Posts about newsinnovation

Paying for investigative journalism

Paul Steiger, outgoing editor of the Wall Street Journal, announced today that he is heading Pro Publica, a foundation-backed, nonprofit organization that will perform investigative journalism and place it in established media organizations.

Is this how investigative journalism will be supported in the future, with journalistic organizations shrinking inexorably?

I have been dubious about foundation support for journalism. Rich people with good intentions are often held out there as the great hope for reporting: foundations and moguls that save news and newsrooms from the ravages of the marketplace. I’ve warned against thinking that there is or should be any such white knight who will save news organizations from change and let newsrooms operate exactly as they have. We must find ways to make journalism sustainable in the new marketplace. Indeed, we must find ways to expand it (thus the Networked Journalism Summit).

But supporting independent investigative journalism may be another matter.

Having heard about Pro Publica last week, I was thinking about the ecosystem of news today and I’m working on a post about trying to do a zero-based analysis of news. That is, how much of news is really investigative? How much is beat reporting? How much is about a news event? How much is crime? How much is hyperlocal? How much is opinion? How much is entertainment? Where should each kind of journalism come from: staff, citizens, links? And how can each be supported?

Whenever news people complain about cutbacks, someone in the room will argue that if another job is lost, it will be the end of investigative journalism. But I, obnoxious fellow that I am, always ask why that one job couldn’t be that of the golf columnist or movie critic or wire rewriteman. Who says that shrinking news organizations — and finding efficiencies — should hamper investigation? Well, some argue that in atomized news, investigative journalism brings no inherent advertising, so it may not be supported by the market. Or one could argue back that investigative journalism is precisely what makes news organizations valuable to their communities and those communities know that. So how will they support it?

I think that if we analyze the staffing and production devoted to investigation in American journalism, we’ll find that it’s a pretty damned small proportion of news budgets. And I suspect we’ll find that if it is not supported by large media organizations, it could be supported by foundations and public donation. That could come from independent organizations like Pro Publica and others (in its list of comparables, the Times misses the Center for Public Integrity). It also could come from independent journalists like Josh Marshall.

There is one caution to this: These organizations can be backed by and run by people with axes to grind. And so we may find an imbalance in investigation. That’s why the role of the editor, the journalist upholding public standards, remains important. Jay Rosen saw that when he started New Assignment and initially planned on having the public assign the stories (which I hope he still does); the editor stood in the way of the axes. And at Pro Publica, I have every confidence in its independence and intellectual honesty because it has Paul Steiger at its helm. It’s hard to name a more respected editor in this country.

No, foundations are not the salvation of newsrooms as we knew them. But this one could demonstrate that we could save — even expand — the scope of investigative journalism. I’ll be eager to watch.

The energy of the crowd

Brian Lehrer’s show on WNYC radio is releasing the results of its second effort to mobilize its audience to report. The last time, it was counting SUVs. This time it’s more useful: The show assigned its audience to go out and report back the price of three commodities where they shop: milk, beer, and iceberg lettuce. Jim Colgan, one of the show’s producers, just emailed me the results and they’ll be discussing them Monday morning. Jim writes:

We got over 350 contributions and we’ve mapped all the prices on our site. When the show page goes live in the morning, you’ll be able to click on the icons for any of the items and see the price, the name of the store, the address, and the listener’s comment. Here are the top line numbers based on what our listeners reported:

Most expensive milk: Crown Heights, Brooklyn (2.99 for a quart)
Least expensive place for milk: Gravesend, Brooklyn (99 cents for a quart)

Most expensive place to get beer (6 pack of Budweiser): Greenport, NY (14.99)
Least expensive place for beer: Redhook Fairway (4.49)

Most expensive place to get lettuce (iceberg): Tribeca (3.49)
Least expensive for lettuce: Wayne, NJ (0.79)

: UPDATE: Just got followup email from Jim saying that they pulled the segment before today because some of the numbers didn’t sound right. This is, indeed, an issue with crowdsourced reporting. I think one needs to get to a critical mass of data such that data confirm data and the outliers are either good stories or should be checked or sometimes ignored. Lessons to be learned.

The iPod moment

I’m writing my Guardian column this week about the “iPod moment” coming to newspapers and TV. I’d like to hear what you think the iPod moment means for both. I’ll give you my view later but won’t prejudice you with that or with links to others’, which, too, shall come. When do you think the iPod moment will come? What will make it come? What will it mean for each medium?

There is no safe harbor from change

I continue to see news people wishing upon stars for some salvation from the change bearing down on them: fairy godmothers who will swoop in from government or foundations or rich families to provide magic money that lets them continue to do business as they have. Consider this Columbia Journalism Review piece wishing for government support of news and this New York Times report setting up the Poynter-Institute-owned St. Petersburg Times as an ideal.

Those ways, danger lies.

It’s not as if these models can’t work. Look at the government-funded BBC or the trust-supported Guardian (where, full disclosure, I write and consult). I’m not saying either direction is wrong. I am saying that finding such support does not insulate one from change. Quite the contrary, I’d say it morally obligates one to change. But that’s not what these wishful thinkers see in these models. They see protection.

The problem I have with the thinking in the pieces linked above, especially in CJR, is that it assumes that the way things have been done is the way they should continue to be done; it values preservation over innovation. It assumes that big organizations are the best ones to gather and deliver our news, when small may well hold much of the future of journalism. And it ignores the shoddy stewardship that many of these incumbent organizations have shown for news, squandering the incredible advantages their monopolies gave them while not innovating for the future and while losing the trust of the public.

And, of course, in the case of government support, there are the grave dangers of government interference in the press and speech. CJR goes so far as to proclaim, “To survive, journalism and journalists need to let go of their aversion to Uncle Sam.” Good God. Journalism exists to have an aversion to Uncle Sam. When government supports journalism, will journalism support government? In Murdoch’s purchase of Dow Jones, I heard people complain first that he interferes and then that he didn’t have to interfere because his underlings would fear displeasing him. Imagine that kind of thinking when your boss isn’t one mogul but a thousand politicians and their millions of complaining constituents.

And today, it’s more complicated than than just giving money to PBS and NPR. If government were to support journalism now, whom should they support: the big, old newspaper or the scrappy, inventive blogger? Doesn’t Gawker do journalism? Can’t a condo association’s blog? Who’s to say? Well, government will say, and that means that government would certify and decertify journalists. What government gives, it can take away.

The next problem I have with the notion of government support is that it instills, as it has in both American journalism and in British broadcasting, the myth of impartial, objective journalism. That, I’ve argued, is an aberration in media, a departure from news as the public conversation of interested parties. It is the product of public subsidy and market monopoly. It makes journalists believe that they can serve all equally and that they — not we — are the ones who should decide what is impartial and objective and balanced without having to reveal their own perspectives. It makes journalism less transparent, thus less honest.

The CJR piece makes the case for government support in the form of subsidy for research and development, including technology like electronic paper. Well, government does provide tax breaks for R&D now. But I think that were we to support research and invention, it should be open and for all to share — The Times as much as Engadget. And I think it is a mistake to believe that where we need invention is in delivery methods, as if electronic paper is the salvation of newspapers (we already have electronic paper: you’re staring at it). No, I believe that the innovation we need is in methodology and education, in getting more people to practice journalism and in helping them (pro or am) do it better.

OK, most of my complaints have been about government support. What do I have against foundation or mogul support? Nothing. But as the Times story makes clear, it’s the rare family that would decide to give its great asset to a foundation rather than to its own future generations. And as presently run, newspapers are not a good investment for moguls or foundations. Still, it’s a fine and wonderful thing that the Poynter family gave its paper and the Scott family its paper, the Guardian, to trusts. My point to the wishful thinkers is that this does not then take you out of the race and the need to reinvent newspapers. Indeed, I see brave innovation at the Guardian. So I’m merely saying that these folks should stop wishing upon that star. Someone else’s money is not safe harbor.

Here’s the bottom line: Rather than trying to insulate ourselves from the marketplace with these subsidies, our challenge is instead to answer the question of whether the marketplace will support journalism and how it will do that. Does the public need and want journalism? I believe strongly that they do and they know it. So rather than trying to find money to support the old ways artificially, we need resources to invent the new ways, the ones we don’t know yet. We need to take advantage of all the opportunities we have to gather and share news in new ways while preserving the best and most valuable of the old (and sloughing off the waste of the old). We need to explore new products and new business models and new relationships and we need to show that they are good investments, not charity cases.

In the company of innovators

I spent Friday at Gadgetoff, a sort of mini TED with things you can touch. I’ve never been to a TED and not being part of the cult, it seems that a lot of it is in the clouds. I prefer being in a group of people making things.

Some of what we saw was stunning, some not. I was struck by DARPA work in which a monkey with a wired-up brain used thought, not motor nerves, to move an arm at will. Josh Klein presented wonderful work about teaching crows to pick up spare change (and I learned over lunch that crows can recognize distinct humans; he told the story of student researchers who pissed off crows and were dive-bombed individually even years later… crows know people and crows keep grudges). Legendary Marvin Minsky of MIT talked about robots with legs and said, “to me, we’re just big gadgets; we’re made up of lots of little gadgets.” We saw a 3D video camera that can show any angle from a static position and cameras that show patterns of shock waves (amazing watching a bullet). Juan Enriquez talked about work with amazing potential to sniff the DNA in a doctor’s office (and tell you what you have), to treat organs outside the body (zapping the liver with radiation but not the rest of you), and creating fake DNA that could remake organisms to consume coal and put out gas. Shay David of Kaltura showed his neat service enabling collaborative creation of video. Howard Morgan of Idealab bragged about a new electric hybrid car that will cost a quarter to a third of a Tesla; I think I’ll put in an order. I finally got to get my hands on a Chumby. We watched Spore, a great looking game. We were deafened by a jet motorcycle. And on and on.

What struck me was just how wonderful it was to be in the company of innovators and inventors — and the other friends of mine they attracted from many worlds: TV, news, investment. Sure, some of the work is just theoretical and some of it impractical. But tucked inside groups like this are the people who really can and will change the world. The internet was just a simple idea.

So I wish I could often be in the company of such innovators in news. OK, we can’t cure diseases and make monkeys move arms (though if we sit enough of those monkeys and electronic arms in front of keyboards….). But we do desperately need a culture of innovation in news. As I sat there, it occurred to me that maybe we ended up putting together the beginnings of such as collection at our Networked News Summit at CUNY next week, though only focused on one of many, many spheres of innovation we need to explore. I hope that’s true. The week after at the Online News Association we’ll see some of the people from within news organizations who are trying new things — though I keep wishing they’d attract innovators from outside news organizations as well. The week after that, I sadly have to miss Video on the Net this month, for there are folks there who are remaking TV.

What’s the difference between that and Gadgetoff? A little time and daring, that’s all; a little audacity. With the news industry under such incredible pressure, we’re seeing a sudden urgency and thus incremental innovation: change a step at a time. I also think we need to find the means to give wildly creative minds the time to be revolutionary and daring. We need more crazy inventors.

: By the way, Aptera, the cool car, may have the single worst web site I have seen in the last 13 years, since the browser was born. Good car design. Awful web design.

Guardian column: Whither the destination (and brand)?

My Guardian column this week looks at the implications of the death of TimesSelect (nonregistration version here). The bigger issue that keeps hitting me is that this indicates not just the death of pay content — and, good news, we hope, the strength of advertising — but I also think it tells us something about the strength of destinations . . . and perhaps brands. Snippet:

I think the loser could be the power of the media destination or portal – the notion that consumers should come to us and pay us for scarce information that we control. The death of TimesSelect is an affirmation of the new media reality that says the public will seek out our brands less and less and will detour around the front doors we design for them. Instead, they will arrive because of their own need (via search) or peers’ recommendations (via links). So we in media must open ourselves to the public in every way possible. Tearing down walls – pay, registration, archive, or just obtuse navigation – is only the start of it. I believe this also means finding more ways for our audiences to distribute us: we’ll widgetise. And I believe that we must think like Google and see ourselves as platforms on which others build that larger conversation.

At the Online Publishers Association confab in London last spring, Times Company strategic guru Martin Nisenholtz and I got into a theatrical tiff over my contention that we in media should all be asking WWGD (What would Google do) and getting ourselves distributed widely. Martin held that some brands are worth coming to. Is that still the case? Will it be for long? For how many? Clearly, this has big implications for media’s distribution and branding strategies. In a widgetized architecture, they need to figure out how to get their brands and value to stand out in search and links; they need to figure out how to maintain and prove the value of those brands, for Google commodifies everything. They are already beginning to redesign their products around this, opening up to search and links and rewriting pages for SEO and making friendly with linking bloggers. They also need to get their public to distribute them.

The death of TimesSelect is about more than just the death of paid content. It is a fulcrum point in the evolution of media architecture.

The blogroom

I’m woefully behind in my blogging thanks to doing things like organizing my networked journalism conference at CUNY — so I’m doubly behind blogging about the conference. But I wanted to point to Dave Winer’s post with a suggestion I, too, have been talking about for sometime: opening up a newsroom to bloggers. I’ve talked about the need to turn newsrooms into classrooms (where both tribes learn). Looking forward to exploring that.

By the way, the conference is way oversubscribed already (and I was nervous we wouldn’t get enough people with experience and interest in the field).

: While I’m linking to Dave, he argues that the social network is the same as the social graph and so we should keep calling it a network because it’s a much clearer description and less geeky and annoying. I agree.

Supporting journalistic entrepreneurialism & innovation

I’m delighted to announce that I’ve received a $100,000, two-year grant from the McCormick Tribune Foundation to provide seed funding to news start-ups developed by students in my course in entrepreneurial journalism at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism. A jury of industry leaders from the media community in New York – experts in content, revenue, marketing, venture capital and startups – are speaking with the class, helping guide students through creating their proposals, and at the end they will select the projects (if any) likely of success as sustainable journalistic enterprises and deserving of investment from the fund. The full announcement is here.

How’s that for cool?

We’re teaching the class for a few reasons. First, it’s more likely than ever that journalism students today will need to work independently — and not just as freelancers banging down the door of major media but also possibly as the proprietors of new enterprises of their own; we’re seeing more and more of that. Second, journalism needs more such sustainable enterprises; this is how it will expand rather than shrink. Third, journalism needs more innovation; I think it will most likely continue to come from without rather than from within the incumbent companies. Fourth, journalists need to better understand the business of media — which they long ignored, because they could afford to — and they must take responsibility for sustaining journalism.

What’s so wonderful about this grant is that it makes all this real. The students are now competing not for a grade but for a chance to create a new product, a business, and a career. They won’t just be producing prototypes that sit on a classroom shelf. And as I told the wonderful folks at McCormick Tribune when we started discussing the idea, this sends a strong and needed message to the industry — that we must invest in innovation and the future, we have to put our money where our mouth is. Well, make that McCormick Tribune’s generously granted money.

I’m having an absolute ball teaching the course, working with the students on their good — possibly great — ideas. It’s as if I’m on the board of 15 startups. They need to create a proposal that covers everything any startup must cover: the need in the marketplace, the content/product/service plan, market research, competitive analysis, a revenue (read: advertising) plan, a marketing (read: viral) plan, an operating plan, a launch plan. We’re digging into each of these, pressing individually and as a group and with our guests to make the ideas better, find and answer the challenges. I’m not trying to turn them into MBAs, but they all must answer the question: why does the market need this and how will sustain itself. Journalistic sustainability is our rallying cry.

I am also privileged to assemble what is essentially a first-class board for the businesses in the form of the experts who are now speaking with the class. First, I had in Steven Johnson, founder of Feedmag, Plastic.com, and Outside.in — one of the first journalists to make his career on the internet, a true entrepreneurial journalist. Next, Jim Kennedy, head of strategy for the Associated Press and thus the chief strategist of the newspaper industry. I just love that Jim pushed the students farther than they or I had, telling them after he heard their ideas they they had good ideas for sites but they were still just sites. What’s coming next? he asked. And some students came up with inspired answers. Yesterday, I had in Joan Feeney, my partner in the development and launch of Entertainment Weekly; creator of CondeNet’s Epicurious, Style, Concierge and other sites, and a genius at other launches. She generously spent three hours giving the students her distilled experience from launching new editorial products and they soaked it up. I’m bringing in more experts in venture capital, revenue/advertising, marketing, design, and such. And I’m sharing my experience, good and bad. The first week, I gave them my original memo proposing Entertainment Weekly from 1984, then the memo from on high rejecting the idea (because, said Henry Grunwald, then editor in chief of Time Inc., one magazine cannot possibly serve TV and books because people who watch TV do not read), and the business plan that led to the magazine’s launch in 1990. But what’s also great is that the students are helping each other; yesterday’s class ended with a great dialogue that helped focus and advance one student’s idea and that’s what we’re going to do again next week.

The students’ ideas are impressive but I’m not going to tell you what they are, not yet, in case one of them turns out to be the next Google. (In which case, I’ve told them, I hope they remember their school and donate a fortune.) We’ll share more when we can.