On April 20-21, 2012, the University of Texas-Austin hosted the annual International Symposium on Online Journalism. Here’s some of what I learned, separated by topic:
News Org Content
- 75% of traffic flow on news sites these days is to story pages (versus home pages).
- News orgs must innovate at every dimension to be successful today (and not simply hire a “chief innovation officer.”
- News orgs should empower individual reporters — and all of their abilities, in all of their worlds — to brand content in individual, persistent URLs.
- Bullets within long-form stories and investigative pieces are your friend.
- Transparency goes beyond how to produce the news. It also involved getting access to experts and officials and people they would never otherwise get to meet. For example, do Q/As with your experts to provide a chance for people without access to ask questions. (John White, deputy editor for online, Winnipeg Free Press, Canada)
- Data is changing the way we tell stories, and changing the definition of who a journalist is (Aron Pilhofer, interactive news editor, The New York Times)
- A definition of data journalism: “I am not talking here about statistics or numbers in general, because those are nothing new to journalists. When I talk about data, I mean information that can be processed by computers.” Paul Bradshaw (prof in UK)
- Data stories are a mix of craft and art. News applications should be made for craft. Ask: Who are your users? What are their needs? What can we build to fulfill their needs? (Brian Boyer, news applications editor, Chicago Tribune Media Group)
- Don’t do the map if it is not useful. Consider this nursing home graphic from the Chicago Tribune. Though the editors had geo-location data, the “fancy” map wasn’t going to be useful to people. (Brian Boyer)
- Data art is not useful. You need to tell a story. (Alberto Cairo, lecturer in visual journalism, University of Miami)
- We have to create presentation layers and exploration layers. Consider the Visual Information-Seeking Mantra: “Overview first, zoom and filter, then details-on-demand” — Ben Shneiderman (1996). Give an overview, and THEN let them zoom, filter and get all those details. You cannot have one of these without the other. (Alberto Cairo)
- We must embrace complexity. But you have to arrange it in a way that the human brain can understand. (Alberto Cairo)
- Data is a record for people. To make that record speak to people, you have to make it come to life. When you are bringing it to life, you have to make editorial decisions. Which bits of the data are important? (Alastair Dant, lead interactive technologist at Guardian News & Media, London, UK)
- Fractions of a second: An Olympic Model by NYT: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2010/02/26/sports/olympics/20100226-olysymphony.html
- How Twitter Spread Rumors During the Riots by the Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/dec/07/how-twitter-spread-rumours-riots
- The Obameter by Politifact: http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/promises/obameter/
- “What one word describes your current state of mind?” by NYT: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2010/11/01/us/politics/2010-election-wordtrain.html
- “Where does the Westside start?” by the LA Times: http://projects.latimes.com/mapping-la/debates/westside/
- The New Yorker app for the iPad is more popular than the Wired Magazine app because iPad is all about long-form.
- Mobile tablets have a different audience time than general Web reading (iPad=6pm-11pm versus 7am-5pm for Web pages).
- 8 trillion SMS sent in 2011. TRILLION!
- You don’t necessarily need a mobile app. Check website logs to see what people are using and then develop for those devices, platforms.
- Some imperatives for mobile success: Nurture a first-rate mobile web site; position core apps strategically; select and align dedicated mobile professionals; harmonize experiences across platforms; assume that mobile is different than Web platforms; empower internal mobile editorial champions; secure multi-level executive support; strengthen content delivery systems; use mobile devices IN THE FIELD (so powerful in Libya, in Egypt!); drive other platforms’ success with mobile. (From Louis Gump, vp of CNN Mobile)
- Premium real-time alerts should be focused on very practical content. (From JV Rufino, head of Inquirer Mobile in the Philippines)
- Choice is your solution to making money on mobile; give them choice between getting ads or doing a subscription. (From William Hurley, co-founder of Chaotic Moon)
- We are losing words that have significance and meaning in our search for that mass audience. (From William Hurley). (I think we are losing words also as we write for a 140-character limit)
- Oh and do you have a refrigerator strategy yet? (Not enough users yet to make the effort perhaps but definitely start thinking about your television strategy.)
- People who identify themselves online are more likely to post and re-post stories, a deeper engaged behavior than commenting; people with pseudonyms more likely to superficially comment.
- Make opinions of users matter on your website. Really collaborate with communities members, and not just invite them to crowdsource.
- Journalists must be engaged in social-media realms, must become part of the community (helps build audience for the group).
- Considering privacy is important; people define privacy according to and reaction to situations they don’t like (J. Richards Stevens of University of Colorado at Boulder)
- Gulf between the ways that tools appear to work and the ways they actually work; what producers and designers don’t understand is that the interface is the product. (From J. Richards Stevens)
- Aesthetics and the architecture of the site create psychological effects on the way people feel about the place (and the product/brand). (From J. Richards Stevens)
- Interfaces have a responsibility to communicate to users the choices in privacy of data etc. (From J. Richards Stevens)
- Stop thinking that you are smarter than everyone younger than you are. Start building your brand for someone younger than 50. (John White, deputy editor for online, Winnipeg Free Press, Canada)
New Business Models
- Be innovative and think about partnerships with the unusual such as the Winnipeg Free Press’ News Café, which combines journalism with a Third-Place restaurant. (John White)
- Create community focal points.
- Failure in any of these experiments has to be built in. (Ben Ilfeld, founder and COO, Sacramento Press)
- For innovation, it’s important to know what metrics you want to hit before you scale the idea. Assess success before scaling and expanding (Ben Ilfeld)
- Sacramento Connect brings together community blogs etc. Build on already established community networks!
- If you cannot find the knowledge, create a forum to get it.
- Move beyond advertising
- Recognize the value in training and in helping to create content and helping others create content.
- Consider funding via community events
- Supplying tools isn’t enough to create a successful media outlet. That’d be like having a scalpel and bring told to operate.
- Start-ups are going to answer the question of monetizing journalism. (Bob Metcalfe) “We will see a million experiments and a few of them are going to work.” (Dan Gillmor)
- For-profits and non-profits (news orgs) have essentially the same problems. The distinctions between traditional journalism and “other” need to lie in other kinds of characteristics. (Bob Metcalfe)
The following is from a keynote by Jim Moroney, publisher & CEO, Dallas Morning News, and chairman of the board, Newspapers Association of America)
- There is no one model for news orgs; there are many models. It’s about finding what works for your org.
- $42.2 billion 2007 to 20.6 billion in 2011 print ad revenue: Only four years for 50% to evaporate.
- No longer a mass audience. We are publishing for a “mass intelligence audience.” But that’s not the same thing as an elite audience.
- The value of content is created along two axes: relevance and differentiation. Content that is irrelevant to you has no value to you. If something is not differentiated, it becomes a commodity, and therefore has less value. Every news publication has the who, where, when, what, so the 5Ws are now a commodity.
- Go deep on certain categories. We cannot be all things to all people.
- Four trillion ad impressions in marketplace in 2011; more than 1 trillion were from Facebook alone.
- Online ad revenue growth will not match dollar for dollar your losses in print ad revenue. You have to cross-subsidize your journalism beyond advertising.
- Audiences are developing two reading zones: the work, laptop, information zone and then the long, leisurely read of the tablet.
- 42% of tablet news readers regularly read in-depth news articles, another 40% sometimes do this. These people are three times as likely to regularly read in-depth articles as they are to watch news videos, according to a recent Pew study.
- You can’t charge for commodity content.
- Build more subject matter expertise in newsroom and through affiliations, particularly universities, to produce and capture deeper content, to tap into that “mass intelligence” audience.
- We must preserve the scale of the newsroom with this strategy, but also need to develop other sources of revenue that is not advertising.
- Leverage your brand to create new revenue streams: offer social media, marketing and event-marketing services.
- Social media is about reputation (Dan Gillmor)
- We pay attention to SEO out of fear: If we build it, will they come? (Carmen Cano, digital managing editor, The Dallas Morning News)
- In one second there are: 2 new users to LinkedIn, 11 new Twitter accounts, 2200 tweets published, 3500 photos uploaded to Flickr, 8000 comments in Facebook, and almost 15000 status updates to Facebook (Carmen Cano)
- Pinterest generating more traffic on web sites than other social media (Carmen Cano)
- SEO –> SMO (Search Engine Optimization to Social Media Optimization) (Carmen Cano)
- Search, social are all about relationships (words, people, respectively) (Carmen Cano)
- Visits per visitor most important web metric, not page views. Time on site also can be misleading. (Carmen Cano)
- Facebook: not for breaking news; it is more about a conversation, simpler/strategic (Carmen Cano)
- SMO must be part of your SEO (Carmen Cano)
- Social, search, semantic = relationships, experience, which you cannot optimize (Carmen Cano)
- The Final-Mile Problem in journalism: getting content in front of the right audience (Chip Cutter, content editor, LinkedIn)
- Pay attention to what is being shared: among your connections, in your industry, beyond your industry (what’s popular across LinkedIn) (Chip Cutter)
- Let the community do some of the work for you: such as AccountingToday, which drove engagement by putting a link into one of the active accounting groups and adding a question at the end: “what are the weirdest tax deductions you have ever seen?” (Chip Cutter)
- Post, engage, post, engage; the cycle never really has to end. Start a credible viral loop. (Chip Cutter)
- Find the right content passion and obsession audiences. Ask questions and dive into the comments (answering questions, asking additional questions to keep the conversation going forward) (Chip Cutter)
- Look to the crowd to inform your reporting; try to latch onto a broad topic by tailoring your stories based on what users are sharing. (Chip Cutter)
- Share so frequently that you’re considered an expert (Chip Cutter)
- Ensure every story has a high-quality image attached (Chip Cutter)
- Write headlines that start conversations; it is no longer about cramming everything in there. You still want keywords, but these need to be about what starts a conversation such as asking a question or posing something in a way that drives a conversation (Chip Cutter)
- Build your own social network (Borja Echevarria, deputy editor, El Pais, Spain)
- You have to accept the loss of control over your news. (Borja Echevarria)
- Charge for your archive because people love it. (Borja Echevarria)
- Social media is how I build hope, inspire change and give back as a journalist (Jen Lee Reeves, interactive director of KOMU-TV and associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism)
- There need to be fewer silos in academic. Talk to business schools, to computer science departments.
- Collaborations outside of academia too!
- Stop training for jobs that no longer exist (Mark Berkey-Gerard, Rowan University: From journalism students to local news entrepreneurs: A case study of technically media)
- Provide students with the opportunities to build products and then test the revenue sources around it (Mark Berkey-Gerard)
- Test new products (Mark Berkey-Gerard)
- Education right this second is being disrupted, and professors have the same problem journalists have.
When people — mostly journalists who had been laid off from corporate newsrooms — started talking about entrepreneurial journalism, I worried that we were starting to embrace what I had long resisted: that is, the idea that individual reporters needed to think about how to sell their stories as a product as much as how to save democracy.
I’ve come around.
In part, my change of heart has to do with a specific kind of entrepreneurial journalism – the nonprofit news organization. Most of them have adopted a mission to save journalism, to be a watchdog, to fill a void for democracy. (Just FYI: we at UW-Madison’s School of Journalism & Mass Communication are in the middle of a giant study of them, so some of what I am writing about comes from that data we are collecting.)
This blog post is in response to the February 2012 Carnival of Journalism question: “What emerging technology or digital trend do you think will have a significant impact on journalism in the year or two ahead? And how do you see it playing out in terms of application by journalists, and impact?” I consider the recent influx of nonprofits news agencies to represent an important trend in journalism – and one that is a direct result of digital technologies, especially social media.
The evidence suggests that the organizations, which are incredibly diverse in both their funding sources and methods, are proliferating, collaborating, and becoming a significant part of the emerging media ecology right now. In 2009 they banded together into their own trade organization called the Investigative News Network, which formed with just 20 groups. Just two years later more than 60 ventures have joined INN — most of them brand new. Although I haven’t been able to find any hard statistics (anyone out there have better luck?), most anecdotal reports show a giant spike in news nonprofit births since 2008.
They assume as their platform the Web, evoke the new “mass self-communicating” citizen (a Castells term), and depend on the new network society (this one is Benkler) for their existence. Many of them utilize crowdsourcing as a reporting technique, employ data-visualization experts and populate email list serves, twitter hashtags, Facebook groups, blogs and all sorts of digitally enabled forums and venues.
To be sure, controversy, cynicism and doubts dog these groups. Many are funded by foundations or the generosity of wealthy patrons – how sustainable is such a model? Some decline to disclose where their money comes from – how can we trust the veracity of their information and the altruism of their agenda? Many have very little readership – how can a group with so little content and so little marketability hope to survive midst the glut of the information age? (In other words, the very digital technologies that enable these groups to produce and disseminate news might also be the undoing of these groups?).
These are good questions. I attended a panel on the different models for nonprofit organizations at the Wisconsin News Association conference on Thursday in Madison, WI, where we discussed all of this. Stephen Greenhut of the conservative Franklin Center had this to say (in between his defending of the Franklin Center, which refuses to say who funds them and declares itself to produce “news” from a libertarian perspective):
“We are hiring right now, but the question is long-term: I don’t think anyone knows what the new model is. The money has got to come from somewhere.”
(And then a giant question mark exists from the Internal Revenue Service, which is threatening to restrict the 501c3 nonprofit status for these organizations. This would, of course, devastate many of their operations.)
But my point is that none of these groups could even begin to offer an alternative to mainstream media without new technologies and particularly the networking effect of social media such as Twitter and Facebook. (Rr at least, it would be much much harder; I should note here that of course we have had grand, often government-subsidized nonprofits such as NPR and the Center for Public Integrity thriving for decades, but I am talking about a different, digital-dependent animal.) This ability to bypass the printing press gives someone like Andy Hall, who quit his reporting gig at The Wisconsin State Journal, the opportunity to start up a group like Wisconsin Watch. WisconsinWatch (which is housed in my building at UW-Madison) now employs four people full-time as well as three paid interns and had produced 65 major investigative reports since 2009 with a budget of nearly half a million dollars. Said WisconsinWatch’s Money and Politics Project Director Bill Lueders at Thursday’s panel talk:
I think what the Center is doing is exciting because there is both an old and a new component. This is the cutting edge of journalism right now. But I am also attracted to it because it is very committed to a very old kind of reporting… according to the standards that have been established through decades of practicing these crafts.
One audience member asked about whether the spike in nonprofit news orgs represented just another niche trend, pointing out the recent death of the Chicago News Cooperative that lost a MacAuthur Foundation grant and then had to suspend operations (among other issues, including the IRS situation). Lueders suggested the key is to attract a diversity of funders and develop multiple revenue streams.
Our research backs this up. Foundation support is not the only kind of money for these groups, who are being very creative in developing alternative sources – from contractual project work to media-market collaborations to website advertising. I predict we will see even more networking and collaborating among these new players in this industry, and better and more stable business models as they mature.
I suggest that they consider calling on the technologies responsible for their very existence in seeking those alternative funding sources in addition to other, more traditional sources. I can think of any number of digitally based funding opportunities, including: adopting a a spot.us model where audiences can elect to give money for developing investigations; an Ebyline setup where people and other media organizations can bid on finished packages; community-based models where citizens pay for access for evergreen products like some of the database work being done for these organizations’ sites.
Another key activity we are going to see more and more of is the willingness of traditional media publications to publish and disseminate the work of the nonprofits in a much more prolific manner. On the one hand, this is great for nonprofit org’s visibility; on the other hand, I worry what impact that action will have on commercial news companies’ justification to keep what investigative reporters they still have on staff.
I know many legitimate questions swirl around the agenda and the sustainability of these new business models for news. But I can’t help thinking about the words of news futurist Clay Shirky, who wrote in a 2009 blog post about the uncertainty during the time of the printing press compared to the current revolution and the next business model for the news:
We’re collectively living through 1500, when it’s easier to see what’s broken than what will replace it…We just got here. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen…For the next few decades, journalism will be made up of overlapping special cases. Many of these models will rely on amateurs as researchers and writers. Many of these models will rely on sponsorship or grants or endowments instead of revenues. Many of these models will rely on excitable 14 year olds distributing the results. Many of these models will fail. No one experiment is going to replace what we are now losing with the demise of news on paper, but over time, the collection of new experiments that do work might give us the journalism we need.
I think when we look back at this time period, we will see that the nonprofit news organization served as the foundation for a significant component of watchdog reporting in the United States — thanks to these early entrepreneurs who risked their professional reputations and their livelihoods to learn and adopt the innovative digital tools to do old-school journalism in new platforms and models.
This month’s Carnival of Journalism, which is an informal group of bloggers who write about a common journalism topic every month, asks the question: Can good journalists be good capitalists? The question derives from the omnipresent tension of a commercial press operating with a mandate to be socially responsible. As a business-reporter-turned-journalist-academic teaching students who need paying jobs in the profession, I answer a cautious YES (and here, I’m also thinking: “I sure hope so!!”; otherwise I’ve spent a lot of years fervently and naively dedicated to a profession because of its democratic importance).
In this post I suggest that we also need to build significant infrastructure alongside the commercial press to provide contingencies for the dissemination of significant, relevant, balanced, accurate information circulating in our democracy — you know… in the event corporate media owners might somehow lose sight of their commitment to hosting good journalism. The good news is I think we have already begun to formalize some alternative business models.
Good Journalists, Good Capitalists
With fewer resources and fewer journalists, the commitment to socially responsible journalism can fade as the pressure to produce content increases. During one of my newsroom stints, the executive editor called a meeting to discuss pending layoffs, the shrinking news hole, and our media owner’s fiscal difficulties (“yeah, right,” we all mouthed to each other, rolling our eyes, knowing our corporation’s top executives had all just received giant bonuses). “Bulk! Bulk! Bulk!” he barked at us, referring to the “need” for the appearance of more content in the newspaper and on the site, more quickly. People could read briefs and rewritten press releases and have the feeling that they were getting a lot for their money. What could we do?
We quickly learned the art of the fast 200 words while working on our special projects. We learned to conduct interviews so that we could derive a “quick hit” out of the conversation (usually just a one-sourced piece), and then turning the discussion to what we really wanted to know — the good journalism part. Our fabulous editors managed to juggle schedules so that we rotated on “bulk” while keeping some of us on dedicated projects that were so important for our community. Oh and of course we had our own definition of “bulk” as well. After all, a 50-inch story feels pretty bulky, doesn’t it? Plus 200 words advancing an important public hearing can be just as democratically important as a brief about some new product.
Capitalism does not necessitate poor quality in the pursuit of product quantity. The notion significantly underestimates people’s (consumers’?) ability to appreciate important news (product?). Even those briefs have to be something the “market” (society!) needs and wants — well written, informative, interesting. My audience research suggests the problem with the commercial press right now is not the capitalistic structure, but rather the production quality. People are demanding new kinds of content that allow them to connect (with powerful sources, with each other, with issues) and inform themselves on their terms. People recognize that “bulk” does not equate to good journalism (or a good product, if we want to stick with capitalism-speak).
As I tell my students now, the key to being a good journalist working at a for-profit company is time management, creative interpretations of corporate mandates such as “bulk! bulk! bulk!,” alternative kinds of story formats, agnostic understandings of platform, disciplined efforts around storytelling, and finally, laser focus on the end goal of significant and important democracy-improving work in one’s day-to-day labor.
Alternative Models Needed, Though!
Yet the environment of the professional journalist today is certainly challenging. We need to discover other models for doing good information work that complement the industry but do not rely on profits.
I am in the middle of creating a new syllabus for a press-theory seminar I will be teaching this spring, and one of my segments is on new news business models. In doing some research for it, I’m struck by how much innovation is out there compared to 2006 when I and most of my journalist friends either fled the industry or were laid off because of a decidedly failing business model.
I found real suggestions touching on:
- Government/Taxpayer subsidies
- Community as the new biz model
- Nonprofit investigative centers(with all kinds of funding structures, from foundational support to new revenues streams)
And this is just to name a few. This Mediashift blog post from 2008 is a bit dated right now, but the ideas are still very relevant and possible. In looking at all of this in aggregate at this moment, I find myself feeling a sense of optimism about the future of this profession, capitalists and all.