Archive for July, 2010

It’s Not Their Medium, It’s Their Message: Seven Knight-Batten Winners Mastered More Than Tech

July 20, 2010

Message in a bottle

For proof technology is changing journalism for the better, look no further than the seven organizations honored yesterday by the Knight Foundation. This year’s Knight-Batten award winners the Sunlight Foundation, ProPublica, 48 HR Magazine, the St. Petersburg Times, Ushahidi Haiti, Publish2, and The Takeaway leveraged social networks, interactive databases, mobile messages and other emerging technologies to spread information and engage their audiences.

Technology, however, is not the real star here. A lot of the tools the winners used can be easily obtained and understood by beginning users. The Sunlight Foundation’s real-time coverage of February’s health care summit, for example, used a public embed code from The White House for its live video stream. The central tool in ProPublica’s Reporting Network, meanwhile, was e-mail. Even among the more technical projects like Ushahidi’s interactive map wiki and Publish2’s content sharing platform, technology is not the real star. The real star is the values behind each project, values anyone in news — big enterprises and small enterprises, techies and non-techies — can and should start applying today — along with the previously mentioned accessible technology. There’s nothing stopping you from being a Knight-Batten winner, or at least acting like one.

Screengrab of Sunlight Foundation logoSUNLIGHT LIVE,
Sunlight Foundation

What it is: The Sunlight Foundation used data, visualizations and insight gleaned from research to contextualize real-time coverage of February’s bipartisan health care summit and promoted its work and tracked audience response with various online tools.

What it teaches: What you do before and after live coverage is as important as what you do during it.

The real-time Web renders preparation more important, not less. The success or failure of live online coverage is usually determined in days leading up to the event, not during the minutes or hours of the event itself. The Sunlight Foundation conducted intensive planning and research ahead of the seven-hour health care summit. It also monitored the audience response in real-time and after-the-fact, informing tactical decisions that day and strategic decisions for live coverage projects going forward.

Screengrab of ProPublica logo REPORTING NETWORK,
ProPublica

What it is: ProPublica enlisted an army of more than 5,000 citizen reporters with meaningful (spot checking government data), even fun (photographing congressmen attending the Super Bowl) assignments, engaging its audience and extending its journalistic reach.

What it teaches: Audience contributions rise to your expectations.

Ask your audience to contribute more than just weather photos and you might be surprised by the results you get. Even if only a fraction of your citizen journalists participate in assignments, and even if only a fraction of their contributions can be used in your coverage, making users feel like they’re part of the team goes a long way toward building audience engagement and loyalty. And when it comes to things journalists can’t do or can’t easily do themselves — like monitoring direct mailings or requesting residents-only public documents in states they don’t live in — if you don’t get it from your users you’re probably not going to get it at all.

Screengrab of 48 HR Magazine logo48 HR MAGAZINE

What it is: Starting the process on Twitter and ending it with print-on-demand Web service MagCloud, 48 HR Magazine in a single weekend crowdsourced a 60-page magazine, soliciting, editing, producing and publishing 70 entertaining, smartly presented entries.

What it teaches: Don’t ask “Why?” Ask “Why Not?” Or, better yet, just do it.

Create a magazine in 48 hours? That’s crazy. Yes, it is. But crazy doesn’t mean impossible. In the time most would spend hemming and hawing about how crazy it is these folks got it done. Like newspaper chain the Journal Register Company’s recent Ben Franklin Project, it’s a testament to the Web and its organizing power and its affordable, accessible tools. It’s also a testament to people and their willingness to take risks and think positively. In both the 48 HR Magazine and the Ben Franklin Project, somebody boldly, unequivocally stated “We’re gonna do this.” Then, impressed by the leader’s conviction if not completely convinced by it, others signed on. “Sure, why not?” Momentum built, and suddenly it didn’t seem so crazy. “Why not?” gave way to “We really are gonna do this” gave we to “We did it!”

Screengrab of PolitiFact.com logoTHE OBAMETER,
St. Petersburg Times

What it is: With users’ assistance, the St. Petersburg Times’ PolitiFact.com tracked 500 Obama campaign promises, rated them as kept, compromise, broken, stalled, in the works or not yet rated and presented the tally through simple, fun, engaging color-coded graphics.

What it teaches: The million-mile-per-hour online news cycle isn’t the Web’s fault, it’s yours.

The Web’s accelerated news cycle drives politicians to make all kinds of promises, and usually, helps them get away with it. In July, when all eyes seem to be on the thermometer or the Gulf Coast, remarks made 19 months ago in a snowy New Hampshire square don’t fit the live, latebreaking model. It’s so refreshing, then, to see the Web leveraged to break free from horse-race journalism and hold leaders accountable. Why journalists, with virtually unlimited Web space, don’t share the overwhelming portions of their interviews that don’t make it into stories has been a recent topic of discussion in online journalism circles. A fine argument in favor of this is it’s easy and cheap to do and at least few users are likely to find it useful or interesting. The even better argument: Like the Obameter, archiving interviews serves as a check on the 24-hour news cycle — something that wasn’t a big deal initially and was left out of the story might become story-worthy later — and promotes accountability — from journalists as well as sources.

Screengrab of Ushahidi-Haiti logoUSHAHIDI HAITI

What it is: Ushahidi Haiti and its international volunteers utilized the open source Ushahidi platform to aggregate e-mail, social media, Web and text message reports from the Haiti earthquake zone on an interactive map. The geo wiki pinpointed in near real-time damaged infrastructure, security threats, public health resources and other variables. It proved to be a useful resource for journalists and others following the disaster. It proved to be an invaluable resource for emergency responders. In no uncertain terms, Ushahidi saved lives.

What it teaches: Those you’re trying to cover (or rescue) collectively know a lot more than you do.

Those who respond to disasters and those who cover disasters typically carry out their work in a very centralized manner. The authorities funnel operations and communications through a purportedly omniscient command center and media regurgitate the command center’s messages like they are the only and final word. As a result, each party misses important stuff, or at least gets to it later than it should. In how it was developed and how it is used, Ushahidi is a posterchild for the power of decentralization. It didn’t rise from Silicon Valley power brokers searching for a profit-making patent. It rose from Kenyan citizen journalists responding to a humanitarian crisis. It doesn’t depend on manufactured authority to broadcast a presumed truth. It organically grows authority through the wisdom of groups to reveal a constantly updating snapshot.

Screengrab of Publish2 News Exchange logoPUBLISH2 NEWS EXCHANGE, Publish2

What it is: Publish2 streamlined content sharing through its custom-built platform, enabling news organizations of all sizes to create networked newswires free from the restraints and expenses of traditional, centralized cooperatives.

What it teaches: There are times when it makes sense for competitors to be each other’s customers.

Like Ushahidi, Publish2’s News Exchange illustrates the power of decentralized networks. It also supports the notion that instead of going down together, even rival news organizations should learn to work together. There are important stories today’s leaner newsrooms don’t get around to covering. But, maybe a competitor does. Who the buyer is and who the seller is can flip on any given story, so, there’s a mutual interest to pool resources. And even on stories every news organization in town can get to, there’s often little marginal value in having every last news outlet there over a smaller amount. I expanded upon this last point in my proposal for an iTunes for news called Regional Online News Trading Posts:

I’m not saying cross-town outlets shouldn’t still try to one-up each other’s coverage. The fear that the other guy might have it and you won’t promotes better journalism.

But, what about when you know everybody’s going to have it, and, it’s, let’s face it, not that great of a story? Is the opportunity cost of five news organizations sending five reporters to get the same canned quotes and staged photos from a police dog-and-pony show hyping a mid-level drug bust really serving the audience? How about four or those news organizations have the fifth cover the cops’ theatrics while their reporters are off at the unemployment office, prisons and mental health parity bill hearings probing the root cause of their community’s drug problem?

Screengrab of The Takeaway logoSOURCING THROUGH TEXTING, The Takeaway

What it is: Radio journalists tapped residents in Southwest Detroit to be the assignment editors for stories about their community, soliciting and following up on text messages reporting community problems like illegal truck traffic and describing their Mexicantown neighborhood in a few words. The approach, since replicated in Miami’s Little Havana, engaged nontraditional listeners and informed nontraditional stories.

What it teaches: Meet your audience on platforms it prefers, not those you or other media do.

Pew Internet’s Mobile Access 2010 report, released earlier this month, noted that minorities are more likely to own a mobile phone than whites and are more likely to use their phones to access the Internet. Based on those numbers, it’s not surprising a majority-minority neighborhood like Detroit’s Mexicantown responded to The Takeaway’s mobile outreach the way it did. Rather than generalize from national surveys like Pew’s, however, news organizations owe it to themselves and their audience to seek out detailed statistics on what platforms and tools are popular in their community. Blindly following national trends is a good way to miss or even alienate would-be customers and squander revenue opportunities. For instance, while the conventional wisdom is that Facebook is huge and MySpace (for all but musicians) is dead, danah boyd and other researchers point out that that’s not the case among all demographics.

Creative Commons photo by Flickr user Kraftwerck.

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D.C.’s New Local News Shop

July 9, 2010

Open sign on storefront windowLocal news sites are, if you think about it, the boutiques of the online information economy. Yet too often they behave more like big-box stores. They overflow their virtual shelves with wire stories and re-written press releases users can get anywhere while talking about community building a lot more than actually doing it.

The soon-to-launch D.C. area local news site from Allbritton Communications is anti-big-box. TBD.com is planning to carry a selective mix of elegantly presented, high-value news unique to its site and is getting to know its neighbors by name (or at least screen name).

  • Selective: TBD editors have made it clear they’re not going to try to cover everything. They’re going to focus on big regional stories and on neighborhood news and information. Stuff that falls in between isn’t going to get much (digital) ink. For what it doesn’t get to itself, TBD isn’t going to be shy about linking to other sites. (Not unlike when a shop directs a shopper to a business across town when the other place has an item it doesn’t. Online and off, in news and in retail, this builds trust with the customer and the other merchant, promoting return visits and reciprocal referrals.)
  • Elegantly presented: TBD’s homepage is expected to be less cluttered than most other news websites’. And, replacing the sites for WJLA-TV and NewsChannel 8, TBD.com should include its share of visual storytelling packages.
  • High-value: Editor Jim Brady told Poynter that TBD will emphasize timely content that helps people make decisions. Heavy use of geocoding, meanwhile, will help personalize TBD’s offerings.
  • Getting to know its neighbors: TBD has staff members — led by Editor & Publisher Editor of the Year Steve Buttry — dedicated to nurturing relationships with local bloggers and engaging its audience on social media. Its blog network has already eclipsed 90 members and it’s using social media to organize in-person meetups with them and others in the community.

Of course, TBD hasn’t even flipped over its open sign yet. It remains to be seen whether the site can sustain what it’s started, follow through on what it’s promised and make money doing it.

The third point is the biggest question. A lot of parallels have been drawn between TBD and fellow Allbritton property Politico, but Politico still makes most of its money from its print edition. TBD.com has no print counterpart. Of course, that means it avoids the printing and distribution costs that dominate traditional newspapers’ expenses. Perhaps it will make it work. One thing’s for sure: Plenty will be watching to see whether it does.

Creative Commons photo by Flickr user Gary Simmons.

Celebrating Free-dom: The Journal Register Company’s Ben Franklin Project

July 4, 2010

Full disclosure: I reported for Journal Register Company newspaper the Daily Freeman from June 2004 to October 2005.

Ben Franklin portraitAt first glance, today’s Web and print editions for the Journal Register Company‘s 18 daily newspapers might not appear terribly different from any other day’s. That was part of the point of the rapidly-reinventing-itself chain’s bold Ben Franklin Project. JRC wanted to prove that free does not necessarily mean cheap, that free or near-free online tools can achieve the same production values as pricey proprietary software.

Take a closer look at the papers’ digital and print Ben Franklin Project editions, published on Independence Day to signify the company’s independence from proprietary systems, and you’ll notice they are different.

You’ll notice stories suggested and edited by audience members. You’ll notice crowdsourced solutions to community challenges. You’ll notice videos putting a fresh human face on persistent issues like immigration and unemployment. You’ll notice interactive maps pinpointing user-identified problems like risky roadways.

This was the Ben Franklin Project’s other, ultimately larger point: That free tools can improve both journalists’ coverage and their relationship with their audience by making the news process more participatory.

Screengrabs of YouTube video, Facebook page, home page and Twitter stream for various JRC newspapers.

That the papers — some with circulations as small as 6,000 — even attempted this ambitious project is groundbreaking for their famously slow-to-adapt industry. That they pulled it off is a remarkable feat. The executive behind this and other innovations at JRC — including citizen journalism labs and in-house testing of the latest tech tools — was rightfully celebratory in a blog post to employees this morning, exclaiming, “Take a bow. You did it.” CEO John Paton also rightfully recognized that this is only the beginning.

The success or failure of an initiative characterized — by organizers and observers — as revolutionary can be judged only over the long-term. Merely sustaining the type of work showcased today will require more hard work, especially as the novelty — for employees and audience members — wears off. Building up the Ben Franklin Project into what the journalism history books (history tablets?) would consider a revolution will require a lot more hard work.

  • It will require a firm technical and strategic grasp of the tools used to produce today’s editions. Employees, who had just over a month to learn many of the free tools they used, are by their own admission still getting the hang of pagination program Scribus. Microblogging service Twitter, meanwhile, is of greatest value to news organizations when they use it to converse with audience members and sources (two-way/pull/new-media thinking), yet many JRC papers use their Twitter feeds only to push out links to their stories (one-way/push/old-media thinking).
  • It will require abandoning these tools at the drop of a hat and learning new ones as better alternatives come along.
  • It will require engaging audience members — meeting them on the platforms they’re already using or educating them about the platforms they should be using — to the point they don’t have to be persuaded to participate.
  • It will require not letting the new way of doing things disrupt what was right about the old way. As empowering as they are, interactive tools are a complement to thorough, old-fashioned, shoe-leather reporting, not a replacement for it.
  • More than anything, it will require a bottom-up embrace of the digital-first, innovation culture Paton is evangelizing. No print-versus-Web, us-versus-them, that’s-not-part-of-my job whining.

Since a lot of people might have been too busy eating hot dogs/watching others eat (way too many) hot dogs, launching fireworks/watching others launch fireworks to follow JRC’s Ben Franklin Project coverage, here’s a sampling of what the 18 papers produced:

Screengrab of The Mercury road rage map

Screengrab of Oneida Dispatch video featuring JRC Director of Digital Content Jonathan Cooper.

DailyDev: Treemap

July 1, 2010

DailyDev blog series logo - day 11When I saw Mark Luckie’s post “What is a treemap? 5 examples and how you can create one” the other week I thought making a treemap would be a fun exercise for this series, in which I test drive new (to me) Web tools and techniques.

From Luckie:

Treemaps are a growing trend in online data visualization and you’ve likely spotted one or two around the web. But what are they?

Most newsies have probably seen the Newsmap, one of Luckie’s examples.

Treemaps, sometimes written as “tree maps,” display hierarchical information in a series of clustered rectangles, which together represent a whole. The size of each box represents a quantity. Treemaps also can use color to represent any number of values, but it is often used to categorize the various boxes within the treemap.

Be sure to check out the full post on 10,000 Words for more examples and advice on creating your own.

In part to simplify the styling of the chart and in part to brush up on my skills, I decided to build my treemap, illustrating the fiscal 2011 spending plan for the municipality I used to cover, in Flash.

Given that it’s been — let’s just say a while — since I tackled anything approaching serious development in this particular program (this hastily made virtual bell I used to motivate teammates in an all-hands-on-deck Web development session might have been the last interactive I produced), it took me a few days to put the treemap together. Recreating the visualization in HTML/CSS could be a future project, I suppose. I’ve seen enough of this chart for now, though.

Finished Product

Screengrab of treemap city budget visualization made in Flash

Pros

  • Efficiently communicates the basics about the budget. With a quick glance and a few mouseovers users get a good grasp of how the city’s money is divided up and what some of the bigger-ticket areas are.
  • A lot more fun than reading a budget story or scrolling through the spending plan PDF.
  • Doesn’t have to take long to do. Although I didn’t choose either of these options, as Luckie mentioned in his post, Google and IBM have tools that generate treemaps for you.

Cons

  • It can be cognitively difficult for users to compare proportionate shapes with varying aspect ratios. (That’s one reason I made the blocks representing my subcategories squares.)
  • Difficult to optimize for mobile, given reliance on mouseovers, and, in many treemaps, the oh-so-teeny-tininess of the tiniest blocks.
  • Building from scratch and manually doing the math to determine the proportions — like I did (though I did have Google’s tool assist me with the dimensions/layout of the five main blocks) — can be time consuming!

Tip

  • Flash doesn’t allow nested rollovers. Use the hitTest method if you want that behavior. For example, here’s the AS2 I used to get the Parks details to appear on mouseover:
parksMain_mc.onEnterFrame=function()
{
	if(parksMain_mc.hitTest(_root._xmouse, _root._ymouse))
	{
		parksMain_mc.gotoAndPlay(2);
	}
}

Recommend?

  • Yes, but make sure the time it takes to create the treemap is balanced by the time it saves/value it adds for your audience. Also, given the increasing importance of interlinked data on the Web, which I blogged about earlier, it behooves developers to present data in semantically smarter ways than Flash. So, yeah: Do as I say, not as I do.