages of incivility are, if not unfounded, at least overstated."
What's New in Digital Scholarship: The research on making comments better and American media exceptionalism
"FACT CHECKING THE CAMPAIGN: HOW POLITICAL REPORTERS USE TWITTER TO SET THE RECORD STRAIGHT (OR NOT)": From the University of Texas at Austin, published in the International Journal of Press/Politics. By Mark Coddington, Logan Molyneux, and Regina G. Lawrence. The study analyzes how some 400 reporters used Twitter to assess campaign claims during the 2012 U.S. election cycle. Coddington, Molyneux, and Lawrence narrow the sample down to about 1,900 randomly selected tweets from those journalists, with 1,700 relating directly to campaign claims. For fans of the emerging fact-checking approach, the results are disappointing: "Among the tweets that referenced claims made by the presidential candidates, at least some of which were eligible for fact checking, almost two-thirds (60 percent) reflected traditional practices of 'professional' objectivity: stenography — simply passing along a claim made by a politician — and 'he said, she said' repetition of a politician's claims and his opponent's counterclaim. A small but not insignificant portion (15 percent) reflected the 'scientific' approach to objectivity that underlies the emergent fact-checking genre, by referencing _evidence_ for or against the claim and, in a few cases, rendering an explicit judgment about the validity of the claim — though such tweets were more likely to come from commentators than from news reporters." However, a quarter of the tweets showed neither the traditional "he said, she said" approach nor evidence-citing scientific fact-checking; instead, these "either passed judgment on a claim without providing evidence for that judgment or pushed back against the politician's claim with the journalist's own counterclaim, again without reference to external evidence." Coddington, Molyneux, and Lawrence conclude that the "findings suggest that the campaign was hardly 'dictated by fact checkers,' as the Romney campaign famously suggested, because most political reporters on Twitter relied mostly on traditional 'stenography' and 'he said, she said' forms of coverage and commentary — even during presidential debates that were identified as the most-tweeted and the most fact checked in history."
"CAN WE 'SNOWFALL' THIS? DIGITAL LONGFORM AND THE RACE FOR THE TABLET MARKET": From the University of Iowa, published in Digital Journalism. By David Dowling and Travis Vogan. In a thoughtful and deep examination of a new genre being born, Dowling and Vogan look at three case studies in innovative story treatment — The New York Times' "Snow Fall," ESPN's "Out in the Great Alone", and Sports Illustrated's "Lost Soul" — to see how each outlet leveraged new opportunities in digital long-form storytelling. The researchers note that, as with New Journalism in the 1960s, we are seeing a new form that breaks significantly with journalism's past. The visual attributes, multimedia features and layout of each — as well as branding strategy and overall outcomes for the media companies involved — are reviewed in detail. These long-form pieces "function as opportunities for these prominent media organizations to build a branded sense of renown in an increasingly competitive market," Dowling and Vogan write, noting that they are as much story-as-advertising as story-as-story. Indeed, such dramatically appealing and elaborately produced stories "encourage reader-driven circulation via social media, a process that expands the products' reach and allows consumers to cultivate their own identities by associating with such artifacts." Moreover, "Digital long-form…represents a major shift away from brief breaking news toward a business model built on a carefully crafted multimedia product sensitive to users' appreciation of multimedia narrative aesthetics."
"WHAT IS A FLAG FOR? SOCIAL MEDIA REPORTING TOOLS AND THE VOCABULARY OF COMPLAINT": From Microsoft Research and Cornell, published in New Media & Society. By Kate Crawford and Tarleton Gillespie. This paper critiques the common mechanism for reporting (or flagging) offensive content on social networking sites, calling the flag feature "a complex interplay between users and platforms, humans and algorithms, and the social norms and regulatory structures of social media." Crawford and Gillespie worry that the available options for flagging are too limited, thus inhibiting the robust and fair governance of social platforms of all kinds — "Facebook, Twitter, Vine, Flickr, YouTube, Instagram and Foursquare, as well as in the comments sections on most blogs and news sites." They note that the "vocabulary" that users can employ to express concerns varies according to the site — some have only "thin" features, while others allow for the designation of mature content, abusive content, self-harm/suicide, or copyright infringement, etc. YouTube earns praise for allowing users to provide granular feedback about offending sequences within uploaded videos; Facebook is singled out for having the best "process transparency." Crawford and Gillespie explore the possibility of more sites creating "backstage" records of why things are deleted, i.e., Wikipedia-style discussion threads: "[V]isible traces of how and why a decision was made could help avoid the appearance that one perspective has simply won, in a contest of what are in fact inherently conflicting worldviews. A flag-and-delete policy obscures or eradicates any evidence that the conflict ever existed." Ultimately, the authors have concerns that our global discourse is being diminished: "The combination of proprietary algorithms assessing relevance, opaque processes of human adjudication and the lack of any visible public discussion leaves critical decisions about difficult content in the hands of a few unknown figures at social media companies." _Note_: This summer, New Media & Society has published a series of studies about various Facebook-related issues and themes.
"NEW MEDIA, NEW CIVICS?": From MIT, published in Policy and Internet. By Ethan Zuckerman. Adopted from Zuckerman's lecture last year at the Oxford Internet Institute, this 16-page essay is well worth reading as a new perspective on where democratic participation is going in the digital age. It attempts to get past the now familiar debate about online activism versus traditional activism (the argument over "slactivism") and to look more broadly to what Zuckerman calls "participatory civics." By this, he means "forms of civic engagement that use digital media as a core component and embrace a post-'informed citizen' model of civic participation." This includes the trend of direct participation through online campaigns — crowdfunding and the like — and embodies an increased desire on the part of the public, especially young people, to get personally closer to the causes about which they are passionate. Zuckerman sets out a useful analytical matrix/framework for looking at activism and participation — "thick" versus "thin," "instrumental" versus "voice," and the whole spectrum in between. "[I]f we believe in the importance of deliberation," he concludes, "not just about individual issues but about what issues merit deliberation, we need original thinking about how millions of points of individual and group interest resolve into an intelligible picture." This issue of Policy and Internet also contains a variety of responses to and critiques of Zuckerman's ideas; these include essays by Jennifer Earl, Henry Farrell, Zeynep Tufekci, and Deen Freelon, among others.
FURTHER RECOMMENDATIONS: For a take-no-prisoners approach to securing the media future, see Robert W. McChesney's "Be Realistic, Demand the Impossible: Three Radically Democratic Internet Policies," published in Critical Studies in Media Communication. Seth C. Lewis and Oscar Westlund propose deeper inquiry into how technology itself plays a role in media production and decision-making in their new Digital Journalism article "Actors, Actants, Audiences and Activities in Cross-Media News Work." Further, Amy Schmitz Weiss's article in Digital Journalism looks at the increasing importance of place and geography for journalism and our understanding of it in the 21st century, while Daniel Kreiss in the Sociological Quarterly explores the nature of politics and party networks in the new millennium and discusses the "virtues of participation without power."
Photo by Anna Creech used under a Creative Commons license.
What do newspaper editors think about the comments on their sites? They're more supportive than you might imagine — given that dialogue around news site commenters usually centers on which circle of hell fits them best. APME (Associated Press _Media_ Editors — I still can't get used to that name) did a survey of editors on the subject, which The Spokesman-Review's Gary Graham wrote up. Among the findings:
— Killing comments entirely, while maybe a real microtrend, won't be the norm anytime soon: 82 percent said it was either impossible or unlikely that their news org would do so. On the flip side, 17 percent said an end to comments was either likely or very likely at their shop. — Almost half reported that their site's commenters could remain anonymous.
Some news orgs are killing comments, but not just because their commenters are terrible at being humans
First Look Media is changing up its launch plans and publishing strategy, stepping back from the concept of multiple digital "magazines" in favor of strengthening The Intercept and the forthcoming Matt Taibbi project and trying smaller experiments. As originally planned, First Look was to be home to a "family of digital magazines" that would cover specific topics like politics, sports, and business, among others. The Intercept, launched in February by Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Jeremy Scahill, was the blueprint: Gather smart journalists and develop a magazine around them. But in a blog post today, founder/funder Pierre Omidyar says they're shifting that idea:
The big question we’ve been exploring over the past few months is how best to achieve our ambitious long-terms goals. We have definitely rethought some of our original ideas and plans. For example, rather than building one big flagship website, we’ve concluded that we will have greater positive impact if we test more ideas and grow them based on what we learn. We are unwavering in our desire to reach a mass audience, but the best way to do that may be through multiple experiments with existing digital communities rather than trying to draw a large audience to yet another omnibus site. And rather than immediately launching a large collection of digital “magazines” based on strong, expert journalists with their own followings, as we imagined earlier, we’ll begin by building out the two we’ve started and then explore adding new ones as we learn.Omidyar, drawing on his experience in the world of tech, says First Look is approaching journalism with a "startup spirit" and that the company will be an experimental mode for several years. One area he mentions is "being part of well-defined communities of interest, understanding the people in them and serving their needs and aspirations in new ways." On the technology side, Omidyar said First Look is running a pilot program of a small grants to test ideas and experiments that harness "the potential of technology and journalism to serve the greater good."
While First Look made a big splash when the company was announced, and later with the introduction of The Intercept, the company has been relatively quiet outside of hiring moves in the intervening months. Eric Bates, First Look's executive editor, told Capital in February, “We don't, at least initially, have to try to feed the beast at some frantic pace and that serves the journalism as well.” In one of his first acts as editor-in-chief of The Intercept, John Cook told readers the site would be fairly quiet aside from NSA reporting while they focus on staffing and other issues. In April, Omidyar pulled together a group of journalism and technology experts to help guide First Look's plan for the future. For the journalist who already joined up with First Look — Omidyar says it's 25 and could be 50 by end of the year — the new strategy might be a change on what they were promised: A collection of reporter-driven, digital-focused media properties. Lab contributor C. W. Anderson poses a good question, for which First Look advisor Jay Rosen has an answer:
"Not white. Not male. Fast": John Cook addresses what's happening and who they're looking for at The Intercept
@Chanders From what I know — not everything but a lot — the relationship is solid and nothing in today's announcement changes it. -- Jay Rosen (@jayrosen_nyu) July 28, 2014
that desktop traffic is 'going away' has become this unquestionable assumption. where will it go in corporate offices? all tablet? -- Wolfgang Blau (@wblau) July 25, 2014If you're the kind of person who reads Nieman Lab, you're probably already sick of hearing terms like "mobile first" and "mobile majority." Web traffic, including news traffic, is shifting from desktops and laptops to tablets and smartphones — particularly phones. For years, many news organizations viewed mobile as a weird adjunct of the "real" digital product, the one they saw on their screens at their desk; a generation of terrible mobile websites followed.
The trend lines are all going to mobile, and many (most?) news outlets are still behind. But a few others have gone in the other direction, with redesigns built for mobile first that, if we're being honest, look kinda bad on bigger screens. NBC News, Sports Illustrated, Slate, The Wire, The Dallas Morning News' (now dead) "premium" site: Reasonable people can disagree, but their hamburger-button-laden, box-and-overlay-choked recent redesigns seem to make more sense on your iPhone than your iMac. It's a tough balance: On one hand, news sites have a lot of catching up to do on mobile. On the other, desktops and laptops aren't going away any time soon, at least for one key market segment: people who spend their work days in front of a computer. Out of the office, yes, phones and tablets rule, and their lead will continue to grow. But the rise of the workplace as a place to read news has been one of the defining trends for online news, and most every news site still seeks peak audience during work hours Monday to Friday. I have a hard time getting too passionate about making that it's-too-soon case — the overall trendline to mobile is still pretty overwhelming — but it is worth noting that (a) peak online news reading time is likely to remain traditional work hours, and (b) most people who are currently looking at a computer during those hours will likely keep doing so for quite a while. (Tim Cook may do 80 percent of his office work on a tablet, but slipping iPad sales would seem to indicate he's an understandable edge case in a corporate environment.) The result could be a more bifurcated market, not a scenario where online news is, say, 85 percent mobile in three years. (There may not be too much more evening-and-weekend laptop traffic left to bleed off; I suspect most of that has already switched to phones and tablets.) This was prompted by this set of tweets started by Wolfgang Blau, director of digital strategy at The Guardian and previously online editor of Die Zeit in Germany.
The plague of uniform rectangles with text overlays spreads further, risks becoming news-web-wide contagion
@wblau there's an interesting alternative version of this story to be told, which concentrates on numbers, not % of traffic -- James Ball (@jamesrbuk) July 25, 2014
@wblau desktop decline then looks far smaller – main story I suspect is that growth now is almost entirely from mobile -- James Ball (@jamesrbuk) July 25, 2014
@wblau Desktop will be a key player during office hours. After and in between mobile will win. That is what my traffic patterns tell me ;) -- Sven Clement (@svnee) July 25, 2014
@jamesrbuk indeed. This false narrative has lead to some designs in the industry that make no sense for desktop. -- Wolfgang Blau (@wblau) July 25, 2014
@wblau exactly - that's the big danger. Desktop's not about to vanish any time soon -- James Ball (@jamesrbuk) July 25, 2014
@svnee which results in more nuanced questions such as 'how does an editorial strategy have to change for mobile" etc. -- Wolfgang Blau (@wblau) July 25, 2014That's that difficult balance: building for mobile growth, making it a top priority, but doing it without underserving the 9-to-5 audience that'll probably be looking at a big screen for some years to come.
wrote several times about Digital First Media's Project Thunderdome in its relatively brief life. (Its shutdown was announced back in April.) Wikipedia defines "Thunderdome" as "a euphemism for a contest where the loser suffers harsh consequences" — in this case, a lot of layoffs. But there were a few interesting ideas behind it. Former boss Jim Brady, now over at NetNewsCheck.
…I'd argue that any centralization plan needs to include something that improves your journalism. A cost-cutting-only centralization plan won't improve your sites or your relationship with readers, both of which are key to future relevance. …Watching the Thunderdome team work so collaboratively was, to me, an example of how newsrooms have to operate to survive in the future. We need fewer egos, fewer divas, more collaboration and more stepping into the breach to help colleagues. All in all, the Thunderdome newsroom was the lowest maintenance newsroom I have ever managed. … One of the key reasons for centralizing is to get scale in national news production. But do we think local news organizations — in the disaggregated Web world we live in and the even more atomic mobile world we're speeding into — actually need much national news anymore? I'm not sure, especially when you consider the cost of acquiring that content. So it may be that part of centralization isn't really needed for much longer.
Wouldn't it be cool if public radio fans could get to all their stuff in one simple app? Stuff from Morning Edition, Fresh Air, Here & Now, All Things Considered — and their local station. It would know what we want to hear even before we know it's out there, bringing it all to us in real time and no cost. It's a vision that might complete the transition of turning the phone into a virtual digital radio — and it would work on a tablet, a laptop, and even in certain connected cars. That's the dream of NPR's new NPR One app. It's out of beta in soft launch today, and you can test drive it for yourself in the iOS and Android stores. NPR One _begins_ to achieve that vision, even as a work in progress. Of course, its dream is a common one online, the fevered hope of masterful, personalized curation aggregating the best of the best. We've seen that in news (Google News, Yahoo News, AP Mobile), in magazines (Flipboard), in music (iTunes, Spotify, Pandora), movies and TV (Netflix, Hulu). Now NPR wants to lead the pack in public radio news listening. NPR One is a _listening_ hub. You won't find the text stories there that were foregrounded in NPR's 2010 iPad app. That carousel of news and audio seemed to redefine public radio as a news provider when it launched; now we see that it expanded boundaries but didn't transform the landscape. NPR One is also all about _news_, drawing much of its content from NPR's tentpoles, Morning Edition and All Things Considered. The new app offers these programs' segments — about 40 of them are produced each day — over the top, meaning not directly through local stations' broadcasts or streams. Morning Edition and ATC spur much of the economy of public radio, and that direct-to-consumer distribution is a bit unsettling to some of America's 897 NPR member stations. To accommodate those concerns, stations' own identities and participation in the project are part of its fabric. (The name evokes both global references — think BBC Radio One or CBC Radio One — and unity in a sometimes fractured public radio world.)
"It's a one-touch, fire-and-forget news listening experience," sums up Kinsey Wilson, NPR's chief content officer and a former top editor at USA Today. Adds Zach Brand, vice president of digital media, "We have put together the best newsmagazine for you at the moment you want to listen." (The DNA of NPR's earlier experimental Infinite Player is clearly in the new app; the old Infinite Player URL now redirects to NPR One.) Can NPR One breakthrough the noise of web and become a go-to first screen app for millions of public radio lovers, beating the fast-growing commercial competition to the punch and becoming the go-to place for spoken news? And will it push the well-worn politics and uneasy local/national/local relationships within public radio to boil anew — or can they be kept on simmer? These aren't abstract questions. Just as Americans are quickly trading in newsprint for pixels, they are trading broadcast listening time for streaming. Check out the chart below, and we can see that movement (click to enlarge). The number of monthly unique visitors to NPR.org is equal to its weekly listenership of 27 million, though the listeners spend far more time than the readers. Note that the usage of the news apps, phone and tablet, adds another million monthly unique visitors. That's still a relative small percentage of the total; changes in media habits are both dramatic and still happening more slowly than many might think. It's a significantly younger audience on smartphone — 13 years younger than the radio audience and six years younger than the NPR.org audience. At Boston's WBUR, one of the six public radio stations (the others: WNYC, WHYY, KQED, KPCC, and Minnesota Public Radio) that directly collaborated with NPR on the new app, streaming now amounts to 10 to 15 percent of the overall audience. Midday is where streaming is strongest, when most folks are at work, says WBUR director of news and programming Sam Fleming. "But clearly younger members of our audience — under 35 — are just as often streaming as listening to the radio." To be clear, it's that mobile audience, national and local, that's the future. "WBUR's digital audience is now 40 percent mobile phones — a number that grows by double digits every year. We expect it to exceed 50 percent by the end of 2014. NPR's digital audience is already 50 percent mobile — which is one reason we both believe NPR One is so important." It's a revolution that's parallel to Spotify's and Pandora's — and indeed one key goal of NPR One is adapt lessons from those apps to audio news. NPR One is free. It's audio-only. It's personalized, requiring a sign-in that enables that on-the-fly customizing, equipped with its own recommendation engine. Most of the programming is national, with local to be increasingly added in. But local branding is front and center, displaying the call letters of your local station prominently. That's the awkward balance: NPR is sending its content directly to listeners, _potentially_ bypassing the stations and their earlier quasi-monopoly in bringing it to us. The local branding is the tradeoff. Like all tradeoffs, it won't be exactly 50-50, but the share of benefits to NPR national (which has been afflicted with staff cutbacks) and to the local stations (which are generally healthier financially, with memberships accounting for more than half their revenue) is impossible to forecast at this point. The big idea of NPR One is to go after the millions of casual public radio listeners — and not the other millions already keenly habituated to public radio listening. NPR figures that's where the real battle is with the commercial curators — the iHeartRadios, the Stitchers, the Slackers, and the Swells. (Swell, which Apple seems ready to buy.) It's a top-of-the-funnel play, aiming to customers into the public radio fold — and public media economic ecosystem — before other audio curators can grab and monetize them. The first-screen inclusion of the local public radio station call letters is part of that strategy: Bring in the casuals, burn the local station in their minds, and then go for membership dues. If NPR One is a big consumer aggregation play, what's under the hood may turn out to be as significant long-term. "The product is just the first manifestation of what can be built on the underlying platform, and that platform is available to everyone in the public radio system," says Wilson. Translation: All the technology-building that NPR's been up to will enable a smoother flow of network content for all kinds of product packaging by individual stations and other producers. Further, such mundane but essential functions as identity, customer relationship management, billing, facilitating of credit card transactions, and more will be part of the new system. Much of the robustness of U.S. public radio has been built on voluntary membership. Those 3.5 million members are gold, contributing $450 million in annual revenue. The next big question, though: What does paying _digital_ membership look like, and how does it work? Listen to the platform rollout order of NPR One, and you see how the desktop is receding as as a priority. In order, Wilson's platform priority: 1. smartphone; 2. connected car (NPR believes it will have a dozen agreements in this area within a year); 3. connected home (including TVs and audio receivers); 4. tablet; 5. desktop. The app is intended to be dead simple, all about the flow of stories. Its simplicity means that it may frustrate some of us — especially those of much more deeply conversant with the wider riches of public radio content — who may want a product with more control, more switchability, more choice, more ability to bring up The Moth, Dinner Party Download, or This American Life when we've had it with the news of the day. But we're not the target of of NPR One. Open the app, sign in and you hear its opening pitch: "Public radio made personal", intoned by distinctive NPR anchor (and former Nieman Fellow) Guy Raz. The app starts with the latest five-minute national newscast, then starts playing. We get basic clues of segment provenance: names of programs/topics appearing on most stories, though some categorization seems in and out. You can click "interesting" to tell the algorithm that you want more stories like that one, but can't (yet) do a Pandora-like thumbs down. The app's content is evolving. At this point, it's mainly NPR-produced material, so that means you won't find APM's Marketplace and This American Life in the product. How much of that kind of content makes it way into the new product will depend on contractual talks in the months ahead. How much local news content will NPR One listeners find? Kinsey Wilson figures that about 55 percent of users will find some local content. If your default station produces it, it will make its way into the product. If not, you can always place-shift to another station, nearby or across the country. The nation's biggest public radio stations, too, have the talent and innovation chops to compete in this streaming sweepstakes, and that's part of the trend to watch here. Take a look at the impressive Discover function within WNYC's smartphone app and you see NPR One-like thinking. Launched four months ago, it offers a personalized experience, a pick-your-listening-period timer (say, 20 minutes) and lots of public radio content well beyond what the station produces. That includes public radio news and feature content, but even more intriguingly, content from The New Yorker. Yes, The New Yorker. So we can see the kind of bridge-building and boundary-breaking that this next wave of public media apps may offer. Why The New Yorker? WNYC knows its audience, so it's searching out best-in-breed audio content from non-public radio traditional places. "It's a tailored listening experience," says Thomas Hjelm, chief digital officer for New York Public Radio, WNYC's parent. WNYC, a leader in listenership, has been on innovation overdrive. Laura Walker, CEO of New York Public Radio, is a force, and, interestingly, she's just been appointed to the Tribune Company board. Jim Schachter, who led numerous New York Times newsroom innovations, joined the station as two years ago as vice president for news. Discover seems like such a potential breakthrough that WNYC is considering breaking it out as a separate app from the WNYC app itself. "The newsonomics of public radio's all-in-one tablet strategy"), as have several other bigger operations. PRX Remix, one of the latest offerings of PRX ("Can’t stop, won’t stop: PRX introduces an app for unending audio storytelling"). It bears a certain similarity to WNYC's Discover and NPR One, but it's focused more on storytelling than news.
NPR's Infinite Player: It's like a public radio station that only plays the kinds of pieces you like, forever
PRX executive director Jake Shapiro recently got some ink from being part of Ira Glass' This American Life's new business model launch. He has built a major source of independent audio and is moving PRX from a generally B2B to both a B2B and B2C operation, with innovations like the new Radiotopia podcast network and Remix. In both PRX Remix and Discover, we can see great and growing — perhaps competitive, perhaps complementary — public radio curation ferment. Why now? Shapiro says there's always been a glut of public radio content. "We have about 60,000 programs in our catalog" — then add in iTunes' 250,000 podcasts and 20 million tracks on Spotify. Public radio glut sounds a lot like news text infinity. But on radio, there are at most 168 hours to fill. In the glut of news and information, there's lots of opportunity for editors and algorithms, algorithms and producers to do some sorting for us. Storytelling and news is just one of the curious dyads that has to be thought through as the public radio morphs into public media which morphs into streaming public audio. Consider these pairings and you come away with a new appreciation of the complexities involved here — and ones that mirror many of the challenges in the news, magazine, and TV broadcast businesses as well as they chart futures in product development.
NEWS VS. FEATURES / Public media news is of growing importance to us, but sometimes we need a break from the carnage of the day. The diversity of programming — music, arts, interviews and more — is what makes public radio unique. Sometimes we want to move from one to the other, and we'd like to do it as effortlessly as possible. NEWS VS. STORYTELLING / The web has rebirthed an incredible storytelling culture, led by the likes of The Moth. Audio streaming and offline play are a perfect use of our new smartphone radios. Here, too, we may want to toggle back and forth between news and storytelling. SEGMENTS VS. WHOLE PROGRAMS / Sometimes you feel like a nut; sometimes you feel like a whole bag. Linear podcasts can be a good time investment for shows we like, but finding just the best or right segment can be a great disaggregated bonus of digital curation. STREAMING VS. PODCASTS / Podcasts, an old form, have taken on a new life with wireless broadband. It's a sturdy form, and as inviting for some as streaming. LOCAL VS. NATIONAL / The eternal question, reborn in another arena. We want both, in differing proportions at differing times — and depending on the volume of real local news. AUDIO VS. TEXT / Can NPR escape its sound-only roots? Should it? It's added lots of text to its digital presence, but still seeks to balance the two — and figure out where the greater audience/market may be. LOYAL VS. NEWBIE / Many of the public radio's millions of weekly listeners are addicted. Do you focus on better serving them as they transition to streaming? Or do you focus on the casual, would-be listeners before other aggregators snatch them away?NYT Now, which decided on the three things it would do for its younger, mobile target audience: briefings, top news, and curation of other top news products. (Is that the new holy trinity of digital products?) What will be listening to in three years, and _through_ what? That's the question of for movers and model-shakers in public media. Public media isn't so much an ecosystem as a scattershot map. Like most forms of media, it evolved into its current patterns, its culture and its dot placement, haphazardly. Now digital disruption has come to call — later than for newspapers and magazines, but insistently nonetheless. While "NPR" may seem like one thing to many of its listeners, it's incredibly diverse, and the resulting map is full of politics and conflicting interests. Those mega-stations like WNYC and KPCC (which just claimed a potentially lucrative Santa Barbara territory) certainly want to chart their futures. Most of the hundreds of smaller and small stations around the country are pass-throughs or barely more, licensing all that programming and resending it to their local area customers. They've come to believe — as local newspapers once believed — that they "own" their listenerships. They don't, and NPR One is just one of what will be many earthquakes reshaping their fundamental relationships with both listeners and underwriters. (The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a major funder of public media, too, is rethinking its approach. Just this week, it promoted Bruce Theriault to its new position of senior vice president for radio and journalism. In that role, he'll be newly responsible for all CPB journalism funding initiatives.) "The newsonomics of the death and life of California news"). The issues are real within "the system," as public radio people like to call their world. That doesn't mean, though, those issues should be allowed to minimize innovation or to blunt its impact. The faster public media gets its collective acts together, the better for everyone.
Try this: Make a list with two simple columns. On the left, write Who, What, When, and Where. On the right column, write How and Why. Then, go to any news site — local, national, or global — or even to a print newspaper and see which questions the stories you see answer. At most news sites, the hashmarks will fill up quickly in the left column — slowly, if at all, in the right one. That's the column for explanatory journalism — the new craze of the past year, but built on ideas as old as good journalism itself. Or call it the Wonk Wars as Capital New York and The Huffington Post, among others, have called it. The stories don't have to be headlined "Why" or "How" (although they often are, as in Upshot's "Why Democrats Have a Shot in Georgia," FiveThirtyEight's "How a Woman's Weight Before Pregnancy Affects Childbirth," and Vox's "How Israel decides to go to war," In explaining, though, they have to go beyond the facts that are well reported in other places. How do we explain this movement, which this week got a new competitor with The Washington Post's Storyline? David Leonhardt, who heads The New York Times' three-month-old The Upshot about that. (Leonhardt won a well-deserved Pulitzer in 2011 for his economic commentary; I still remember how his unusually clear and candid dispatches from the depth of economic catastrophe differentiated themselves from what else was out there.) One big reason, he said, is the explosion of easily available data. Another: the more conversational tone of the Internet. You can take more complicated events and explain them in a conversational way. Leonhardt says he trained himself to be a plain-speaking columnist by writing his drafts in Yahoo Mail for months, skipping the formality of Microsoft Word. Explainer journalism derives from knowledge — and from ignorance. "Our authority comes from knowing what we do and don't know," Leonhardt says. It also lets readers know "we're trying to think it through." Explainer journalism assumes a certain curiosity and appetite among intelligent readers — and that alone is worth understanding. "The newsonomics of why everyone seems to be starting a new site"). It's got its war metaphors, but they're misplaced. It's got its data true believers — seeing Nate Silver hold a group of many hundreds of techies in semi-thrall in Austin at SXSW is more than a bit amusing. In fact, though, this movement isn't one to take lightly or categorize or mistake. It's a movement into the next phase of digital journalism, one that recognizes our best selves — and could provide a better business route forward. And at a time when robots are learning how to do some basic journalistic tasks, it might provide a route to future employment. Leonhardt's staff is profoundly digital — one of the leading edges of the Times' transformation. Upshot pieces do run in the paper, about one a day, but that's only a small part of The Upshot's production. With a half dozen pieces a day and lots of interactives, Upshot is a digital-first operation. Rather than spending time tweaking or crafting a story to fit within the space boundaries and story conventions of print, The Upshot can write long or short. It can use stories in the paper to point to its highly popular interactives (see the middle of the page here) — and in that we see the swivel-chair movement of hybrid print/digital readers that's a vital part of news business strategy today. The Times traded one Nate (Silver) for another one (Cohn, from The New Republic). He's one of a staff of 17. Those people are a picture of how more integrated news teams, using the best skills of the day, will increasingly be organized: editors, reporters, data people, and three full-time designers, the latter both responding to others' story ideas and originating their own. The Upshot has recruited 10 outside contributors, experts and academics — like historian Michael Beschloss, who writes History Source, and political scientist Lynn Vavreck. Finally, The Upshot can call on wider ring of non-Upshot Timesmen and Timeswomen; Leonhardt figures about 25 to 30 Times journalists overall have contributed to The Upshot. It may seem kind of funny, in 2014, that we're talking amongst ourselves about what exactly explanatory journalism is — or how it might be different from regular, adjective-free journalism itself. That may be the opportunity. At their best, these explainer sites are much more than a fad or a trend. They are a siren call to add greater intelligence to the journalism we do day in and day out. Ask a reader what they want out of their news and they'd say: _Tell me what's happening._ Probing a little more, we might hear: _Tell us what the real story is._ So it's not surprising that Washington Post Storyline editor Jim Tankersley opens his introduction with: "This is a storytelling site, so let’s start with a story." His further explanation of explainer journalism is right on, but it also poses a big question to the craft: Isn't storytelling what we're supposed to be doing? Isn't that what readers expect? I don't mean novelistic imagery and lots of scene-setting, though that's often welcome — just simply telling us what the story really is, as far as we know it. Leonhardt makes the point that such journalism is far from new and isn't limited to the new set of sites. He's a fan of both Silver and Klein and points to long-time explainers-without-portfolio who have been doing this work for a long time: The New Yorker's Jim Surowiecki, The Wall Street Journal's David Wessel, The Washington Post's Steve Pearlstein, and Felix Salmon, formerly of Reuters and now at Fusion. It's no accident those are mainly business writers; that's Leonhardt's own background. The complexity of business and economics demands better connecting of the dots. But so does so much of the rest of the news. (The Upshot, for instance, has already excelled at covering health care — and the World Cup.) It's this class of complicated how-and-why questions that we all need to understand. There are huge, hairy issues everywhere: immigration, climate change, economic inequality, health care, education. These are global, national, _and_ local issues. Tankersley has explained that Storyline is about the nexus of people and policy. That sums it up well — and, again, should be what news stories are doing everyday. That's journalism's contribution to democracy, at least when it's well done. It's not "extra." Tankersley is among the numerous journalists who know that. Maybe "explainer" or "storytelling" journalism will help reawaken newsrooms and news people to that basic mandate. How did we find ourselves in a world where there are two kinds of "stories"? The first kind, apparently, disgorges facts. That's the kind you'll probably find a Google News search. Google News — still a laundry list of a product — specializes in the Who/What/When/Where. It's all there in glorious repetition, its only hierarchy imperceptible to humans and a comfort to some algorithms somewhere. That's what algorithms, without human leadership and curation, will get you today. Where's our How and Why news search engine? Then there are the stories, old school and new explainer school, that tell us how the facts fit together. Of course, at top-drawer publications like the Post and the Times, these aren't really two separate kinds. Some of what both do every day is explainer journalism — but they haven't always explained that well to themselves or their readers. The Upshot and Storyline, then, force the issue more widely, asking basic craft questions about the kind of journalism that should be produced today. Curiously, I think the readers are ahead of the journalists. What's the difference between the reborn, digital-embracing, globe-reaching New York Times and the rest of America's (local) press? It's not mainly business model, or even reach: It's authority. You read the Times to understand. Sometimes it does a better job of that than others, but its great success in reader revenue shows us its audience gets that part of the value equation. Yes, readers can get the facts of the Gaza War free in so many places, but they can't get a volume of rich, contextual stories from both sides of the conflict elsewhere every day. Key to the connect-the-dots phenomenon: the death of the traditional news cycle. The Internet has obliterated second-day stories and third-day "analysis" pieces, eating them before lunch each day. It's largely made mincemeat of weekly commentary sections and newsmagazines which tried to make sense of the week that had been. If second-day stories are gone, then first-day stories have joined them. Today, readers expect as much understanding within the news of the day, as soon as journalists can crank it out. Newspaper — in print or online — can no longer get away with headlines like "Airliner shot down over Ukraine" 18 hours after the news blitzed smartphones and social feeds everywhere. And yet, more than few did just that. First- and second-day stories should now be artifacts of another civilization. Yes, this bit of creative destruction has also created hamster-wheel operations, intended to get any set of facts out first and to pump ever more news content onto the web. At the same time, it's pushed the best journalists to connect the dots more quickly. When most readers say they expect journalists to tell them what's happening — whether that's the latest outrages reported out of Kharkiv or city council in Kalamazoo — they mean connect the dots. No, they don't want opinion — they want to know how the facts fit together to make an understandable whole. Those Kalamazoo readers — like many in the vast reaches of America who depend on local newspaper companies to deliver their news — have heard very little about "explainer journalism." There's an increasing divide between national/global journalism and local journalism. Digital business models overvalue national/global and greatly undervalue local. Local newspaper staffing in the U.S. is off 30 percent, or about 18,000 people. But beyond that, _several hundred thousand years_ of local knowledge have been lost at the same time. Let's say the average laid off/bought out journalist had 12 years of experience; that would be a cumulative loss of about 216,000 years of local knowledge. Local daily newspapers have traditionally been disproportionately in the Who/What/When/Where column, but some of that now-lost local knowledge edged its ways into How/Why stories, or at least How/Why explanations within stories. Understanding of local policy and local news players has been lost; lots of local b.s. detection has vanished almost overnight. The best local columnists often told readers what was really happening, given their real community knowledge and their ability to offer voice. Now many of them have been shown the door, higher-priced casualties of an industry that has largely chosen to cut its way to continued profitability rather than invest in its future. So most local papers, as I've seen them, aren't even players in the wonk wars. They are connecting fewer dots, rather than more, even as our sense that readers want more is growing. At a local news level, less and less is explained to us. Given cutbacks, many newspaper publishers and editors have elected to go wide rather than deep. I see that in my local Santa Cruz Sentinel, a Digital First Media-owned paper (for now, at least). It's an above-average daily, winning scads of awards. Its coverage of the county's long-term water problems, among a couple of other topics, has been superior and dot-connecting. Day in and day out, though, its hard-working reporters go wide, and the result is too often single- or couple-source stories that mystify rather than enlighten. The Sentinel, to be sure, provides a unique and valuable service every day — building a data bank of happenings. Even as I try to convince friends to subscribe, I often find I need a decoder ring to make sense of a story. In Wednesday's edition, perhaps one story could be considered an "explainer." To be clear, I'm not asking that all stories be explainers — just more, the ones that require it. Which brings us back to business argument. If, in fact, in a world awash in Who/What/When/Where, readers value the connecting of dots, they're more likely to pay for it — and to pay _more_ for it. That's the business rationale for the Upshots and Storylines. The New York Times now depends on its readers for most of its revenues; satisfy those readers more deeply, with understanding, and they're less likely to cancel subscriptions and more likely to pay more each year. The Post, too, knows that explainer journalism — part of its bigger national play — is a key part of its value proposition to readers. Bonus: Smart, well-tweeted, well-shared Upshots and Storylines burnish the larger brand, and that helps sell premium-priced advertising. (A check of the Times' most shared stories often finds Upshot pieces among the top 20.) For the Voxes and FiveThirtyEights, the business rationale shares the brand- and audience-building elements, but it lackes that critical reader-revenue component — so far, at least. If we define "explainer journalism" too narrowly — just naming Vox, FiveThirtyEight, The Upshot, and Storyline — we miss the point. The new wave doesn't define it. The new wave reawakens our appreciation of it. The Wall Street Journal, the FT, The Economist, and The New Yorker are just a few of the news outfits that have long based their products on making the world a little more understandable for their readers. More recently, sites as far-flung as Quartz and the Netherlands' De Correspondent have joined that group. What they have in common: the ability to price up for readers, or charge premium rates to advertisers, or both. Might they be on to something? If explainer journalism really can up the intelligence quotient among it readers and get more of them to pay for digital news (take note: Pew, Knight, grad students in search of dissertation topics), then how does more of the local press can get there? That's a big mountain. It's hard to regain the lost knowledge already excised from newsrooms. Some of the younger, less well-paid staff hired as replacements have the ability to do the work — but they need to both be led and allowed to do it. The trade needs a Watergate-like makeover, one that would encourage the smartest people with the best storytelling-like skills to be come into it and to stay. That's a matter of both money and culture. I asked David Leonhardt about bringing Upshot-like craft to the regional/local press. "You don't need 17 people to do it," he said. "You can do it with three people." From his lips to local reader's eyes.
Photo by Allen used under a Creative Commons license.
You may remember a public debate that was sparked not too long ago by a BuzzFeed story about sexual assault: Are tweets public? What sort of judgment should journalists use when amplifying statements made by regular people on social media? Anil Dash returned to the topic today, with a post on Medium titled "What is Public?" In it, Dash brings up concerns about how industry leaders in tech and media conceive of privacy — typically, he argues, however it best serves their own interests.
It has so quickly become acceptable practice within mainstream web publishing companies to reuse people’s tweets as the substance of an article that special tools have sprung up to help them do so. But inside these newsrooms, there is no apparent debate over whether it’s any different to embed a tweet from the President of the United States or from a vulnerable young activist who might not have anticipated her words being attached to her real identity, where she can be targeted by anonymous harassers.The essay generated a wide array of responses, many positive, from those who see Dash's argument as a defense of the less privileged.
The latest from @anildash on the increasing simplification of "public" and who it benefits is really good: https://t.co/SBGP9DlTYf -- Christina Xu (@xuhulk) July 24, 2014
.@anildash, the hannah arendt of the internet: https://t.co/o4OmtKRTHC -- cale g weissman (@caleweissman) July 24, 2014There was also considerable pushback.
@anildash @digiphile The Twitter TOS is very clear: “What you say on Twitter may be viewed all around the world instantly.” -- Burt Herman (@burtherman) July 24, 2014
@anildash I disagree. When you hit publish, you're saying "I want the public to see this." That's different than an overheard conversation. -- Kaili Joy Gray (@KailiJoy) July 24, 2014
@anildash there are many places online where friends can have "conversations in the park," in semi-private contexts. Twitter isn't 1 of them -- Alex Howard (@digiphile) July 24, 2014
Twitter is like a coffee shop if Starbucks were the size of a football stadium and everyone were wearing a microphone -- Sam Faulkner Biddle (@samfbiddle) July 24, 2014Eventually, Gawker's Joel Johnson ended up inviting Dash to a public debate of the issue, one which Gawker falls very decidedly on the opposite side of.
My expectation for privacy for this tweet is that it is for everyone except the following: @anildash, -- Joel Johnson (@joeljohnson) July 24, 2014
"What if we replaced law with feelings?" —Anil Dash -- Joel Johnson (@joeljohnson) July 24, 2014
@samfbiddle @anildash honestly Tho I would love to debate this in person and put it online -- Joel Johnson (@joeljohnson) July 24, 2014Later, however, Dash repeatedly argued that the majority of his detractors where white men whose privilege — of gender, race, and class — makes it harder for them to understand what's at stake in the private versus public debate.
There may be no greater online joy than writing a piece where every angry reply is from a dude with a blue checkmark who works in media. -- Anil Dash (@anildash) July 24, 2014Not everyone, however, felt that Dash's observation was proof that republishing posts is unfairly harmful.
btw, nice try on derailing convo by saying "white men" are emotional about it @anildash. That has what to do with criticism exactly? -- Rebecca Schoenkopf (@commiegirl1) July 24, 2014Ultimately, the debate seems to boil down to whether we are concerned with the legal issue — in which case, tweets are public — or an ethical issue, which is more complicated. Most journalists would probably happily embed a newsworthy tweet, though many would likely seek permission and confirmation of the information therein before doing so. But Dash's essay does engender worthwhile conversation about data, surveillance, and what our treatment of publics today will mean for privacy in the future. (For what it's worth, I didn't ask anyone if I could embed their tweets in this blog post.)
Digiday has an update today on the relaunch over at NowThis, formerly NowThis News.
Now, even a minute can seem like an eternity. And so NowThis has largely moved to 15-second videos, and the anchor has been replaced by text on the screen. NowThis also has dropped the “News” from its brand to reflect a broadening of its coverage to include op-eds, science and viral content. [...] “We don’t want to box ourselves in,” Mills said. “We are still a news company, but the definition of news has changed so much, and it means different things to different people. Our hyperfocus is connecting to mobile and social. Capturing people’s interest on different social platforms — that is what’s most interesting to us.”
“NowThis has an interesting idea in terms of, we’re going to try a different format,” said Chia Chen, mobile practice lead at Digitas. “The reality is also the point of view you’re espousing in the content itself. It’s an interesting approach. If they had a distinct voice, that would make it even better.”For what it's worth, Jay Rosen agrees.
Give me 140 characters or 3,000 words, I've been saying. @nowthisnews has discovered the same is true in video. http://t.co/xJGlexx5cM -- Jay Rosen (@jayrosen_nyu) July 24, 2014
@benthomaspayne Meet your audience where they already are. Then you also need something to say, a distinct voice. "Content" doesn't cut it. -- Jay Rosen (@jayrosen_nyu) July 24, 2014But for those who'd hoped that NowThis _News_ might be figuring out a new model for fitting TV news into the mobile/social reality — it wasn't that long ago that people were labeling it a "CNN killer" — the shift to more familiar viral territory is a little disappointing.
Not every journalist who would make an awesome Nieman Fellow is ready to spend a full academic year here or has a study plan or project that merits that commitment. And not everyone whose work is having an impact on the future of news is a journalist. That’s long been true of publishers and media company owners, but developers, entrepreneurs, academics, and others are increasingly influential in the news ecosystem — sometimes because they’re building the tools and organizations that journalists want or need to work with. These were the facts that prompted me to propose a new visiting fellowship when I became curator of the Nieman Foundation three years ago. What began then as quiet experimentation with one visiting fellow has grown into an increasingly robust program: Our last group of visiting fellows numbered five and included a member of Google’s news partnerships team in Boston, a brand new college graduate from Chicago, and an accomplished senior newsroom manager from India. We like the questions and energy the visiting fellows are bringing to Nieman. We're excited about the quick progress they’ve made while at Harvard, and we look forward to more. TODAY WE’RE OPENING A NEW ROUND OF APPLICATIONS FOR NIEMAN VISITING FELLOWSHIPS. Here’s the application form; the deadline for applying is Aug. 29. You can propose a stay at Nieman of up to 12 weeks, either later this year or in 2015. You can find some more background on the fellowship on the main Nieman Foundation website. We're looking for people with concrete ideas to advance journalism. Our early experience with visiting fellows has taught us two things about what works: * A FOCUSED INQUIRY IS BETTER THAN A BROAD ONE. Hong Qu was a visiting fellow who wanted to build a tool to help journalists navigate Twitter during big, breaking news stories. He created Keepr, which he tested in real time during the Boston Marathon bombing. He saw the value of some other tools, but focused on Twitter, understanding its influence and wanting to create something useful and usable during his 12-week fellowship. A fellow’s inquiry can be part of a larger project, but your proposal should be a discernable part of the whole. Scottish visiting fellow Kate Smith, who teaches journalism and is researching the use of literary craft in war reporting, used her time to explore the work of Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn, whose archives are in Boston. * PLAN AHEAD. Before arriving, it’s important to research the people and resources here that could help advance your work. Structured exploration — being open to serendipitous discovery while moving along a path of clear objectives — is necessary given the short timeframe. Also, think about how Nieman’s resources — ranging from our traditional fellowship class to Nieman Lab, Nieman Reports, or Nieman Storyboard — might fit into your work. When Google’s David Smydra was with us, we formed a small working group of other Nieman Fellows to give him regular feedback as he developed a structured data format for future news events. They learned from each other. Journalist Paul Salopek, our first visiting fellow, spent his time here working on parts of the project that became his epic seven-year Out of Eden reporting walk to retrace the path of human migration. His fellowship was successful in propelling his idea forward, in part because he applied a lot of discipline and rigor to the 12 weeks. I later asked him to weigh the merits of the tight research timeframe. The traditional academic year inquiry, he observed, is the “intellectual equivalent of running a cross-country marathon.” By contrast, he saw the visiting fellowship as “more like a sprint. I came in focused, approaching my time on campus as a foreign assignment with a tight deadline: all stops out, maximum absorption mode, eating standing up at the souks and falling asleep in my clothes.” Nieman was founded in 1937 with a mission to “promote and elevate the standards of journalism and educate persons deemed especially qualified for journalism.” For decades, that has meant an academic year of study: Some 1,500 journalists from nearly 100 countries have received that invitation and gone on to produce some of the most significant journalism of the last 75 years. By inviting applications for exciting project work from additional cohorts, Nieman has widened the doors of fellowship to include the broadest network of journalism’s leaders, inventors, and influencers. If you have an idea for what someone called the “new Nieman,” let us know. We look forward to hearing about it.
To mark the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, The Guardian today launched a massive 32-minute interactive documentary that illustrates the history of the war. The Guardian's aim with the interactive is to tell the story of the war from a global perspective. To achieve that, the documentary includes 10 historians from all around the world discussing the war and its impact from their country's perspective. In a blog post on The Guardian's website, special projects editor Francesca Panetta explained how her team set out to get a global perspective on World War I:
I also sourced letters, diary entries and poems from around the world. We’re familiar here in the UK with war poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, but I thought there must be Turkish and Indian equivalents. With the help of Modern Poetry in Translation we found poems from all over the world. Of course, cutting all this together is itself editorialising. But as much as possible we wanted this global story to be told through the words of participators rather than a posh, English, scripted voiceover!To further that global approach, The Guardian, through a partnership with the British Academy, translated the interactive into six additional languages aside from English — French, German, Italian, Spanish, Arabic, and Hindi. (The videos are all narrated in English, but have different subtitles depending on what language the user selects.) Since 2011, the British Academy, which supports the humanities and social sciences in the U.K., has funded a program with The Guardian to advocate for improved language education. That program, the Case for Language Learning, paid for professional translations. Kiln, the London-based interactive design firm that built the interactive, "designed a clever mechanism that displayed the subtitles and an international team of Guardian journalists checked them for accuracy," Panetta wrote in her blog post. "We had all languages skills in-house, except Hindi!" The Guardian is looking to translate the interactive into even more languages by asking readers if they'd like offer their own translation services for additional languages. Other news organizations have also offered to help with translations, Panetta said. "A Scandinavian paper has already approached us saying they may be interested in collaborating in this way," she told me in an email. "It depends on the response we get, but we would very much like to relaunch in the autumn with more languages. That's the plan."
Here's an interesting project from the data-oriented software developer Shoothill: GaugeMap is an interactive map with live river-level data from over 2,400 government gauges across England and Wales. From the announcement:
GaugeMap aims to help to look after and improve the natural environment by allowing these users to access this data on the move, wherever they are. Users can retrieve live data on actual river levels via the website, or by following the new, dedicated Twitter accounts that GaugeMap has established for each of the Environment Agency‘s 2,400+ river level monitoring stations they may be interested in. For example Teddington Lock now has its own Twitter account: https://twitter.com/riverlevel_1182. “GaugeMap will help any river user to be better informed, whether they use the river for recreation, pleasure or business,” said Rod Plummer, MD at Shoothill. “It also provides accurate, up-to-date information to help with water abstraction and so it could potentially be used to ensure the amount of water being abstracted from any river at any given time is sustainable and acceptable. Over-abstraction of river systems can cause changes in water quality, which obviously can have wide-reaching impacts on the wildlife that relies on our natural waterways, both directly and indirectly.”It's the Twitter integration that most interests me — over 2,400 accounts, each tied to a specific spot on a specific river, sending out alerts about water levels:
At 05:45 (21/07/2014) the river level at this station fell to 5.107m. More info: http://t.co/nX9UYpsO91 -- Bolton Percy (@riverlevel_1867) July 22, 2014
At 15:15 (21/07/2014) the river level at this station rose to 0.537m. More info: http://t.co/3mWhoFTHTR -- Winster Drive (@riverlevel_1345) July 21, 2014One could imagine ways to improve the bots. For instance, the accounts don't seem to be smart enough to automatically alert when the water gets dangerously high. The GaugeMap site tells me that Catcliffe Drain is in a "Flooding Possible" state, but you couldn't tell that from Catcliffe Drain's Twitter account. Still, the idea is powerful: a kind of distributed EveryBlock. One could imagine a local news organization gathering together data like this and pushing it out through neighborhood focused social media accounts, automatically and without human intervention.
Former newspaper editor John Robinson notes some unusual pricing at his old daily, the Greensboro News & Record:
The surprising thing to me – and which I believe is unusual for newspaper paywalls – is that the N&R is charging more for a digital subscription than for a print subscription. Currently, a 7-day, 52-week subscription costs $187.12. According to an ad in the newspaper today, the digital subscription is $215.40. (FYI, the subscription page on the website hasn’t been updated, at least that I can find.) In comparison, the News & Observer charges $390 for a year’s print subscription, and only $69.95 for a digital subscription. The Star News in Wilmington charges $218.40 for the print edition, and $131.40 for a digital subscription. But the N&R is cutting the other way. Editor/Publisher Jeff Gauger explains: “The reason for that variance? A print subscription permits us to subsidize the cost of content by providing access to your home or business for preprinted advertising circulars. A digital-only subscription lacks that advertising subsidy.”The N&R's move is unusual, but it's far from unprecedented. The Orange County Register is currently offering digital access for $3.99 a week, or digital plus Sunday print for $2.99 a week. That's right: They'll essentially pay you a dollar a week to take the Sunday paper. The New York Times has done something similar since launching its paywall — Sunday print gives you all-digital access at a price that's usually cheaper than all-digital access itself. (Currently: $8.60 a week for Sunday print plus digital, $8.75 a week for just digital.) What is a bit unusual here is pricing digital above a _seven-day_ print subscription, not just a Sunday print subscription. That is unusual. But Berkshire Hathaway-owned papers have gone against the grain before. The Omaha World-Herald charges even 7-day print subscribers for digital access ($7 extra a month!) and $25 a month for digital alone. The Tulsa World offers $14.99 a month for digital — or $14 a month for digital plus Sunday and Wednesday print. It's a weird world. Robinson:
Is the pricing structured to encourage digital users to subscribe to the paper? After all, the more subscribers a paper has, the more it can charge advertisers. (Despite what many readers think, advertising pays the bulk of the cost of a newspaper, not subscription fees.) I doubt this is the actual intent, but it does make some perverse sense to the consumer. Unless you can get what you need from the website from its 20 free articles per month.I can't speak for the News & Record, but at many papers, that is _exactly_ the intent. Propping up print numbers isn't the only reason to structure offers this way, but it's a big one.
Within minutes of the first reports that a Malaysia Airlines plane had crashed over eastern Ukraine Thursday, Mashable had live coverage up and running. Its real-time news staff in New York was updating the post with videos from the scene and carefully sourced information culled from social media and other outlets; its own social accounts, including its meant-for-breaking-news @MashableLive, were busy pushing out information. Meanwhile in Ukraine, Christopher J. Miller, a Mashable contributor, was working his sources and providing information to the main Mashable story while also writing his own piece as further developments unfolded. Miller and two editors in New York also cowrote a story highlighting leaked audio from an alleged conversation between pro-Russian rebels and Russian security forces discussing the plane. The breaking news story has been shared more than 30,000 times; Mashable's continued updating its coverage, including dispatches from Miller filed from the crash site.
.@Mashable newsroom trying to get to the heart of the #MH17 story http://t.co/A0nKUEmeSJ pic.twitter.com/QvkJIyfimK -- Lance Ulanoff (@LanceUlanoff) July 17, 2014For those who remember the site's early days — when it was a tech blog covering Web 2.0 startups — the idea of a Mashable correspondent reporting from eastern Ukraine is probably still a bit disorienting. But covering big breaking news this way has quickly become the norm for Mashable — the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, the recent World Cup final, Emmy nominations, and, of course, virtually every major technology announcement. Executive editor Jim Roberts, who spent 26 years at The New York Times and a short stint at Reuters, was hired last October to lead Mashable's editorial operation and expand its focus beyond social media and technology. Mashable has an editorial staff of 77, adding nearly 30 of them since Roberts joined the company. While Mashable has maintained its traditional coverage areas — Thursday, for instance, it was using its Snapchat account to celebrate World Emoji Day — Roberts has also imbued a sense of old-school focus on covering the news, while still experimenting with how stories are presented, said Brian Ries, Mashable's real-time news editor. “You can have the 1,200-word article if you want that — that’s totally fine — but if you think the story can be better told in a series of Vines that are captioned with an explanation, then go with that," said Ries, who joined Mashable in February from The Daily Beast. "Or if it’s just a video you want to highlight, then do that. It’s been really freeing for me to come in here and be able to play with all different types of content because it feels like you can experiment.” A START IN UKRAINE The Ukraine story is one that Mashable has been paying attention to since the Euromaidan protest movement broke out late last fall. Roberts felt that the familiar east-west tensions playing out in Ukraine would resonate with Mashable's readers, and as a result it was was one of Mashable's first major attempts under Roberts' leadership to take on a significant global story. “Mashable’s core has really focused on the confluence between technology and digital culture, and those topics are still really essential to us and are really at the heart of what we do," Roberts told me. "I guess what I’m trying to do is, to the extent that this is possible, is cling to that core, reinforce it as much as possible, and then build around it in a very natural way." When the protests began gaining steam, Mashable started writing stories — including a couple by Roberts himself — but they were generally based on social media or other news reports. Kyiv Post, an English-language newspaper in Ukraine. Roberts had been following Miller and the paper's coverage of the growing protest movement on Twitter, and he wanted to know if Miller would write a story for Mashable on how he was covering the protests and how social media was being used as a tool in the Euromaidan movement.
@nycjim Hi Jim. To answer your question in short, yes. Would you follow me so I might be able to DM? Thanks. -- Christopher Miller (@ChristopherJM) December 10, 2013
@nycjim Just a quick note to tell you that the story should be in your inbox. Thanks. -- Christopher Miller (@ChristopherJM) December 11, 2013"The first story was very much gauged to their audience, which is a very digital-savvy group of readers — it was more focused to that," Miller told me via phone from Ukraine. "But eventually it just transformed into writing news. Everything from the daily story, if things were big enough and it called for that, to more exclusive pieces." Since that first December piece, Miller has written more than 70 stories for Mashable. Other journalists working in Ukraine have also contributed; in the months since then, Mashable has also published stories with datelines from Syria, Egypt, Brazil, and elsewhere. Roberts and others at Mashable readily admit that, with its relatively small staff, they cannot compete with major global news outlets on every story. "My job is very much about choosing what works for us, because we can’t cover everything and we don’t want to cover everything," said Louise Roug, Mashable's global news editor. She previously covered the Iraq war for the Los Angeles Times before becoming foreign editor at The Daily Beast and Newsweek. "That’s a great freedom for us." Instead, they say Mashable tries to focus on a wide array of topics — everything from climate change to entertainment — that its audience, which Roberts notes is "younger than most mainstream news organizations," cares about and is discussing online. "Now, of course we’ve got this big ambition and we’d like to be covering everything that people are talking about online," said Mashable managing editor Jonathan Ellis, a former New York Times senior editor for digital platforms who joined Mashable in March. "We’ll get there. But it’s also fun for us to find those areas of focus that we think will make an impact with our audience."
It's analogous to the way BuzzFeed started adding more traditional news — and later correspondents stationed overseas — into its mix of cats and listicles. Mashable has no plans to open foreign bureaus, said Roberts, instead relying on well-placed freelancers like Miller and other arrangements like Ukraine Desk, a partnership it launched earlier this year with Vice, Digg, Mother Jones, Quartz, and Breaking News to cover the Ukraine crisis. In March, for instance, the Turkish government blocked Twitter in the country. It was a perfect Mashable story, at the intersection of social media and politics, and the site's initial story on the block — which quoted social media posts, cited other news reports, and included some original reporting — has been shared nearly 31,000 times. "We can shine a giant flood light on some things that, despite all their obvious strengths, the BBC or CNN may not get to as quickly," Roberts said. "Not to say anything bad about CNN or the BBC, but when Turkey shuts down Twitter, it’s the lead story of Mashable. I don’t know of any other news outlet that was leading with Turkey." "A MORE NIMBLE ENVIRONMENT" As yet another winter storm was barreling down the East Coast last January, Roberts was reading coverage when he stumbled upon a phrase he had never heard before: the polar vortex. Wanting to know more, Roberts came upon the work of Andrew Freedman, who was then writing for Climate Central, a nonprofit that reports on and researches climate change. Freedman was one of the journalists who pushed the term polar vortex into the public lexicon last winter through his writing and media appearances. Roberts sent Freedman an email. Within 10 days or so, Roberts had offered Freedman a job. All of a sudden Mashable had a senior climate writer. "Maybe it was a bit impulsive, but it was one of the best hiring decisions I’ve ever made," Roberts said. "But that’s the kind of thing that you can do when you’re in a little bit more of a nimble environment." Mashable's staff has grown significantly since Roberts took over; it raised $14 million earlier this year partly to finance the editorial expansion, which includes adding staffers in Australia, London, and Los Angeles.
After his time in traditional media, Roberts said it was refreshing leading a digital-only organization where decisions like that could be made quickly and where the newsroom's resources to experiment don't have to compete with those earmarked for print products, still crucial to the bottom lines at major newspapers. "If you’re on one side or the other, it can cause frustrations, so when you’re in a digital-only organization, such as the one I’m working for, you don’t have that conflict — you don’t have that tug of war," Roberts said. "This is, in a sense, a luxury, but it's certainly one I enjoy having right now." CAN YOU NERD OUT? With more than 4 million Twitter followers and 2.6 million Facebook likes, Mashable says it draws about 34 million unique visitors a month. "We just know we’ve got a great team that does all the viral content," Ries said. "We have a great team that will pull together a funny list of GIFs from the World Cup. And that frees up the other side of the newsroom to go after stories that might not share as well, but are important to be told." When Freedman joined Mashable in early February, for instance, he was concerned he wouldn't be able to write in depth. The Mashable he was familiar with was more about aggregation and shorter stories. So when he received an instant message from Roberts after writing a explanatory story on a major ice storm in Georgia and South Carolina, he was a little concerned. "Of course, it’s like my first week of work, and I’m terrified that he just showed up on chat," Freedman said. "His message was, 'Can you please nerd out a little bit more?' So any concern that I had that there wasn’t an appetite for geeky weather, climate stuff was put to rest on like day one." But striking a balance between, say, writing about a selfie toaster and a weekend-long liveblog on the Ukrainian elections can be a tough task as readers need to change their expectations for what they can expect to see on Mashable. In its marketing material, Mashable defines itself as a site for the "connected generation," and it is betting that the readers it targets have an interest in more than just viral content and technology coverage. "Certainly, there will be some folks who see some things on Mashable they won’t have expected to see, and that’s a great thing," Ellis, Mashable's managing editor, said. "The whole point of running a great publication is getting them to see things they haven't seen before."
Photo of Grumpy Cat by Anna Hanks used under a Creative Commons license.
Two of the biggest trends in news today: the rise of mobile and the rise of data visualization. The unfortunate reality is that they're often in conflict. Too many beautiful data visualizations are designed with a big desktop browser window in mind, not the smaller screen of an iPhone or an Android phone. Text becomes unreadable, interactions become untappable, and a lovely experience becomes unusable. If you want to do better, check out MobileVis, a site built by Bocoup data viz whiz Irene Ros to assemble good examples of data visualizations that work well on mobile devices. (It's funded by a Knight Prototype Fund grant.) There are lots of screenshots, illustrations of pages in motion, and notes about what makes them compelling. Ros also pulls out a set of best practices for doing visualizations for mobile:
VERTICAL BAR CHARTS: When using bar charts in portrait mode, stack your bar chart bars vertically. USE VERTICAL SCROLLING: When creating interfaces that don't fit in their entirety on the screen, enable vertical scrolling instead of horizontal scrolling. STACK TABLE CELLS: When needing to display tables that have more than a couple of columns consider stacking cells vertically within each row. CAROUSEL INSTEAD OF TABS: When allowing users to switch between different displays, instead of using tabs (which require a lot of horizontal space,) consider using a carousel with next and previous buttons. FIX TOOLTIPS TO AREA OF SCREEN: When displaying information on touch, designate an area on screen that will update accordingly. USE TOUCH ZONES: When displaying a lot of data points that are hoverable/touchable, consider using defined touch zones instead.
It's a rare feat for the first episode of a brand new show to win a Peabody. And yet that's what happened with Reveal, the still new public radio show from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Over the past year, CIR has co-produced three pilot episodes of the series with PRX, focusing on new investigations into subjects like poor drinking water standards and the pathway for heroin from Juarez to Chicago. Along with the Peabody, those proofs of concept were enough to win support for the show from NPR stations and help secure $3.5 million in grants to help produce the show for several years. The money, a combination of $3 million from the Reva and David Logan Foundation, and $500,000 from the Ford Foundation, will go towards staffing up and taking Reveal to a full series launching in January 2015. The goal, according to CIR executive director Robert Rosenthal, is for Reveal to become a weekly investigative show, available on public radio or as a podcast. "Each of the pilots showed there is an appetite in public media for this," Rosenthal said. But turning Reveal into the public radio version of Frontline could be a challenge. Any reporter or editor will tell you that investigative stories take time. Producing such a show weekly is ambitious, and Rosenthal said they recognize they won't be able to meet a weekly pace overnight. "We've got to ramp up our own metabolism," he said. "If it's weekly or every other week, it's going to be a change for us. And important change and a good one that helps us get control of our own distribution." Ever since its founding in 1977, the Center for Investigative Reporting has looked for partners to help spread its journalism to the widest possible audience, often appearing in print, on TV or radio, and across the web. Reveal was no different; in the second episode, CIR collaborated with WBEZ and the Chicago Reader on the heroin investigation. For a story on arsenic-laden drinking water in the third episode, they partnered with the Center for Public Integrity.
Working in tandem with other newsrooms will be an important step in producing the show on a regular basis. Joaquin Alvarado, CEO of CIR, said the pilots were designed to see how collaborative reporting would work in producing a radio show. The show is produced by Susanne Reber and Ben Adair, and hosted by Al Letson, who also hosts the show State of the Re:Union. Where the first pilot only featured reporting from CIR, the subsequent shows were produced with stories from other outlets. A combination of both will be key to producing the show consistently, Alvarado said. "We have this goal as an organization to articulate a voice for investigative reporting and bring to audiences a lot of the great investigative reporting being done around the country," Alvarado said. Jim Morris, managing editor for environment coverage at the Center for Public Integrity, said their distribution strategy mirrors CIR's in that both look regularly for collaborators. "It just gets our work out there to a much broader audience, and a different audience," he said. In this case, reporter David Heath had already done preliminary work on his story looking at the EPA's response to arsenic levels in drinking water when the two organizations decided to team up. While CPI has worked on stories with NPR and individual stations before, Morris said this process was different because Heath was the lead correspondent for radio. That meant learning a new set of skills in addition to the usual reporting process, which Morris said took around three months. "It's a different thing to produce a 15-minute radio piece than a 4,000-word print piece," Morris said. A full-fledged radio show will provide CIR and its partners a more persistent channel for their work than one-off radio pieces. But getting the show on the air will require not just interest from stations, but flexibility in their programming schedule. The first two Reveal pilots aired on 150 stations nationwide, according to Alvarado. John Barth, managing director of PRX, said the pilots aired on stations in the top 30 to 50 radio markets, which he takes as a good sign for the future. PRX co-produces Reveal, bringing its audio expertise, but also is the show's distributor, helping to get it on the air. One reason Barth thinks the show will get picked up by more stations is because programmers want a full series they can give a regular home on their schedule, not a handful of one-offs with no promise for the future. PRX and CIR are interested in programs that can match radio storytelling with longform investigations, Barth said, and he thinks stations are interested too. "I think we both recognize there was a need for more regular investigative reporting in public media," he said. Barth, who was a founding producer on Marketplace, said launching a new public media show takes time — to find distribution, to build an audience, and to develop into the show you want. "The challenge is broad," Barth said. "Making sure you can amass talent on a regular basis to deliver this…investigative reporting doesn't happen on any kind of regular schedule." Of course, the other challenge will be financial. While the new grant funding will be important in launching the show, Alvarado said they'll be looking at underwriting, events, and other fundraising to support the show on a long-term basis. Alvarado is optimistic about the prospects for funding and building community around the show. "When you start to engage around harder reporting, people really want to talk about solutions," he said. "They want to have a regular platform to followup and talk about it."
THIS WEEK'S ESSENTIAL READS: The key pieces to read this week are David Carr and Ken Doctor on what's behind the push for big media mergers, John Borthwick on clickbait, sharing, and attention, and David Boardman's warning to newspaper executives.MURDOCH'S PLAY FOR TIME WARNER: Rupert Murdoch's latest in a long history of big media takeover bids was revealed this when The New York Times reported that his 21st Century Fox made an $80 billion offer for Time Warner that was rejected last month. 21st Century Fox, the entertainment media properties of the former News Corp (Murdoch's news properties now make up News Corp), would be buying an entertainment company that includes Warner Bros. movies, Turner, and HBO, now shorn of its cable/broadband business and publishing business (which have split off as Time Warner Cable and Time Inc., respectively). Mashable's Andy Fixmer, Quartz's John McDuling, and Bloomberg's Erik Schatzker and Caitlin McCabe all said HBO is at the center of Fox's pursuit of Time Warner; it would give Fox one of the world's premier content properties and, through HBO Go, a major tool to compete with Netflix in the growing streaming video market. Bloomberg said Fox values HBO at $20 billion — a quarter of its total offer for Time Warner. Business Insider's Jay Yarow argued that Fox's interest is a bit broader: It wants to gobble up as many valuable TV properties as it can to improve its leverage with TV distributors. At Reuters, however, Jack Shafer was skeptical of the value of the deal for Murdoch, comparing it to the protectionist consolidation of publishers in the 1990s. Slate's Jordan Weissmann said the deal may be as simple as Fox digging deeper into a still very profitable business (TV), and asserted that if Murdoch wants Time Warner, he'll eventually get it. Ad Age's Simon Dumenco also made that point, declaring Murdoch "untouchable and unstoppable." USA Today's Rem Rieder marveled at how Murdoch is bouncing back from News Corp's phone-hacking scandal. Still, Business Insider's Hunter Walker noted that antitrust regulators could stand in the way of a potential deal, and The Wall Street Journal's Keach Hagey looked at what a sale might mean for the Time Warner property CNN, which would be left out of the deal as an antitrust concession. Whether it's to Fox or to someone else, Peter Lauria of BuzzFeed argued that Time Warner will sell eventually, since it likely represents the best value for its shareholders at this point. Capital New York's Alex Weprin broke down several of the other potential buyers, and Peter Kafka of Recode said it will be bought by a company that wants to make a big bet on the pay TV business. The New York Times' Jonathan Mahler and Emily Steel analyzed the turnaround at Time Warner that's made the company so attractive. The New York Times' David Carr and the Lab's Ken Doctor both explained the climate of ever-bigger mergers and consolidations that has begun to swirl again around the media industry. They pointed to a couple of major rationales for these defensive moves — size yields negotiating power, and if you can't beat ’em, buy ’em — and noted that regulators don't seem to be a big obstacle: "FOR THE MOST PART, THE CURRENT GOVERNMENT HAS PASSED ON REGULATING POTENTIAL MONOPOLIES, AND AS CITIZENS, WE HAVE BECOME INURED TO THE CONSEQUENCES OF BIGNESS," Carr wrote. Finally, USA Today's Michael Wolff and Financial Review's Neil Chenoweth looked at two behind-the-scenes players on each side who are helping engineer this possible deal: Time Warner's Gary Ginsberg, in Wolff's piece, and Fox's Chase Carey, in Chenoweth's.
GOING BEYOND CLICKBAIT AND ITS BACKLASH: "Clickbait" has been one of this summer's ongoing topics of discussion in the media world, and The Daily Beast's Emily Shire examined the anti-clickbait movement — exemplified by The Onion's Clickhole and Twitter accounts like @SavedYouAClick — as evidence that people are getting wise to the premise of duping and manipulating readers through unnecessarily coy headlines. Vox's Nilay Patel said clickbait headlines still work (most of the time) because they're essentially games for the reader to play, and Poynter's Andrew Beaujon posited that the main problem with clickbait is not the headlines, but the disappointing content that goes with them. "And yet," he said, "the blame often falls more heavily on marketing than the people churning out stuff that sucks." Betaworks CEO John Borthwick provided some data on the connection between attention and sharing that's the foundation of most clickbait's popularity, and found that there are many readers who spend very little time on pages after clicking but share the article anyway, sharing essentially based on the headline alone. But beyond those headline-sharers and the people who read on and are disappointed with the content, there are also a significant number of people who spend substantial time reading an article and are also quite likely to share it. Borthwick urged publishers to spend more time attracting those kinds of readers, and Gigaom's Mathew Ingram described Borthwick's findings as two versions of the online world: one noisy, fast, and click-driven; and the other deeper, slower, less noticeable, but still widely read and shared. One of the most prominent sites built around the former model, Upworthy, reported late last week that by far their most viewed, shared, and closely read pieces are not their own editorial content, but their native ads. At Contently, Joe Lazauskas gave a few reasons for Upworthy's remarkable success with native ads: It likely pays to relentlessly promote those ads on social networks, and the type of blandly feel-good content that makes for the best ads is exactly the same type of content Upworthy's already producing in its editorial content.
WAS SI SCOOPING OR SUCKERED?: Sports Illustrated scored the biggest breaking sports news story of the year last Friday when it ran a first-person piece by NBA star LeBron James revealing that he would re-sign with his hometown team, the Cleveland Cavaliers. The essay was written as an as-told-to piece with veteran SI journalist Lee Jenkins. Deadspin, The Wall Street Journal, and the Cleveland Plain Dealer all provided some details about how the story came about: Jenkins got wind of James' decision on Thursday, pitched a first-person piece to his editors at SI, interviewed James and wrote the piece Thursday night, and handed it off to his editors on Friday. Deadspin reported that the idea for a first-person essay was first proposed by James' camp, but The New York Times reported that it came from Jenkins. The Times' Richard Sandomir criticized SI's strategy, saying the magazine gave up an opportunity to put some journalistic weight behind a big story. Said Sandomir: "the approach cast Sports Illustrated more as a public-relations ally of James than as the strong journalistic standard-bearer it has been for decades." In an online chat, The Washington Post's Gene Weingarten echoed the point, calling it an example of a journalistic mindset in which "being first is overvalued and being good is too often beside the point, or financially imprudent." Craig Calcaterra of NBC Sports questioned what exactly Sandomir was expecting SI to add to the story, characterizing it as commodity news as opposed to a substantial story crying out for in-depth reporting. Sandomir, he said, is "FETISHIZING THE BUSINESS OF _SERIOUS JOURNALISM_ AT THE EXPENSE OF UNDERSTANDING WHAT SPORTS FANS ACTUALLY CARE ABOUT, APPRECIATING HOW INFORMED SPORTS FANS ALREADY ARE AND ASSERTING THAT THE REPORTER’S HIGHEST AND BEST FUNCTION IS TO GET BETWEEN FANS AND THE NEWS AS OPPOSED TO DELIVERING IT TO THEM." Poynter's Sam Kirkland said it's still possible for SI to break the story this way and do deeper journalism on it as well. (Jenkins was in Cleveland this week reporting a feature on James' decision.) And Deadspin's Kevin Draper looked at the other reporters who scrambled to get this scoop.
READING ROUNDUP: A few other pieces to read from this week: — Industry analyst Alan Mutter pulled together some simple numbers to remind us just how dire the newspaper industry's situation is, and Temple University's David Boardman criticized the Newspaper Association of America's Carolyn Little's rosy speech and instead urged newspapers to drop to one day a week in print. Little issued a defense of her picture of the industry. — The U.S. Federal Communications Commission's public comment period on its proposed "fast lane" plans for Internet providers was supposed to end on Tuesday, but it was postponed until today because a surge of comments from net neutrality supporters overwhelmed its system. (The FCC passed 1 million comments this week.) The Washington Post's Brian Fung explained the proposal and backlash, and at The Guardian, Dan Gillmor urged net neutrality advocates to make their voices heard. — Capital New York's Joe Pompeo profiled the new Philadelphia-based online local journalism initiative by Washington Post/TBD/Digital First veteran Jim Brady, Brother.ly, and Brady talked with Poynter's Butch Ward about what he's learned about local news. — Finally, Nebraska professor Matt Waite wrote a thoughtful and important piece on the value of doubt in data journalism, with some ideas on how to better incorporate it.
Photo of Time Warner Center by AP/Diane Bondareff. Photo of bait shop by protoflux used under a Creative Commons license.
The latest round of small grants from the Knight Prototype Fund includes several projects and digital tools that could eventually prove useful to journalists. A developer from Grist wants to build tools to measure audience in ways outside of pageviews or clicks. Another project aims to create a better tracking system for court records in Massachusetts through a public database. Talkbox, a project from New York Public Radio, would repurpose old phone booths to create a two-way line between the community and the newsroom to help with reader engagement and reporting. All Prototype Fund grantees receive $35,000 to fund their ideas in the early stages. Each project goes through a prototyping workshop and instruction on human-centered design with the LUMA Institute. After that, teams have six months to work on their project before a demo day. (Obligatory disclaimer: Knight is a funder of Nieman Lab, though not through the Prototype Fund.) Here's the full list of 16 projects:
DIY STORYCORPS by StoryCorps (Project lead: Dean Haddock): Advancing the mission of StoryCorps, a national program that records, preserves and shares people’s stories, by developing a mobile app that allows anyone to create do-it-yourself interviews. DO PUBLIC GOOD BUTTON by Public Good Software (Project lead: Dan Ratner): Developing a tool that allows people to take action on important issues through news articles; for example, someone reading an article about drunk driving could click a button and connect with related charities and advocacy groups. ENGAGEMENT TOOLS by Grist (Project lead: Chip Geller): Allowing newsrooms to better measure audience engagement, beyond clicks and page views, by creating an open-source WordPress plugin that will measure “attention minutes” to determine how long users are interacting with content. FACTO_BOT (Project lead: Will Knight): Helping prevent misinformation on Twitter by developing software that identifies stories that have been modified, and alerts people who tweeted or retweeted links to these stories that content has changed. FILMSYNC APP by University of North Carolina (Project lead: Steven King): Creating an app that will connect people who are watching a news story or documentary on television with related content through a second screen app on their smartphones. GLOBAL I-HUB ICIJ (Project lead: Mar Cabra): Making collaboration on cross-border investigative stories easier by providing a secure, easy-to-use platform for reporters to communicate through Facebook-like status updates, threaded communications on specific topics, individual messaging and file sharing. MARKET ATLAS (Project lead: Jon Gosier): Scaling a data provider network that allows citizens to collect and share microeconomic data from countries in Africa that lack financial infrastructure; providing reliable, consistent financial data should encourage greater investment in the area. OPENSTREETMAP PLUGIN FOR OPEN DATA KIT by Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (Project lead: Kate Chapman): Allowing easier collection of open geographic data, even in places with connectivity issues, by combining Open Data Kit’s data collection with OpenStreetMap’s data community. PATIENTSASSEMBLE by PatientsLikeMe (Project lead: Chris Fidyk): Helping people with chronic illnesses interact with policymakers through open-source collaborative tools that will allow users to provide feedback and shape issues that are important to them. PILOT FOR SCHOOL by The Virginian-Pilot (Project lead: Shawn Day): Building a targeted digital system that will allow Virginia teachers to search newspaper content and use it to complement class curriculums; content will align with Virginia’s Standards of Learning and help students apply academic concepts to what's happening in their community. PUBLIC DATABASE OF MASSACHUSETTS COURT RECORDS by MassINC (Project lead: Steve Koczela): Allowing journalists and the public to better monitor court cases through an online filing and database system for Massachusetts court records. PUBLIC RECORD (ADVANCED EMERGENCY RADIO SCANNER AND REPOSITORY) (Project lead: Tal Achituv): Creating a tool that will allow journalists to better track current events and investigate past events; with the tool newsrooms can record interactions on police/emergency radios, set alerts and listen to archived content. QC TOOLS by Bay Area Video Coalition (Project lead: Carol Varney): Allowing media organizations, journalists and others to easily preserve analog video through an open-source video digitization app that is inexpensive and easy to use. TALKBOX by New York Public Radio (Project lead: Caitlan Thompson): Involving the community in news stories by repurposing phone booths in specific neighborhoods that will provide residents with a direct, two-way line to the New York Public Radio newsroom; a “Talkbox” can help with engaging new audiences or to get information in a neighborhood where a reporting project is taking place. THE LAST GRAPH (Project Lead: Ben Conners): Helping journalists engage with audiences by allowing readers to interact with the final paragraph of a story through a database of “actions” that lead to reader involvement on an issue; for example, the last graph of an article on air pollution could include an action that encourages readers to sign a pledge to use public transit more. VERITZA (Project lead: Djordje Padejski): Helping reporters more easily find story leads from public records through a web platform that allows users to create alerts on information in these records; the platform will do this by scraping and aggregating data and analyzing it for patterns and anomalies.
While the United States' newspaper industry has faced more rapid disruption than any other country's, it's also benefited from the world's most vigorous nonprofit journalism sector. But with rapid changes affecting the German newspaper business, a new media startup there aims to bring the ProPublica approach abroad, creating the country's first nonprofit investigative news organization. CORRECT!V, a data-journalism focused investigative organization, is being backed by the Brost Foundation by a grant of €1 million a year for three years. Brost was founded in 2011 via a €300 million euro gift from Annelise Brost, the wife of a German publishing mogul Erich Brost, most famous for founding German newspaper Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung. Correctiv (all caps removed for the benefit of our readers) has ambitious plans. Like ProPublica in its early days, it plans to publish mainly through partner organizations, in multimedia formats, including TV and radio. Their seven-person team, which they hope will grow to 20 within the year, is well connected in German media — for example, founder and director David Schraven had been head of investigations at Funke Mediengruppe since 2010. Those connections will make placing Correctiv content in popular outlets easier; Schraven says they're already in talks to develop an investigative radio show with a major German station. In addition, they have plans for multiple books — printed books, ebooks, and at least one comic book, about a fascist terrorist group. "We are completely focused on data journalism," Schraven says. The team intends to compile and share large datasets that map people in power to the money behind them, collaborating with local open data organizations as well as other newsrooms. Correctiv's outreach will extend to education as well — senior reporters on the team will travel throughout Germany, helping journalists and "regular people" learn data journalism skills. "I don't know whether there's any newsroom in the world who does that," says Schraven. Being a first for Germany leaves it lots of room to define its territory and to learn from what's been tried elsewhere. "To be honest, there is no competition," says Schraven. "There are other newsrooms and guys around to do investigations, but a newsroom who is focused on this? There isn't anyone else." Before launch, members of the Correctiv team met with investigative nonprofits outside Germany, including ProPublica, the Global Investigative Journalism Network, and members of INN, to discuss the project. "They thought that we could tell our stories, get our stories, but they said we should be very careful on the funding side," says Schraven. "And they are right, this is the most important — to get the money." To that end, Correctiv hopes to diversify its revenue streams, including both additional foundation support and individual donors. Schraven says his goal for a few years down the road is an annual budget of between €3 million and €4 million a year. Ken Doctor has written for the Lab, foundation funding is rarer because foundations are rarer, which could make life difficult for Schraven. Stephen Weichert, director of Hamburg Media School's digital journalism program, says Germany doesn't have a long history of foundation-funded news organizations. "Unfortunately, we don't have a lot of wealthy philanthropists thinking of journalism as a sponsored field yet. We also don't have foundations like the Knight Foundation that push real money into journalism to stimulate innovation and entrepreneurship in the news industry," Weichert says. But that doesn't mean that noncommercial media is entirely new to Germany. Die Tageszeitung, a German political news outlet that focuses on small countries and outsider politicians, has been cooperatively owned since 1979. Editor-in-chief Ines Pohl says 14,000 people pay between €5,000 and €20,000 euros for a a spot among the paper's shareholders. "This whole crowdfunding idea is the birth idea of the taz," as the paper is known, says Pohl. "We had a thousand people paying for the first edition before it was printed."
Pohl says while German media needs an infusion of capital, there are two challenges inherent to accepting philanthropic money. First, the organization should endeavor to provide oversight that ensures editorial independence from their benefactor. Second, she says, "the funding in the beginning might be easier than funding over time." But both Schraven and Weichert agree that foundation funding could have a future in Germany. Weichert himself helped found VOCER, a media startup that is "completely financed by foundation money." Schraven believes that philanthropic support for Correctiv, and for all German news startups, will grow. "I'm talking to a lot of foundations that fund cultural stuff — museums, and other stuff," he says. "They see that we've got problems with our papers. They see that we've got problems with our news industry. I'm pretty sure I can convince some of them to fund us — to change their idea of funding." So, yes, Correctiv is Germany's first nonprofit devoted to data-centric investigative journalism. But Germany's news-minded citizens have long been familiar with important reporting supported by something other than circulation or advertising, even if the "nonprofit" classification (or _verein_ in German) is relatively new. In fact, in some ways, the narrow focus on big investigations may be more novel to a German audience. "Investigative journalism in Germany isn't so big. That has a lot to do with our privacy laws. It's much more difficult to really dig deep," says Pohl. "It is changing over the years, but the tradition isn't so big." Pohl pointed to the organization Netzwerk Recherche (roughly, "investigation network") as an example of growing interest in expanding investigative efforts in Germany. NR is, among other things, interested in working to assure German nonprofits the same tax benefits that similar organizations receive in the U.S. Weichert also sees investigative journalism as a potential growth area in Germany. "There have been a lot of investigative divisions established in the last few years within the newsrooms," he said in an email. "Furthermore, some newsrooms decided to build networks between traditional publishing houses and public service broadcasting authorities. One good example is the ongoing collaboration between Süddeutsche Zeitung, Norddeutscher Rundfunk, and Westdeutscher Rundfunk. A handful of the best reporters are working for together under the lead of Georg Mascolo the former editor-in-chief of Der Spiegel." Although some in the German media industry are critical of merging public funds and private dollars, Pohl says she believes, in the long run, collaborations between existing major outlets are more likely to be successful than startups, which are burdened by having to fill their coffers and build their brand simultaneously. But, she adds, if there was a mutually interesting project, she'd be interested in having the taz and Correctiv collaborate. She also has faith in Schraven as a leader. "He's not only a money maker, he's not someone who wants to do a cool startup business," Pohl says. "He's a true, true journalist." In the end, the real proof of what Annelise Brost's fortune can do for German journalism will be born out in the work Correctiv produces, and when it comes to getting stories, Schraven says he has more than enough whistleblowers lined up. In addition, the team has multiple data projects already underway, including "a broad overview of the mobster structures in Germany" with a database of over a thousand individuals, plus a healthcare project that's comparable to ProPublica's Dollars for Docs. If those projects pan out, Correctiv could stand as an example to future German donors of what happens when investigative journalism is supported. Next to corporately-funded Investigate! and crowdfunded Krautreporter, it could even be that Germany is seeing the beginning of a serious turn away from reliance on legacy media. "Some big papers in Germany are in trouble now, some are already closed. That's a new thing here," says Pohl. "It's kind of easy to get the money now for the funding, but to keep these organizations running — that will be the big, big challenge. And that will depend on the success these groups, like David's, will have."
Photos via the Correctiv Instagram account.
Rupert Murdoch's announced $80 billion pursuit of Time Warner this morning seemed like a bolt out of the blue to many. But the strong winds of consolidation make this kind of foray — and the others likely to follow — absolutely logical. Consider all the kinds of consolidation we're seeing done, or attempted, in the entertainment/news businesses. Last year was among the biggest in recent years for local broadcast consolidation, as Tribune, Gannett, and Sinclair, among others, bulking up and Local TV, Belo, and Allbritton taking the money and running. "The newsonomics of Time Inc.'s anxious spinoff") would be the only remaining "Time" — maybe a cosmically befitting result.) In May, AT&T consummated a deal with DirectTV, one that is now before Congress. Big is back, in a huge way. Of course, it never really went away. But post-Great Recession confidence and deep coffers — 21st First Century Fox has at least $5.5 billion in cash, and access to lots more; Goldman Sachs would finance the Time Warner deal if it were to happen — are now juicing it. But larger forces are shaping the quest for size. The digital disruption of the TV/film/video businesses is a prime driver. Consumers are moving madly from constrained, through-the-old-pipes broadcast to over-the-top products. The astounding American conversion to global _fútbol_ is in significant part attributable to ESPN mastering its WatchESPN mobile/web experience. Early reports show that such non-"TV" watching produced major new audience; about 3.2 million viewers tuned into WatchESPN’s app to watch the USA-Germany game, for example. (Poor Time Inc. even had to tell its staff not to stream matches at their desks — not because they should be doing real work, but because all the bandwidth was bringing the company's network to its knees.) So for this World Cup, masses of Americans learned what it means to "authenticate" through their cable suppliers to follow games on their iPhones and Androids. Now consider ESPN, owned by Disney, and its plans into the future. It commands the highest rates for cable and satellite coverage, about $5.54 per subscriber, by far the highest in the land. Still, though, the rat-a-tat-tat of cord cutting stories and advice, including yesterday's from the Journal's Geoff Fowler, will just get louder and louder — and more acted upon. Think about where this is going. ESPN, like Time Warner's HBO, wants to have it both ways: keep up its rich stream of cable fees _and_ offer an increasing array of direct-to-consumer products. The pipes companies, however consolidated or not, want to keep the lid on à la carte offerings as long as they can — and partake in some à la carte revenue themselves. (Witness Comcast's current one-off, pay-per-view selling of movies as just one example.) It's murky how this will all turn out. You could argue that the digital revolution puts consumers in the driver's seat, forcing an unbundling. But the bigger the pipes companies get — consider a merged Comcast/Time Warner and AT&T/DirecTV world — the more raw power they have to maintain the legacy business models as long as possible, and then to negotiate the most favorable deals in a cord-cut world. Today's attempted deal is, in large part, about that getting a negotiating edge on the other guy. Improve your deal by a few dimes on a cable customer or a revenue share and, over time, billions of dollars hang in the balance. Then add in the widening blur in emerging screens world. The Supreme Court's Aereo decision has bought the local broadcast chains some time. It laid to rest immediate doubts about the lucrative and growing retransmission fees the broadcasters get. They are now able to forecast the $7.6 billion in cable and satellite retrans fees by 2019. Of course, to maximize that revenue, big is the operative word. The broadcast consolidation has provided its own clout — an escalating battle of big vs. big vs. big. Big is completely logical from a corporate point of view. With Netflix, Amazon, Google (and then Apple, Yahoo, and hosts of smaller players) busting down the doors among TV, movies, and digital video, one question is how to manage the digital blur. We know where this is going, with digital video eating up the categories of "broadcast" and maybe even "movies" over time. The question is what the new ecosystem looks like. There, there's at least a three-part dance. There will be the pipes (cable/satellite) companies, still with huge power in the United States. There will be the studios, producing the bigger, mass video entertainments, like the 21st Century Foxes and Time Warners. Then there'll be the digital-native companies, stoked by the confidence that years of astounding digital business disruption builds. All the legacy companies — 21st Century Fox, Time Warner, AT&T, DirecTV, the big broadcast groups, among others — feel the hot uncertain breath of Netflix, Amazon, Apple, and Google on their necks. All of the digital giants are beginning to blast away at the traditional bundles, habits, and pricing. All are eating away at legacy companies' customers and cash flows. We see uncertain legacy responses like Hulu, which is clearly insufficient in staunching the tide. So the efforts at consolidation are as much defensive as offensive. A combined 21st Century Fox/Time Warner would produce about $65 billion in revenues. That's the size of…Google. Google's net income this year should be in the neighborhood of $14 billion. Figure a combined 21st Century Fox/Time Warner would come just below that number. The argument: In a Google-dominated world, you have to bulk up to compete. One other argument is the usually over-hyped "synergies." Acquiring CEOs like to put big numbers on the likely "synergies" in such consolidation. Murdoch's first number, subject to the due diligence that Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes has so far rejected, is $1 billion, a nice round one. In Amol Sharma's good take on the Fox pitch today in The Wall Street Journal, he quotes Janney Capital Markets analyst Tony Wible, who said last month about such a deal: "However improbable it may seem, one cannot overlook this megadeal given its immense financial benefits that dovetail with a number of strategic benefits," noting their combination of cable channels, studios, and rights to major sporting events. Translation: Synergy as clout. Yes, headcount can inevitably be cut, especially expensive corporate staffs, but redundancy isn't the major driver here. Market clout — if not quite market domination — is. Of course, there are a couple of other noteworthy players here: consumers and creatives. For creatives, this new golden age (quick, to-the-point Derek Thompson explanation here) of boundary-busting, digitally driven, high-quality TV has been an unexpected boon. They've got a number of big studios to pitch to and negotiate with, including Fox, TW, Scripps, and AMC, and now the Netflixes, Amazons, and Yahoos. Consolidation of studios could again rearrange the relative bargaining power of the creatives and the network execs. Maybe, digital disruption would open new doors, even if some older ones get boarded up, or maybe not. For consumers, it's a blur of big names and unclear implications. All the consolidators, in cable, satellite, broadcast, and studio, make a similar case: _We need efficiencies so we can invest in the digital products and technologies of tomorrow, which will produce consumer gain._ Usually included is a feint that pricing will go down, given all these efficiencies, though there's scant evidence of that. Americans already pay about twice as much for TV/internet packages as do our European cousins — and their broadband is usually both faster and regulated. "Mind your own business, Facebook and Google"), regulations and laws, regulators and politicians are a couple of decades late and many dollars short in confronting the nature of digital business domination. While the Europeans fight a rear-guard anti-monopoly battle against Google (which is even more dominant there than in the U.S.), the great business boundary-disrupting of digital media has perplexed and flummoxed those trying to figure out The Public Interest here. In many ways, "antitrust," "the public interest," and "local station diversity" all seem like artifacts of another age, waiting to be redefined. "The newsonomics of Comcast's deal and our digital wallets"). Secondly, there's the question of where all this business changes affects us as citizens. To be sure, most of this is about "entertainment," but that broad category also includes the kind of hard-hitting documentary and storytelling work that HBO, for example, excels in. Then there's the news component. 21st Century Fox preemptively said in its narrative on today's offer that it would split off the Time Warner-owned CNN — making the point that it wouldn't be forced into a shotgun marriage with archrival Fox News. That's pure Murdochian strategizing. Although it's hard to see _who_ would have the regulatory authority to review a Fox News/CNN merger (yikes!), Murdoch is paying attention to the court of public opinion and getting ahead of what could be/could have been a major stumbling block. Rupert — and son James — scoped out this one well, and don't think we've heard the last of it, despite Jeff Bewkes' immediate stonewalling. Time Warner — and much of the entertainment/broadcast landscape — is solidly in play. Meanwhile, let's remember that Rupert likes playing more than one game at a time. With persistent word that he wants the L.A. Times and may buy all eight Tribune newspapers if he needs to in order to get to it, we see the next stage of the Tribune modern day soap opera unfolding. Come Aug. 4, Tribune Publishing will finally be split off from Tribune Corp. If Rupert's people haven't yet had conversations on the acquisition, expect them to commence over the next several months. Let's remember he also salted away $2 billion in split-off News Corp, and Tribune papers may well be bought for a quarter to a third of that sum.
Photo by cncphotos used under a Creative Commons license.
It took almost a year and a half for nonprofit news site Eye on Ohio to get its tax-exempt status approved by the IRS this spring. Launched in the fall of 2012 by former business reporter Lori Ashyk, the site aims to follow the model of many smaller nonprofit news startups: reporting some of the investigative stories and statewide news that have fallen by the wayside as daily newspapers have shrank. Ashyk knows the stories of other news nonprofits who've had difficulty navigating the tax-exemption process at the IRS and seen their applications disappear into a kind of limbo. "Compared to some of the other news organizations, it's not that bad," she said. But there might be new relief for at least some journalists looking to get into the world of nonprofit news. This month, the IRS introduced a new application that makes getting tax-exempt status not much more complicated than ordering a pizza online. What was once a 26-page form has been cut down to three, and groups will now only have to pay a $400 fee rather than $850 to apply. Not all would-be nonprofits will be eligible for the streamlined process: The new form is only open to groups with annual income of less than $50,000 and assets of less than $250,000. While that might seem like a low threshold, the IRS estimates around 70 percent of the organizations applying for 501(c)(3) status will qualify. And with the greater ease of use will come less government oversight: Some groups, such as the National Council of Nonprofits and the National Association of State Charity Officers, say the streamlined process is an invitation for groups to abuse tax-exempt status.
universe of nonprofit news outlets has expanded in recent years as traditional media have shrank and some reporters have moved into more entrepreneurial roles. But one element of that growth has moved at a pace that fluctuates between erratic and glacial thanks to that 501(c)(3) approval process. In one of the more notable cases, it took the San Francisco Public Press 32 months to get approval from the IRS. Last year, a coalition of organizations including Knight Foundation and the Council on Foundations issued a report calling for the IRS to change its "antiquated and counterproductive" rules for granting tax-exempt status to journalism nonprofits. The IRS says it has a backlog of 60,000 applications, with most pending for at least nine months. The new 501(c)(3) process was one result of the scrutiny the IRS received for the way it reviewed political groups seeking tax-exempt status. The idea behind the new application is to help small nonprofits avoid that tax-exempt purgatory and to help an IRS with less resources. According to IRS Commissioner John Koshinen in an interview with Time, the change will mean the division that reviews tax-exemption requests will see 40,000 to 50,000 fewer applications. "If I was someone starting from scratch right now, I would certainly be looking at this. It's a lot easier than it has been," said Brant Houston, board chair at the Investigative News Network, which includes about 100 nonprofit newsrooms. The existing IRS review process for 501(c)(3) status is rigorous, but largely opaque, as organizations often received little information about the status of their application, Houston said. For many, that meant finding a fiscal sponsor to help manage the financial tasks in the early days of the startup, Houston said. "People spent years waiting to go through the process, and it was not entirely clear why some are waiting two years and others go through in four months," he said. While the new 501(c)(3) process is simpler than the past, it comes with a test. Any group wanting tax-exempt status through the new 1023-EZ form has to pass a 7-page, 26-question eligibility worksheet where just one "yes" answer disqualifies an organization. The other requirements are the annual revenue and assets ceiling. Big-name journalism nonprofits like ProPublica, the Center for Investigative Reporting, or The Texas Tribune crossed the $50,000 income hurdle a long time ago. But there's still a long list of small and growing organizations whose budgets fit that requirement, said Andy Sellars, a clinical fellow at the Cyberlaw Clinic at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. "That $50,000 mark is well within the operating budget of a lot of these new organizations," Sellars said.
The Cyberlaw Clinic provides pro-bono legal aid to a number of nonprofit news sites, many of whom have a relatively small staff and limited budget, Sellars said. While efforts like the newly launched Marshall Project come with substantial financial backing from the outset, others are scraping together donations and using their own money. "This is a tremendous change for a lot of organizations, and I hope it means organizations can increasingly do this on their own as well," Sellars said. "It's one less obstacle going forward. But just because the application for becoming a 501(c)(3) is simpler doesn't mean news nonprofits can overlook the process. Journalism itself still isn't recognized as an activity eligible for nonprofit status. Most nonprofit news organizations instead put themselves in the category of education. It's not a perfect fit, but it's close enough. Here's the key line on "specific activities" on the 1023-EZ form:
Example 2. An organization whose activities consist of presenting public discussion groups, forums, panels, lectures, or other similar programs. Such programs may be on radio or television. Example 3. An organization which presents a course of instruction by means of correspondence or through the utilization of television or radio.Though the new 1023-EZ application offers an easier path to gaining 501(c)(3) status, the original form can be very instructional to would-be nonprofits, said Eric Gorovitz, a lawyer at Adler & Colvin who specializes in nonprofit legal issues. The new form is short on details and explanations, instead asking applicants to supply basic information under the "penalty of perjury." Earlier this month, Gorovitz wrote about the new form:
Unlike its much more detailed sibling, the Form 1023-EZ asks the applicant to attest to a series of conclusory statements about its governing documents, purposes, and activities, but does not require elaboration or attachments. Applicants using the new form do not have to provide any details about, for example, their relationships with insiders or their finances.In the longer form, applicants have to explain in detail what their organization does, how it will be structured, and how those things fit within the boundaries of what the IRS allows. That has the benefit of sharpening an organization's focus and better understanding what they are allowed to do, he said. For journalism nonprofits, that might mean addressing the issue of revenue sources (the ratio of advertising revenue and subscriptions to other sources), and being explicit about any political activity (editorial-style candidate endorsements, for example). "It probably makes it easier for small journalism enterprises to get started," Gorovitz said of the new form. "The question is, when they get bigger, doing things they think are fine, but have not learned they aren't fine." (Interestingly, Gorovitz also points out another side effect of the new 1023-EZ might be a loss of detailed background information for journalists _investigating_ nonprofits.) At places like Eye on Ohio, it's likely the new 501(c)(3) application would have helped things get up and running faster. Though the process of getting tax-exempt status was long, Ashyk says it was useful because it helped shape her strategy for the site. Because of a question she received from the IRS on community involvement, Ashyk is planning to set up a community advisory board to help guide the site. Getting the seal of approval from the IRS makes a big difference in the livelihood of nonprofits like Eye on Ohio, but of course it's just the beginning of the work. "We're very much in a startup stage, even though we've been around for over a year," Ashyk said. "Things haven't really changed that much. We'll be in charge of our own funding now — but since we don't have any it hasn't made a whole lot of difference yet."
Photo of tax forms from the Brookline Library used under a Creative Commons license.
Let’s say you have a research topic, and maybe even an angle. You dive in by reading the canonical classics, all of which seem to cite one other, and maybe some of the most recent debates. Now what? Or perhaps you’ve been studying the same topic for years and feel stuck. How can you find a fresh take on a stale debate? By this point, you might have exhausted the help that discovery platforms like Google and Facebook can provide. Google will reveal the most-cited works (especially on the more specialized Google Scholar or Google News), and Facebook might yield the ones your friends or subject experts value — but there's no easy way to break out of the networks that define these platforms. Libraries provide content-based discovery portals, which offer one way out, but they often give you too much to wade through, with clunky interfaces and varying levels of relevance.
These limitations are not exclusive to serious researchers. News consumers frequent the same platforms, and they are subsequently directed to the most cited, the most retweeted, and the most relevant keywords. Network-based, big data methods for sorting the wheat from the chaff carry promise, but they rely on their own assumptions about value (mostly based on what's already popular or viral), and they risk boxing out hidden gems and chance encounters in the process. In other words, the filter bubble affects history scholars as much as casual news browsers — and scholars' careers often depend on unearthing something rare and different. As a result, some researchers in the humanities and library worlds are looking for possible paths out of the research bubble for historians and scholars. By looking towards existing browsing and searching habits in both physical and digital environments, they hope to help scholars never miss the information they need — a problem that carries great weight in the news world as well. The goal, in effect, is to increase the role of serendipitous discovery in online research. Old-school types are nostalgic for the days of walking into the library stacks and seeing what books catch one’s eye; digital tools often have trouble enabling this sort of accidental discovery, where a user finds something valuable that they didn't even know they wanted. But serendipitous encounters don’t have to be analog; if anything, digital tools should be able to foster _more_ serendipity, since they can effortlessly reorder categories, effectively rearranging stacks based on the researcher’s avenue of inquiry. But how would one engineer serendipity — and can we even call something serendipitous if it was engineered? WHAT IS SERENDIPITOUS? Serendipity can be loosely defined as a chance encounter or an accidental discovery that leads to added insight or value. It seems random, but this definition goes beyond merely injecting randomness into an algorithm. One definition proposed by Gary Fine and James Deegan is “the unique and contingent mix of insight coupled with chance.” The “insight” part is crucial. Serendipity requires a user who is ready to make connections that aren’t obviously there — making it a particularly difficult problem for a computer. In attempting to classify serendipity, Stephann Makri and Ann Blandford see three facets: how _unexpected_ was the encounter or connection; how much _insight_ did it require from the person making it; and how much _value_ did it give them? Whether or not this works for every instance, it shows the variety of ways in which one can define an encounter as serendipitous — and how often a seemingly lucky event was in fact somewhat directed. Finding a fortuitous article on Facebook or making an important contact at a conference still require following the right person or attending the right conference. Anabel Quan-Haase, a professor at the University of Western Ontario, has been researching the role of serendipity in the research process for humanities scholars. She sees the process of serendipitous discovery as a function of a researcher’s “prepared mind,” the first step for serendipity. In order for any accidental connection to occur, the user must be ready for it, which makes the timing of the encounter crucial. This may set back digital tools that are geared towards highly targeted search, where a user is already in the mindset of looking for a specific item. Beyond a prepared mind, a user must notice the find, stop to review it, extract the information, and finally return to it for future use. In each of these steps, design and user experience play a crucial role — even beyond the initial question of engineering a random-but-relevant encounter. ENGINEERING SERENDIPITY A user must be mentally prepared for an accidental insight, but it’s unlikely that they’re thinking “I’m feeling serendipitous today.” So standalone platforms that encourage random discoveries could limit the ways in which serendipity can integrate into our digital lives. But Quan-Haase says that adding serendipity to targeted search would make little sense, given how long we have spent honing the search experience for specific results. Instead, perhaps, we could augment rather than replace search — something like a “serendipity widget,” for example, in the sidebar of a search interface. Such a widget could display articles at random pertaining to the keyword — or perhaps it could target a little further. One could envision a system that looks at your past searches and attempts to blend them with your present one, or grabs exclusively from sources you don’t normally peruse. You might call this a separate facet for targeted discovery rather than a truly serendipitous encounter (again, there are levels of serendipity), but it could serve the goal of finding what you didn’t know you wanted. Many users in Quan-Haase’s studies cite Twitter as a serendipitous platform. I for one have found many of my most useful sources while randomly browsing Twitter, sometimes after hours of fruitless searching in specialized databases. I know I don’t see every tweet by everyone I follow, but I also know that some of the most inspiring tweets or links won't be found by simple heuristics like most-retweeted or most-favorited — so I often follow my firehose in hopes of a nugget of gold, and quite often I am not disappointed. This might suggest that Twitter might be a more serendipitous platform than Facebook or Google, which emphasize more targeted customization and personalization. It — along with the Twitter API's ease of use — also might explain why many organizations take advantage of Twitter to create whimsical bots that inject a bit of randomness into your feed. For instance, the Digital Public Library of America's DPLA Bot grabs a random noun and uses its API to share the first result it finds. Lamenting that “the API has no means of calling up totally random items,” the DPLA Bot aims to “infuse what we all love about libraries — serendipitous discovery — into the DPLA.” For now though, this random dive into digital stacks is not personalized, which means you could be in the wrong section of the library.
Crazy about chivalries? Then see "The history of chivalry /" at http://t.co/gJDSXVz47W— DPLA Bot (@DPLAbot) July 12, 2014The British Library's Mechanical Curator similarly posts random resources with no customization, but its special focus on images in the library's 17th- to 19th-century collections gives it a lighter and more visual feel. More for curiosity seekers than serious researchers, the library suggests on its blog that “the pursuit of knowledge is not the point.”
Photo: Image from ‘Chambers’s Alternative Geography Readers. Standard IV.(-VII.)’, 000655321 Author:… http://t.co/0HhdHhBZqt — Mechanical Curator (@MechCuratorBot) July 15, 2014The TroveNewsBot, built on the National Library of Australia's 370 million resources, features more interactivity. Send the bot any text, and it will dig through the Trove API for a matching result:
@mailbackwards 28 Sep 1992: 'Serendipitous combination September 25′ http://t.co/gg4kmwliOT— TroveNewsBot (@TroveNewsBot) July 15, 2014It doesn't stop there: adding #earliest gives the first result in their collection, #latest the most recent; you can also limit the query by year and location. Give the bot a URL and it will fetch the link’s keywords and query the API with them, allowing TroveNewsBot to “respond” to any article on the web. The bot strikes a nice balance between targeted search and random luck, although your luck starts to run out if your interests lie far from Trove's collections (primarily, Australian newspapers published between 1803 and 1954). Regardless, it's good fun, as exemplified by the TroveNewsBot's guide to child rearing. DESIGNING FOR SERENDIPITY Veering away from Twitter, one tool that seems to get serendipity right is Serendip-o-matic, a project of the One Week | One Tool initiative. Brian Croxall explains that due to the project's one-week time frame, experimentation and play were baked into the development process, and emphasized at the outset over feature-complete engineering marvels. Rather than using language like “select” or “upload,” they suggest that you “grab some text.” When you hit “Make some magic!” the tool peruses digital collections from the DPLA, Trove, Europeana, and Flickr, returning a series of multimedia documents that hopefully broaden your horizons to the topic at hand. As might be expected, some results are more serendipitous than others. It’s also hard to know why a certain image or document was selected, which could otherwise be helpful in directing future searches. All the same, Serendip-o-matic’s playful setup and language prime the user well for making accidental discoveries. These tools (along with others, such as the EuropeanaBot) are primarily targeting digital humanists and historians who are in a rut, but they each have their own insights about what is serendipitous versus simply random. It is difficult to plan for unplanned discoveries, especially so for a computer. Events are only serendipitous in hindsight, consisting of varying levels of planning versus dumb luck. But it seems quite possible to design for serendipitous discoveries, and to help put a user in the mindset for it.
Imagine a "serendipity widget" in your Facebook or Twitter feed, or on the sidebar of a New York Times article. The number and variety of signals that could go into it are endless, and many would bring their own biases. All the same, it would at least offer another pathway into news that relies on different assumptions, adds a sense of playfulness, and reminds a user that there's more than one way to slice content. Injecting randomness and play into recommendation systems could be valuable in its own right, but it seems especially timely given the current moment's intense focus on content personalization. We all want relevant information, but perhaps you want to see something that users _unlike_ you liked, or something no one has ever stumbled across ever before. Controlled randomness could be one small way to push back on hyper-curation.
Photo by Bob Gaffney used under a Creative Commons license.
WFMU received grants totaling $400,000 from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation to launch the product, the first of which was issued last July. A portion of the funds were used to bring on new developers to build the platform, and the station is scheduled to roll-out a prototype, which will be tested by WFMU and two other New Jersey radio stations, in the next month or two. It plans to continue to develop more features and add additional organizations through 2015, Freedman said. "We’re approaching this as an open-sourced project because so many media organizations grapple with the exact same problems, even in different media," Freedman said in a telephone interview. "I’ve been struck with how digital journalists are facing a lot of the same issues as broadcasters."
Why The New York Times and The Washington Post (and Mozilla) are building an audience engagement platform together
Indeed, Molly de Aguiar, director of media grants at Dodge, said the foundation agreed, and believes news organizations could benefit from Audience Engine, even though WFMU isn't primarily news-focused. (They do offer some public affairs programming.) "We are very energized by WFMU’s creativity and resourcefulness," de Aguiar said. "There’s so much that they do with their own community of listeners that can be shared with news organizations in New Jersey." Throughout the development process, WFMU has received advice from Union Square Ventures, a venture capital firm that was an early investor in companies like Twitter and Tumblr, and the Open Source Initiative, a group committed to promoting open-source software. They also hired Open Tech Strategies, a consulting firm, to advise them at the start of the project. One of WFMU's top goals for Audience Engine is to make it self-sustaining. To that end, the station is creating a for-profit subsidiary to assist customers in getting on board, from customizing the platform to training their staff. "We hope that we will be able to create a revenue flow that we will be able to keep developing it and keep the project up and running without constantly having to go back to foundations for money," said Freedman. Audience Engine will include the core functions of the WFMU system — fundraising and community engagement. For example, during WFMU pledge drives, fundraising widgets not only pop up on the website, but are also embeddable so staff members and listeners can encourage donations on WordPress, Blogger, Tumblr, and other websites. Users will also have the ability to easily post audio, video, and text. Other top Audience Engine features include a comment system that Freedman says allows "audience members to communicate and chat with each other without the quality of that discussion going down into the pits of hell, like a YouTube comment thread." He's also excited about the platform's annotation tool, which he hopes will add more permanence to user contributions. "There are great, substantial, creative contributions that people make related to the content that we, as a publisher, are putting out there," Freedman said. "What we want to be able to do is to take those great contributions and annotate our content with them so that it’s not just a stray comment in the wind that, after the show, is lost forever. We want to be able to permanently attach it to the record of the content that we’re playing."
Audience Engine is likely to be most appealing to small- and medium-sized organizations, but even so, Freedman recognizes that each newsroom might not need or want the entire suite of tools. "We’re trying to make it modular, so people can just pick and choose and use pieces of it until hopefully they're comfortable with just using the entire thing," he said. Others, like Mark Maben, general manager of WSOU and one of the participants in the Audience Engine pilot, are drawn to Audience Engine because it combines so many functions — content creation, audience engagement, _and_ fundraising — into one system. "Any avenue that can be done to bring in donations to the station, that’s good for everybody," he says. "There’s not a noncommercial station out there that’s going to say no to something like that."
Photo of an engine by Ersu used under a Creative Commons license.
Just five months after opening up its Data Store — which sells some of the big datasets its reporters produce for stories and projects — ProPublica says it's generated "well over" $30,000 in new revenue. That figure comes from ProPublica president Richard Tofel in an interview with Southern Methodist University journalism professor Jake Batsell. Since they opened up shop in February, Tofel says more than 500 data sets have been downloaded.
“The 500 downloads, that’s probably more important from a mission standpoint,” Tofel told me. But those who have paid for the premium sets — so far, mostly companies and consultants from the medical industry — may well become repeat customers down the road, when it’s time to update the data. “I think we would consider it a successful experiment in that sense,” he said.making more data publicly available. Here's ProPublica data reporter Ryann Grochowski Jones on the store — "Our databases are a finished product":
If you look at the list of most popular stories on New York magazine's front page, you'll see in the No. 2 slot this piece by Ann Friedman, "Why I'm Glad I Quit New York at Age 24." And if you click through, you'll see that it was published last September. Why did it resurface? New York pushed it out on Facebook yesterday, as if it were a new story. And why did it do that?
@jessmisener https://t.co/iGkE9J0evm -- Stefan Becket (@stefanjbecket) July 14, 2014
@jessmisener ~75% of our Facebook followers didn't see it the first time. -- Stefan Becket (@stefanjbecket) July 14, 2014
@jessmisener (i.e., we have a lot more now) -- Stefan Becket (@stefanjbecket) July 14, 2014New York now has over 950,000 likes on Facebook. And, as publishers are keenly aware, most of your Facebook fans never see what you publish anyway. Good on New York for finding a new audience for an old piece. But I also want to highlight something useful that the BBC is doing to counteract the impression that years-later bursts of social activity can give — that an old news event is happening right now. As sighted by Meg Pickard, formerly of The Guardian (and a few days earlier by this guy):
Not sure how long this notification's been on BBCNews. Should reduce confusion when old stories surface. Context=good pic.twitter.com/o3KDS0db8e -- Meg Pickard (@megpickard) July 13, 2014
One reason BBC context flag is good: this story comes up fairly regularly, after a flurry of views from blogs/SM etc http://t.co/HkHXnIFRM6 -- Meg Pickard (@megpickard) July 13, 2014(The bra story in question is about Brandi Chastain at the 1999 Women's World Cup and it was originally posted in April.) Leaving New York is eternal, and I imagine Chastain's story will continue to be told for a long time too. In these cases, their newness or oldness isn't crucial. But that's not true on all news stories. I'm glad the BBC now has a system for highlighting when a popular news story isn't necessarily a new one.
In case you spent Friday under a rock, and that rock had no wifi and, like, only one bar of signal, all-world basketball player LeBron James announced he would be returning to his old team, the Cleveland Cavaliers. Breaking the story was Sports Illustrated, which published a first-person essay by James "as told to" SI staffer Lee Jenkins. It was quite a get for SI; at the moment, the story's been tweeted over 140,000 times. But Richard Sandomir of The New York Times didn't care for it much, writing a story ominously headlined "Getting the Scoop, but Not Necessarily the Story; Role of Sports Illustrated in LeBron James's Announcement Raises Journalistic Questions."
…armed with the biggest news of the day, the magazine presented it as a 952-word statement on its website from the King, not a full-blown news story with context and breadth… News value aside, the approach cast Sports Illustrated more as a public-relations ally of James than as the strong journalistic standard-bearer it has been for decades. And while James’s words may have been all that the sports world wanted to hear, the magazine should have pressed for a story that carried more journalistic heft.That seemed a bit much to me; I seem to remember the Times letting Angelina Jolie tell her story in first person when she had a big announcement to make. But baseball writer Craig Calcaterra pushed back better than I could:
This is crazy. It’s an instance where Sandomir and the Times — who I think are fantastic most of the time, by the way — are fetishizing the business of _Serious Journalism_ at the expense of understanding what sports fans actually care about, appreciating how informed sports fans already are and asserting that the reporter’s highest and best function is to get between fans and the news as opposed to delivering it to them. Question: what, apart from the name of the team LeBron James chose and his reason for choosing it, do people interested in this story either not know or actually care about? What sort of “journalistic heft” does Sandomir think should have been added to this to “serve the reader” better? Jenkins prefacing the actual news with "James, 29, from Akron, has played for Miami since the 2010-11 season," would not have added journalistic integrity here. It would have been byline-justifying filler. Everyone tuning in to this story knows what’s happening. Sports Illustrated and Jenkins provided them with the one thing they didn’t know: where James was going and why. If there is any concern about larger context here, it can and will be addressed by SI sidebars, bullet-pointed, fact-based graphics and, most importantly, an in-depth story from Jenkins about his conversations with James which provides deeper context. All of which, I assume, have either already been published or will soon be. [...] [James announcement is] a big event, sure, but at bottom it’s functionally equivalent to a team issuing a statement that it placed a player on the disabled list. That day’s starting lineup. A simple bit of data. A commodity. And just as sports teams and leagues are increasingly bypassing the press in order to release that sort of commodity news directly to fans via their Twitter feeds or in-house news operations, LeBron James could have very easily tweeted that he was heading back to Cleveland to his 13.6 million followers. Or, like he did back in 2010, could’ve said it on some TV show _cum_ P.R. festival he created for himself. Indeed, it’s amazing to me that Sports Illustrated even got what it got here and they should be credited for getting that much. I didn’t need more than that yesterday. I’m more than happy — hell, very, very eager — to wait for Jenkins’ in-depth followup to all of this. I bet it’ll be incredible.
Photo of LeBron James in 2009 by Keith Allison used under a Creative Commons license.