IntroductionInnovations in Digital StorytellingInteractive Databases, GraphicsParticipatory JournalismAwards Ceremony RemarksKeynote Dialogue
Jan Schaffer J-Lab Executive Director
Hello and welcome. This is the third annual Batten Awards and Symposium for Innovations in Journalism. My name is Jan Schaffer and I’m the director of J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism at the University of Maryland.
J-Lab is a three-year-old center that helps news organizations and citizens use new information technologies to develop new ways for people to engage in public issues. It focuses, at the moment, on three things. One is interactive journalism. Those are news games, news exercises and searchable databases that allow people to participate in learning about public affairs.
One is innovations in journalism, which we reward today with the Batten Awards, and we also spotlight the innovations online.
The third thing is participatory journalism, particularly hyper-local citizen media sites. J-Lab will be helping to fund the startup of 20 citizen media sites over the next two years with a New Voices grant from the Knight Foundation.
We also have provided tech support for these initiatives with a new site that just launched last week called J-Learning.org, which is very granular and how-to-do-it—how to do HTML, how to do Flash, how to upload audio and video to the Web. And I will tell you, because I edited it, I now know how to do a lot of these things.
Guidelines are available for those awards at J-NewVoices.org. Our next deadline, by the way, is February 8, 2006, if any of you are thinking of putting in a proposal.
As many of you know, J-Lab is a spin-off of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, which I also directed. We’re very grounded in the thinking of trying to engage citizens in public issues.
Today’s awards and symposium were funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. We’re very grateful for their support, and I will share with you the fact that we have been invited to put in a proposal to renew it for another three years. So stay tuned on that.
The awards are named for Jim Batten. Jim was a former CEO of Knight Ridder—very beloved, died too young, very known for caring about how news organizations connect with citizens in his community, and also on the very early edge of trying to figure out how technology and journalism could work together to do these missions.
There are many journalism awards—many awards for online journalism—but I will tell you that the Batten Awards reaches to reward more than just bells and whistles and pretty packages. We really try to reward ideas that can be replicated by other news organizations and ideas that try to engage citizens in important issues.
In addition to the winners and some notable entries that you’ll hear from today, I want to let you know that one thing we do is spotlight about two dozen other really good ideas from the award contest on our Web site. So we’re not just about handing checks out to journalists, we’re really about trying to put as many good ideas as we can out there for others to replicate.
We have a stunning lineup of speakers for you today—I think some of the most creative people in the business, really. We hope you’ll stay with us through our luncheon dialogue with Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, and Michael Kinsley, the editorial page editor of the Los Angeles Times.
Our first panelists will show you some of the most engaging entries in this awards contest—news packages that are as informative as they are highly produced. And introducing our first speaker is one of our Batten Awards judges. Mark Hinojosa is associate managing editor of electronic news at The Chicago Tribune, he’s a very active member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, and he’s a man who’s never at a loss for words. So let me turn it over to Mark.
Mark Hinojosa Batten Awards Advisory Board Associate Managing Editor, Electronic News, The Chicago Tribune
This is kind of perplexing—first of all to be the leadoff, because you all are stumbling in, having coffee, and hiding the banana peels and everything else. But what’s really interesting to me about this is that, as Jan said, the Batten Awards—when we recognize achievement—are not about who did the coolest piece of Flash work. And yet I’m going to show you two pieces that rely heavily on the patois of online; of the sort of interesting and cool ways to involve people. And you’re going to sit back and say, “Well how does this fit into the mission of the Batten Awards?”
I’m going to just give you my theory, my take on this, and then you can either accept it or throw it away. But, when we talk about “digital storytelling,” what we’re really talking about is storytelling, right? The delivery platform is a convenience and it’s a convention, but what we really want to talk about is storytelling and this atavistic need I think that we have to tell stories and to hear stories. I think it’s hardwired into our brains that we want to sit around the campfire, we want to hear a great story, we want to see the cave painting, we want to see the cool piece of Flash. I think we can trace this back through our genetic markers that we do this.
So now we have these two projects that we’re going to share with you. One from Newsday, which—having worked there—is a very traditional media company who took their assets and wrapped them around an idea of, “What did the war mean? What did the war cost?” And you’re going to bounce this off against David’s work.
And now David is the antithesis of what we talked about. It’s very produced, it’s very hip, it’s very “aggressive,” as David likes to say. But at the heart of what David does is a democratization of the process. David has found ways to bring television—the qualities of television, the storytelling aspects of television—down to a level where there’s entry for everybody. There’s no more $10,000 barrier to get into producing your own television. Your own television on the Web means that more of us can tell stories. And I think it comes back to that same idea that if we can democratize the process, if we can show people—like with Newsday—how to get your arms around an incomprehensible story like a rock, who else is inspired to tell stories? Whose stories do we get to hear?
So, I was told not to go on very long, so I won’t. We’ll start with David.
David Dunkley Gyimah Senior Lecturer, University of Westminster Producer, viewmagazine.tv [interactive magazines online]
Can I start by saying, Jan, Batten Judges, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much for the opportunity to be here. For me it’s pretty awesome.
Speaking to one of your colleagues, he was telling me that they had something like 96 million hits off the Cost of War, and that really is a demonstration of the power of interactivity. Ninety-six million—that’s far beyond the population of the U.K., so great stuff.
Viewmagazine.tv, for me, is what I’d probably call a labor of love. We were sent some questions, which were quite basic but got to the point, and I tried to address these as much as possible. In fact, I haven’t deviated much at all.
The site itself is called viewmagazine.tv and I pull this one up here first as sort of a prompter as to how it’s evolved over the six or seven months that it’s been up—actually around November. It’s a quarterly. And you can see, that’s the page that’s up now as the headline (pointing to screen, with current viewmagazine showing). But that’s how it started (points to screen after picture changes to first viewmagazine issue), almost as a traditional magazine, and then went to this on the war in countries in Africa, and then went to this, and I now think we’re stuck on this as a format that really kind of demonstrates what it is.
As I said, it’s a labor of love. Believe it or not it’s done on almost a zero budget—in fact, I say negative budget because I pay for the service and a lot of it I do in between my job as a lecturer in the U.K. I have some very very good contributors who are friends from my background. Kim and Mark Riley: Mark, who presents on Air America Radio, and his wife, who’s a Brit but now an American, so I stay with them and I ring them up and I harass them and I say, “Hey, can you get me something on this or that,” and they’re very good. Also, from South Africa I have Palesa Nkosi. So the groups you see here are very much contributors.
I wanted to just take you very briefly into my background, and then this whole concept will make sense. My career more or less spans over broadcast, print and new media over 18 years, and includes working for the likes of ITN, BBC, ABC News in South Africa and as a freelance foreign correspondent during the ‘92 to ‘94 South Africa transition. And I’ve worked with people like Lennox Lewis, made programs on the CIA, et cetera, et cetera.
But in between being a broadcaster, I’ve had the opportunity to write as well, which is something I don’t get the chance to do much. Jan may remember a conversation we had a very long time ago when I wrote a piece on civic journalism and sent it to her. I said, “Look, I’m not a writer. I’m just a broadcaster.” And her quip back was, “Well, you seem to be writing fine.” So that was quite nice.
So I’ve been able to write about digital media, current affairs and culture, but also had a chance to dabble in new media. Around 1999, after one of my last major jobs working on the U.K. election in 2000, I left the industry and said, “What’s going on in new media?,” and got working with some very clever people, including the next head of Saatchi and Saatchi. And we did something for Channel 4 that won an award—well, it was a finalist—and it actually was picked up by Lennox Lewis, who thought we were able to show how boxing in the community was taking place and use it as an interactive documentary. Along the way it was getting some encouraging noises from various press departments in the U.K. and in South Africa, which in effect doesn’t mean very much, other than when they do these things they’re kind of reflective and it allows you to think, “Well, what have I really done that merits people talking about me.” So for me it’s another driving force of sorts.
The truth really be known, the reason why I was prompted to make viewmagazine.tv was probably partly because I was bored, but probably also because of job prospects, thinking, “What am I going to do next?” Every time I went for a job interview it was, “Well, what do you really do?” And I said, “Uh, well, I like to do X, Y and Z,” “No no no. What do you really do?” So I was pretty restless. And then the other factor really was that, as far as I was concerned, there were certain areas within TV and newspaper where I saw failings that I could spot. The media, TV particularly, has been sort of atrophying since the mid-1990s in the U.K. when satellite TV came on stream. As a result of that, even though satellite has been more pervasive, I think in the U.K. we’ve had less international issues. I know this was an issue that the late Peter Jennings used to talk about—less international news. There have been less minority issues, certainly from my perspective as a black Brit, and less follow-ups. And in the aspect of less follow-ups, it was interesting to read, I think it was USA Today, who said, “We’re going to stick with the New Orleans story as long as it takes.”
So for me there was too much of a swing to a sugar-pop culture and I thought this was an opportunity to do something completely new.
In ‘94, I worked for a company called Channel One TV owned by Associated Newspapers, and Channel One TV very much is a sister of New York 1. They’re two different companies, but it was the advent of “D.I.Y. Television.” Get your camera—UVW, Bx/100, whatever it was—shoot, and go off and do your story. And I remember the head of ITN bumped into me a couple of years back, saying, “Poor Channel One. The trouble is you were before your time.”
The Internet changed all that—the idea of being able to shoot and do everything. All of a sudden, here was the Internet, here was broadband, and here was an idea that I came up with helped by a very good friend from the BBC when we were in Amsterdam. He said, “What are we going to call it?” And we went through a couple names, and he said, “Call it IMOL.” And I said, “OK.” So Interactive Magazines Online, the concept being a magazine with embedded pictures, which, when you hit those pictures, what you get in the end is video behind it.
The research was the second question that Jan sent to us. Who does the research? Given that we’re quite small, we’re quite disparate. We’re not a company, per se. And I interpret that question in two ways: Research of how we got the product together or research of how we put the programs or the articles together. Well, both really. Who does the research?
For the audience we’re looking at, I’ve called them Jenny and Bradford, just to give them an identity so I know who I’m hitting. They very much mirror me. They consume all media on the go, they read Details or GQ—and as I walked into New York Airport yesterday, the first thing I did was pick up a copy of Details just to see what they were doing, because it’s the magazines that really drive me. They’re 18 to 45, a broad demographic, they like films, they like music—they know who Hendrix is. So they might like Justin Timberlake, but they have to talk to me about Hendrix. They’re interested in politics and social issues, and they’re broadbanders. They have the net, but they’re not just on dial-up, they’re on broadband, otherwise they couldn’t see this. And they’re very discerning about TV. If it doesn’t meet their requirements, they go. But if they see Lost, 60 Minutes, The Office or hard news, they’re onto it.
In terms of how we put our stories together, the stories from the contributors are very much done by themselves. I have a hand in it in so far as saying, “OK, can we do this? Can we look at that?” And that’s really just my gut feeling and international experience. I look at what’s being covered and what isn’t being covered, and essentially I pick holes in that. So I look at TV and think, “You know, the stuff on the tsunami is not being followed up, minority issues are not being picked up, and there’s a great story in there. Let’s go after it.”
Also, in terms of follow-up features, “What’s Happening to Live 8?” was a story that we did on Friday. I went out with a friend and said, “You work for APTN, you were here covering it, you actually shot some pictures for me. What’s happened to it?” So we went and did a vox pop and did a piece just to illustrate that.
Also, I try to look at sort of “timey” pieces. I was in Turkey about three weeks ago on holiday with my wife and two kids, and she hates me for it, but I took my camera with me. And while I was there I came across a story of Brits actually, to use the expression, “invading” parts of Turkey. They are setting up communities there, and in one community there are more Brits almost than Turks. It’s just a phenomenal story of people buying out of Britain and going to Turkey. It’s almost like Spain many years back.
Those are the sorts of things that I looked at. The London bombings we covered from a particular angle of talking to Chatham House, which is a think tank, and NewsTrust, which is a conference I went to about six weeks to two months ago in San Antonio that looked at the issue of restoring the trust. I’ve got to thank Leonard Witt for inviting me to that.
My mantra is very much in line with a lot of major TV companies: Inform, entertain, educate. But I also say “Interact” as well.
The case study for how we put together trust in the media, which was about needing experts and why the public was losing respect for them, was very good to do. And it’s actually on the site—I’m not going to show it—but you can see it there.
How I put it together: When I look at a mission like this, I go through a lot of media first before I do the writing, and even when I’m traveling I pick up things. I’m on my holder, I pick up facts, I read background issues, and if I find something interesting I log it. Before I actually write the feature itself, I’ll reference a number of Web sites, and they’ve got to triangulate for me. If I see two or three hits that say, “64 percent of U.S. public do not like the media,” it’s not good enough. I’ve got to find about five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10 before I’m certain that 64 percent is the figure. If I don’t get what I want, I’ll go and ring up friends in the industry. I can talk more about that on producing.
Why interactive? This picture here (points to screen with photo of woman using digital camera), which I took in Times Square, for me sums it up. This lady has a digital camera, but she’s not just shooting stills, she’s shooting film. I call it the “digital reformation,” and it’s really a throwback to the Reformation—Martin Luther, 1517—or even Gutenberg’s press when the Bible was mass-produced because there were printing presses. And here we are today in another era where digital equipment is available and we’re able to deconstruct what the Bible is saying. Everyone is reading it now and actually understanding that it says this or it says that. So there’s something in a kind of throwback to those years, which for me exist in the digital era now.
The media are no longer in control. Well, yes they are, and no they’re not. I understand the argument. They’re no longer in control so much as if you look at the London bombing, people are contributing pieces. Citizen journalism is a force to be reckoned with, and that’s become obvious because of the ubiquity of software leading to a lot of do-it-yourself.
Frankly, why interactive? Because if you were going to launch a site today or you’re with any company that does not have some kind of interactive element, then you’re in a hiding to nowhere.
Something else when answering “why interactive?” is that for me there was a chance to demonstrate areas of interactivity, engage readers or viewers, offer new user experiences, and also a bit of a paradigm shift, and we’ll come to that in a minute. Also, the great school of Jakob Nielsen, grandfather of the Web, almost to subvert his ideas, not because I wanted to but because I felt conventions are only there because we feel safe with them. There’s a way in which you navigate your site which is always left-down, on the left-hand side, or across. No, there has to be another way.
For me there have always been two elements to Web interactivity: passive and active.
The passive stuff is so obvious: There’s a Web site, you click. You click here, you click that, you click this—it exists, you click. And there’s another one, which I think is in itself an interesting paradigm here that I just demonstrated very briefly with an existing one in the report so you can see, and in effect really it’s a timeline. We’ve done a video report in which there’s a timeline which when you click on the video, you’re able to drill into more video. If this is a timeline of your site, what I’ve done is hypermark the video interview.
As you can see here, this is the main video (points to screen)—just think of the main video in that inverted triangle—and any part on that timeline, if you click it, goes into another external video. So I did an interview with Dan Gillmor and within the piece there’s about 40 seconds of that one and a half minute piece. If at any point during that interview with Dan you see a flashing light, you can click that and it goes into a Q & A, which I did with him before, which I couldn’t put into my piece, which is about five minutes. And then it goes back into the report again.
So for me that’s fairly active. And it’s a way also of saying, as a broadcaster, when I go outside and I do an interview and I come back and I just take 40 seconds, there is now a way I could use all the other stuff that I wouldn’t have used before. Now, if a viewer thinks, “I really like what that guy was saying,” they can drill through to him. So you can actually see that report.
And also, something that we did with the Live 8 one was even more, I would say, subversive, because on the end of the Live 8 report, I have placed—and I’m speaking to Apple on Thursday in the U.K. at one of their region stores so it’s going to be fun there because I’m going to give them access to my server—a report on what’s happened to Live 8 as a vox pop, and at the end of that report, I have put a placeholder there at which the URL will probably be something like live8.swf. In other words, for anyone that puts in the server a vox pop of live8.swf, the video will pick up. So on viewmagazine.tv the whole thing will show, so it’s almost going to be a chain. I mean I have control—when I go inside and I don’t like it, I take it out—but if someone puts in the bit from wherever saying, “Yeah, what did happen to Live 8? I thought blah blah blah,” that stays.
How we produce it: I like the definition—in the U.K. it tickled everyone pink—when we were called “backpack journalists.” And I have an American student, Corrine McDermid, who’s very good and who worked with me on the NATO exercise, and she explained what it meant and had to explain it to all the other students as well.
The core skills really depend on my editorial judgment and values and a technical understanding of a range of software. We are in an era where software is very much king. So we work with Final Cut Pro, PhotoShop, Director, Flash, Action Script, HTL, After Effects and a lot of compression technology. At the heart of it is really video journalism.
I was online a while back having a look at what Jakob Nielsen was saying and he was talking about how Internet sites were actually making good use of video. So that’s heartening to know that the godfather of the Web has actually finally gone past the idea that it’s just text, text, text.
But I also wanted to make use of Director and Flash in such a way that whatever I did could be organic to the site. So I wanted to get past Windows Media Player as much as possible and ask a fundamental question: If the Internet were being built today, in an era where there was speed available, would it still be modular? Would it still be spatial? Because the whole idea about the Web being spatial was that we were in an age of 28K modems when you needed to cram as much information on the Web as possible, so you had these little pods that people came along, looked at, and went, “Yeah. I take this. I take that. I take this.”
There is actually a precedent, which a friend of mine in the city was saying, that when they first did launch the Web, there were people trying to create magazines like that but they didn’t work because of the speeds. So in fact we’ve kind of come full circle.
The production equipment I tend to use is a Mac laptop; my DV cam—which is pretty old at the moment so I’m going to have to get a new one, but HD’s are more suitable; I always go with my net connection; my iSight; and whenever I’m traveling I have my dictionary, my pad and my magazine. I put down here that magazines are very important, because when I get uninspired or I can’t write, I flip to a piece, I read it for about 10 minutes, and then I’m able to go back into the piece again.
A typical report to produce from start to screen varies. The Live 8 one took me about an hour to film, two hours to edit, and an hour for post. A lot of the stuff we do is heavy posted, just because I think if I’m going to go and watch a piece on the Web, you’ve got to give me a real reason why this piece is aesthetic; why I have to leave TV to go and watch it. So I always say to people and friends doing something that once we’ve cut it up, there has to be some heavy post that gives it an aesthetic.
It takes me about 10 minutes to do a write up or even more when I’m doing the big pieces, which exist online, and then half a day for coding and compression, and a couple minutes to upload. And Mark asked me, “When is the next edition of The View going to be online?” And I was like, “Oh man…” because it’s very much a death march. It’s a throwback to the days when your Andersons were trying to create a mosaic, and they would go for 13 days on a shot, 12 hours at a time. And it’s very much like that for me when I get into the sort of zen of doing something.
This is on one of the NATO ships in the North Atlantic (on screen), which I do every year—I just did the last one. What NATO does is it just calls me up, along with 20 other journalists. As the editor I’m there and there’s a simulated war going on and we’re reporting live, which NATO brass are able to look at.
So what we’re doing I think very much embodies a kind of 21st-century broadband-caster.
I put down here “Press Association, U.K., Sun Newspaper,” only because the Press Association is actually going down the route of something very similar, and I’ve been told to come in and talk to them as sort of a consultant.
The reactions have been very favorable in blogs and chatrooms. Somebody compared us to Google’s “The Grid,” which I think was done by the Poynter organization. There were some very favorable chats going on. At one point we spiked at around 8,000 hits, which compared to 96 million is just … yeah, right. But some of the comments are basically what people are saying about the site, and some of the less encouraging feedback really comes down to how heavy we are. It’s a very heavy site, but because I work in the university where we have a one megabyte or two megabyte connection, I’m fine.
I’m talking to a guy who’s just introducing 24 megabit connections in the U.K. What we’ve been told, what I’ve read and what I’ve seen, is that at eight megabits we enter a new era where this screen can almost ape TV because the quality of the visuals become DVD quality. That will be really interesting.
Some of the industry has also been very kind. This is Jon Snow (on screen). And if you go in there and you log on, you’ll hear the sound of him talking about me, which is always very nice.
Jon Snow, from video: “I’m struck by the fact that he’s an original.”
The Press Gazette in the U.K. likened it to my knowledge report and one U.S. expert sent me a very nice message—it was a little bit rough around the edges—saying “I saw your piece. Why didn’t you talk about my site as being very cool?” And I said, “Oh, sorry.” He said, “Because you must know about my site.” And I said, “Oh, I didn’t know about it.”
The future. The future, the future, the future. It’s a mug’s game to try and predict the future, and I can’t do that. But what I can offer is sort of a scenario planning based on what we’re already doing. And for me the concept of what we’ve come up with very much mirrors something called “the outernet.”
We had the Internet that was inward looking; that showed us what we could do in our homes. In this picture here (on screen)—behind you is City Hall, that’s Tower Bridge behind you—that’s The View mocked up on a giant screen. As a public space digital vision, this is the sort of thing that a community could have, a local bar or counselor could have. You walk past them, and you’re actually watching their news—it could be anyone’s news—but you go home and you can watch the same thing as well.
Here’s another shot of that (on screen), so you can see two people. They’re not actually watching, I should say, View Magazine. They’re watching something else, but having comped this in it kind of makes sense.
One of the pieces I did earlier was on a guy called Ozwald Boateng, who Mark, again, drew to my attention, because during the piece he castigated me for not wearing one of his very expensive, 3,000 pound designer suits. I’m going to get him back by suggesting that it would be nice if the report I did for him existed in his shop so people could come and see his report. So it’s almost like broadband TV in his own shop, and people go home and watch it.
I wanted to be doing more on hypermarked video packages and downloadables so that these videos become available for people to download. And the only request I would probably have is that if you download the video—you can use it; there’s no sort of copyright issue—but use it in its entirety, and if you do upload it onto your site you just have to have a link back to the The View Magazine again.
I want to look at new models of the IMOL, which I’ll show you in a minute, and actually further explore citizen journalism, and also something on IMOL-casts because I’ve got a lot of archive—I worked in radio for many years as a presenter—on things like Louis Farrakhan and various persons who I spoke to that I think would have some value.
Also, this is a new thing that I’ve done in the last six months: The View but with video. It’s for a generation that would rather not read, so when you get into the package what you get is just the experience of video.
In line with one of the first pieces here was a very good piece by an American student at our university who was on study abroad, who did a thing called “The Flag,” which was awesome. He used timber and nails to signify the stripes and the stars. And the nails represent, at the time he did it, every single soldier that’s fallen during the war in Iraq. He’s a gulf veteran—young guy. And the timber gives it a very stark, very morbid kind of realization of what’s going on. And that piece is in one of the contemporary arts places in the U.K. But he would come to me as a student and say, “What do you think?” And I’d say, “Go for it.” So it’s a huge piece.
Mark Hinojosa: I have to admit that the first time I saw this when we were judging—they send out the entry list to the judges and we look at them at home—it was about the 20th thing I had seen and I was about to bag it for the night. And I got to David’s site and went, “Damn, this is interesting.” So I went and got my 14-year-old son, sat him down and said, “What do you think?” And I watched him navigate this, totally caught up in it. I mean he was just flying through it, reading some of it, clicking on it, making me think this has got something to show me.
I really encourage you to go visit this site, viewmagazine.tv, because one of the things that you’ll find in it is that David does a lot of the things we don’t do in traditional media. It’s a very point of view piece. There’s a lot of opinion. It’s very first person. It’s very much following the reporter’s experience through the situation. So you’re caught up in the storyteller aspect, not as the objective outsider looking down or the fly on the wall looking in on it, but as a participant moving through the experience. I find that very engaging, and I think it’s something that you all will find engaging, too.
Audience Question: How could people contribute if they wanted to?
Gyimah: It’s very much predicated on the idea that if it’s a good story, it’s a good story, it’s a good story. I have had people ring me up or e-mail me and say, “What do you think about that?” And I’ve kind of said, “yeah yeah yeah.” But the thing I really want to encourage is to have what I would call a multiple-angle story. So if I do something, say, on the U.K. and their lack of wanting to be part of the war, then I want to have something from the U.S. or South Africa as well. So actually what you get in a story is these three different points of view from three different areas.
Now I don’t have access to those so-called contributors, so it’s really going to be a case of someone just e-mailing me—and I do read them—and me saying, “That’s really good, and this is what I’m doing here. You could do something along those lines. Post it up, let me see it somewhere, and let’s really take it from there.”
But The View is only one project under the Interactive Magazines Online umbrella. The View is one product that I think could be mirrored in so many different quarters. And if I could divide my time up—which I don’t think I can—then we can create many more different models of this kind of idea where you can have just a theme, very much the way they did with the Cost of War. So you have people from across the globe, if you can find them, and you have this one magazine that exists with a theme.
Jonathan McCarthy Long Island Editor, Newsday.com
I’d like to echo David’s sentiments on thanking everyone for the opportunity to be here. It’s really a great honor for us and our staff. I apologize also for following a very nice English accent with a veiled Long Island accent, so I’ll try to spare you from that this morning.
The interesting thing about the project is that for us to sit here today and essentially represent corporate national media with our small staff of just a couple of handfuls of people, is good for us. And the way this came about was actually born on the Web in so much that as the elections were coming up in Iraq, every good managing editor on the paper said, “Well how does this affect my beat?”
So in On Long Island we had a story and in Business we had a story and obviously our world reporters were doing a story, and it wasn’t until we had a meeting and I said, “Well I’m just going to put all this stuff on the Web,” that the paper was like, “Well hey, let’s make a series!”
And that kind of lack of serious planning really allowed us to have a lot more freedom on the Web because everything was done on deadline and that really allowed us to explore and push the envelope a little bit.
Some of the things that we highlighted—and as you can see we broke it down into six days—were what the price of freedom was in Iraq, how the military was stretched thin to every coast, and what it has meant for Long Island?
We used to have a fairly robust economy driven by wartime activities—building planes and all those types of things—and there are still some high-tech defense industries in our area so we focused on that.
And finally we got to the last part, which I felt was the most interesting: How come no one cared? There weren’t giant protests. Everyone had a yellow ribbon on their car but no one really knew what that meant. There wasn’t outrage about the number of dead and there was patriotism in so much that we stopped listening to the Dixie Chicks for a month but we never really did anything greater than that. So that was the rationale behind doing the project.
As far as the Web site goes, one of the questions we were asked to be prepared to answer was, “Why make it interactive?” And my answer to that is simple: Why wouldn’t you? There’s no other way to tell a story these days.
We set out to look at what the costs were locally, nationally and internationally and we set out to see how it was affecting families. But we also set out to really connect with a group of readers or an audience that the newspaper might not be connecting with, and we tried to figure out what the disconnect was in society with this war.
As you go through the days, each day was a little formulaic in that it started with a slideshow and an audio voiceover describing the day, but we had some phenomenal pictures from the scenes and we had some really good journalism to highlight.
On the Web we talked about how we could do this a little better, so you’ll see some of the Flash. We took a look at the database of the soldiers that were lost and we broke them out to show what the deadliest day was and how many people died and what they were doing, and we put faces with as many people as we could. We did an interactive timeline to this point—and this was in January—to show what was going on in the war and what had been going on.
One of the things that we tried to show was that we had the reach to tell this kind of story. Being that we were working with Newsday and all of its resources, we had 11 reporters in all different parts of the world, we had seven photographers contribute to this, we had three videographers contribute to this, and we also had two editors on the Web site and two Web designers. And we did this all on deadline, so the paper closed at 10:00 and we’d finally get all the text and we knew the pictures and we knew the gist so we weren’t working long. But this meant that at 2:00 in the morning each night a new piece would come up and we’d combine it with the old and that’s what you end up with here.
One of the things that was really interesting for us was that we were able to show how this connects with all different parts of society. One of my proudest accomplishments in working with the team on this project was that during this week before the elections, we were hit with our biggest snowstorm in 20 years, the fire department in the city of New York had their deadliest day since September 11, and we also had the deadliest day in Iraq, which ironically was day three of this series. So to be able to be in the middle of this series—and I really credit the paper with still sticking with it and staying on message—and have this happen, it really hit home. The front page had no choice but to again acknowledge that there was a war going on in Iraq. And we’re talking about a time in which we were very much focused on whether or not Martha Stewart was going to go to prison—that was the front page of our paper the week before this series. So it was a little different point of view that we were able to use.
As far as the technology, there’s an interactive graphic that looks at all of the weapons we use in the war and there’s a graphic that looks at what exactly a soldier is wearing. Some of the graphics that we were able to do that we were most proud of took newspaper graphics and actually made them interactive online. So if someone was reading this in the paper, they could go online and see those stories come to life.
In the videos, we went to a high school in a town on Long Island called Brentwood. At this point, six people from Long Island had been killed in the war and four of them went to this same high school. They were killed at different points in time, they didn’t graduate the same year and they were all in their twenties. It’s a community that is relatively poor and the recruiters have an office in the campus and they promise them a life outside of Brentwood and they get them to join up. So we went back to this school and took a look at a teacher who is teaching history and current events and how he’s explaining why it’s important to be a soldier, and we asked him, “Is that a hard lesson to teach at this point, as the flag is at half-mast what seems to be every other week at this school?” And we talked to some of the students and we did some video there.
This is another graphic that, in paper speak, ran as a truck. We took Flash and some effects programs and wrapped a globe together and you can rotate it and see where all of the troops are. So we talk about our troops spread thin, and it is important that people see that we’re not just in Iraq and Afghanistan, we’re all over the place, and you can stop at all these countries to see where we are. Those are the kinds of things we try to do.
The story itself is something that we needed to bring home a little bit, but at the end of the day the biggest protest we had was on the eve of the Republican National Convention. I ended up marching in that protest parade only because I had to get from my office to Madison Square Garden. I was trying to get in the Garden to cover, and the only way to get from my office to Madison Square Garden was to march a block with the protesters. And as I walked along, as an American I was kind of proud that these people had mobilized, but then I saw what these people were protesting. As they walked past Burger King they said, “We hate Burger King!” And on the next block was Foot Action and they said, “We hate Foot Action!” And they didn’t really have a message and they were just there for the scene. At that point I realized that the whole concept of our society being at war was something that I was glad that we tried to examine.
Audience Question: What was the reaction that you got?
McCarthy: We got some high school professors who wanted the project on CD-ROM so they could use it to teach their students, and some college professors who wanted to work it into their curriculum. What we tried to do with the six days as we went across was to give people all the information that we had. At no point did we try to say “the war is good,” or “the war is bad,” as no newspaper really would in a project like this. We tried to give everyone all the information they could possibly want to make that kind of judgment.
I was really happy when we got e-mails that said “great job,” and e-mails that said, “How could you do this at a time of war?” It was about 50-50 in responses of people that either liked it or hated it, so for me that means that we were probably right on the mark.
Audience Question: How can you keep that relevant and fresh over time and keep people coming back to it?
McCarthy: In this particular instance, we had to make a lot of concessions in the middle of it because the war was still going on as we were doing this. So we were able to take some of the things that we were already doing and make it part of the project, and things that we started for the project we continued to do.
We had a blog with a reporter and photographer as they were there for the elections. They had originally started blogging about what it was to be on patrol and then they stayed for the elections, and that was a way that we continued the story.
Once the elections happened and there was no giant terrorist attack on the day of the elections, everyone came home but our reporters stuck around.
Audience Question: How do you keep citizen interest?
McCarthy: One of the things that we were really proud of was that this was what it actually looked like in our paper on day one, and it’s essentially the Web site. For the newspaper to embrace this kind of design was a way for us to really bring it to the forefront.
On the Web site we can change things all the time, and this was a way for us to really keep things fresh. There were constantly stories about Iraq, so it was easy for us to bring it out here. Over the course of six days we had four or five different videos shot and we were able to highlight different things in different spots. We sent it out in e-mail alerts and we did everything we could do to get it out in front of people.
On the last day we offered a message board where people could share their thoughts about the war. So we were talking about society and we encouraged people to give us their take. For example, if you have a yellow magnet on the back of your car, do you know what it means? Did you buy it at the bagel store? Did the money go to somebody important? We tried to engage our users with those sort of things.
Audience Question: Is there still interest in this?
McCarthy: The week before the elections there was a lot of interest, and as we went through it we tried to keep it out there and keep it fresh, but I think that America, like any other society, just wants to gravitate to the next big thing. So Martha got out a couple months later and we were all over that and now we’re all over Katrina, but I would hope that it resonates still. We still get some response to it but I wish it was more, obviously.
Audience Question: Did you use any resources available through the Tribune Company family? Did any other paper or broadcast Web site pick up your work?
McCarthy: We were able to highlight the work we did on some of our partner sites. New York City’s WB 11 did a Sunday newscast and had one of the editors on and talked about it, so we tried to do things like that.
One of the graphics that we used was from the Orlando Sentinel, and that was really the only Tribune thing that we used. We used some AP photos but 98 percent of it was done in-house. After the package began, it was packaged and given to any Tribune site that wanted to use it. I think that it made some appearances on other sites but nothing as big as what we did.
Audience Question: How did you track your users? How did they differ from your print users? How did you market the package?
McCarthy: As most of us know, when you’re working with Flash it’s very hard to track how people go through and how long people stay on certain aspects of it. What we did was the very un-chic way of embedding the Flash on an HTML page and tracking that page. That was how we tracked it, but as far as the Flash and what people looked at, it was hard to get actual numbers.
As far as how we marketed it, I would say the one thing that the project suffered from was that it really wasn’t the type of thing that you go out and market like, “Hey we’re going to explain the war to you.” It didn’t really work out that way, but in the paper we were able to do some things where we had some giant boxes that said, “This is what’s on the Web. Go there.” So if you looked at the paper—these are the covers of the paper for the six days of the series (on screen)—we actually put the URL bigger on the front page, and that was the best way to market it. But as you can see, we had the blizzard and the firefighters die so it was a big week for other news, but it was the right week to do the story.
Andrew Nachison Co-Director, The Media Center at the American Press Institute
This next group represents another iteration of the transformation of storytelling that we see. We’re living in a highly visual world and the first group of projects that we looked at really typify the highly visual nature of journalism that we see emerging. We’re also living in a world that’s awash in data. We are all database navigators. We are all database journalists, in a sense, because we all use databases every day.
The notion of database journalism, which for a long time was a pretty arcane specialty for really dedicated investigative journalists that got the power of numbers, is really evolving in some interesting ways. This is true not only because we all use databases everyday – we all search, we all mine for information – but also because the accessibility of data provides new opportunities for journalism.
This group represents that in some interesting ways. And yet, as you’ll see, it’s all highly visual.
I want to jump right into it because we’ve got three projects to look at very quickly, and Adrian and Wilson, why don’t we start by looking at chicagocrime.org.
What I take away from looking at this project, besides the guts that they’re going to present, is just to think about the accessibility of data and how dedicated geeks today can do some amazing things with it. So with that, why don’t we take a look at chicagocrime.org.
Adrian Holovaty Lead Developer, Holovaty and Associates
First I’d like to thank J-Lab for supporting great journalism. It really warms the heart to see all these awesome projects.
This is chicagocrime.org. As it says on the top, it’s a freely browsable database of crimes reported in Chicago. What I’m going to do here is show you what it is, how we did it, what makes it different, and what kind of whacky things we have planned for the future.
When you go to chicagocrime.org it’s a database of crimes reported in Chicago, but because there’s so much horrific stuff that happens in Chicago, it’s a gigantic database. When we set out to do this, the reason I did it was because it was an interesting challenge. I really like taking these gigantic pieces of interesting information and making them very digestable by common people.
So the philosophy of this site is that there’s so much information that is so valuable but until this site launched it was really hard to access. The police department makes it available but it’s really ugly and you have to deal with their unusable piece of garbage site.
So I launched this, with Wilson’s help, as an independent project because it was an interesting challenge, because I wanted to do a valuable public service and because I like hacking on stuff.
I’ll walk you through the site:
The Chicago Police Department releases all this stuff on its Web site and for every crime it releases a bunch of stuff: When the crime happened, what it was, whether any arrests were made, what type of location it was—whether it was at an ATM, barber shop, bowling alley—that kind of thing.
So instead of giving users a tremendously hard to use search interface and saying, “Tell me exactly what you want, put in your address, put in exactly what you want to see,” we decided to just make it browsable. And not just by one thing, but by every possible way you might want to look at this information. So that’s what you see on the home page.
Let’s browse by crime type. Here’s a list of all the types in the system, and let’s take a look at motor vehicle theft/motorcycles, and click on that. Here are the latest reported motorcycle, scooter and motorbike thefts in the city of Chicago. This is what we refer to as a crime type detail page. Every type of crime has this page. Everything is dynamic, so everything is automated, and it displays the latest 25 or 30 crimes.
Here they’re listed on the left, and over here they’re listed on the map. This uses Google Maps technology to embed the maps in the page, and because it’s Google Maps, I can pan this thing around and zoom in and I can click on a crime to get more information about it.
This is the detail page for an individual crime. It tells you what it is, the crime categorization, where it happened, what zip code, what ward it was, whether any arrests were made, whether it was domestic, the police district and the police beat. So this represents everything we know about this crime. And because we have the address, we’re able to geo-code it and put it on the map. The police department only releases block level data for privacy reasons, so this point represents the start of the block. Also, because this is a Google Map, you can toggle between satellite and map, and you can zoom in directly on that crime. And there’s the new hybrid mode that Google Maps released that’s a satellite map with the street names right over it.
We looked at the type page, now let’s look at the block page. I’ll click on 63rd Street, and this is all the blocks on 63rd Street with how many crimes are on each block. Let’s look at 800 East because there were 19 crimes—and the time span we’re dealing with here is the last three months because that’s what the police department offers. So here’s the page that represents everything we know about this block, 800 East 63rd Street. It tells you what beat it’s in, what district, zip code, ward, and the latest reported crimes. All sorts of everything happens here.
You’ll notice an RSS feed link is available here. We really wanted to get people involved and provide a public service, and the thing you are most interested in is obviously your own address. So you can click on RSS here and it’s going to look really ugly, but if you’re familiar with RSS you know that you can subscribe to this on your news reader and get notified every time there’s a crime that happens on your block. It’s easy to make RSS feeds, but what you don’t want is to make RSS feeds that are just huge data dumps. So we don’t have an RSS feed for every assault because there are hundreds of assaults that happen every day, so if you had an RSS feed of that it would be unmanageable. We have RSS feeds for every block of the city and every police beat because those are smaller, more manageable data sets.
You can also click on all the crimes within two blocks, four blocks or eight blocks, so let’s look at all the crimes within four blocks. There’s those, and of course every map is movable and draggable.
Let’s go into some more interesting stuff. Of course you can navigate by date, so let’s go into July 8. Here are the crimes separated by time, so let’s look at 10 p.m. That’s everything that happened in the city of Chicago from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. on July 8.
Again, the idea is that everything that can be a link should be a link. Like on this page, you don’t know if someone’s going to want to click on time, you don’t know whether they’re going to want to drill down to the other dates on the crime detail page, you don’t know what part of information they’re interested in. Say I live on 6400 South Martin Luther King, I might want to click on that to see the other crimes on the block, or I might be interested in crimes that are criminal trespasses. Everything that can be a link should be a link. That’s really the philosophy here, and it really makes for a very “sticky” site.
I don’t really look at the traffic numbers a lot, but the one time I did look at numbers the average length of a person’s visit on this site was something like eight or 10 minutes, and generally in the industry that number is like 30 seconds because most people just go to the home page then go on. But this thing is really engrossing.
You can also browse by police district. A lot of people don’t know their police district, so I added this thing here where you zoom in on your home and there is a little crosshairs and you can click “Guess District.” It’s centered on beat 19-33 in district 19. Click on beat 19-33, and here’s the latest crimes that happened in that beat, and of course I can get the RSS feed.
We do some aggregate stuff like the most common crimes for this beat, and it looks like theft is the most common crime here, followed by battery. Battery is always common, I’ve found.
You can browse by ward. You can find your ward if you don’t know it, and it works the same way as the police district location tool.
You can browse by zip code, and if you click on an area it displays the border of that zip code. This is interesting because that actually uses the line that Google uses for driving directions. This is a hack, so instead of using the line for driving directions, it uses it to display the border around a zip code.
There’s a city map view for power users interested in a certain sub-set of crimes. Let’s look at all the crimes that happened in a bowling alley, update the map, and there’s only two. Let’s look at all the ATM crimes. There are 44 ATM crimes, and I can narrow those down to all the assaults that happened at an ATM—just one. And I can click on that and I get a balloon that tells me more about it.
We just added a couple weeks ago crimes along a route. Say you walk to the L station every day at 5 p.m. So I’ll do my walk to the L, and what you do is pan and zoom the map using Google’s very pretty interface, and you click on it and draw a line, then you click show crimes on route. I can optionally filter that to just show me the crimes that happen on the street, and there are all the street crimes that happen along the route. It’s kind of fuzzy because we only know the block number, we don’t know the exact address.
Audience Question: Talk about the genesis of this project.
Holovaty: I was here in D.C. at a computer programming conference because I’m a big geek and I was looking for something interesting to do. I stumbled upon the Chicago Police Department’s Web site and they had all this information freely available in a very ugly interface. Every night at 11 I use what’s called a screen scraper, which is an automated program that goes to their Web site, grabs everything out of their system and pulls it to here. So really it runs itself, and I just check it every other day to make sure it’s working.
Audience Question: Are you franchising it to other areas?
Holovaty: Yeah. I’m not doing those myself, but a bunch of other police departments have contacted us and said, “Can you do it?”
Wilson Miner Designer, chicagocrime.org
I just wanted to talk a little more about how we put the project together because we work in journalism and I think there are some lessons for how we package information as journalists online.
Adrian came up with the idea to do this because it was in his area and the information was available but the site sucked, so he wanted to make it accessible so he could use it and so other people could use it. We talked a little bit about what it might be and what it might look like but it was really informal and we didn’t talk about any requirements, we just said that we should make it better. We wanted to take this discreet set of information that we had and make it easy to access, so Adrian went off and did his thing and built it and made a lot of decisions along the way. But the key thing is that the person who had the idea and was also going to be the consumer of the information built the interface to the information. He created it and made all the decisions along the way based on how he wanted to access the information, so there was no communication barrier of having a team of people where one person is executing somebody else’s idea and then someone else is using it.
So then Adrian built the first prototype, which was essentially the first working version. We could have launched that day if we wanted to, but we both looked at it and moved things around and tweaked it.
It’s a dubious distinction to be the designer of a site like this because you look at it and it’s evident that there’s really no design involved. So we worked really hard on it and we ended up with this thing and the goal was to make it as simple as possible. I think with a site like this, where you have a really simple piece of information—and maybe you have a lot of that information as we do in this case—but you have one very discreet piece of information that you want to present as clearly and as informatively as possible, the goal is to reduce all of the complexity inherent in that information so that people can consume it. With a site like that, I think the first principle that the designer needs to take into it is to do as little design as possible. Don’t make it look too pretty, just make it simple and communicate it.
I had the advantage of starting with the working version that Adrian had and all I needed go do was tweak it and move it around. We started with the basic, necessary functionality; without these key features, the site doesn’t exist. We just started with that and only added what made the information clearer.
We added a map because the most obvious way to visualize something with a location as a key attribute is with a map. We were lucky to have the Google Maps tool available to do that, and it was very simple to do and we didn’t have to worry about the presentation.
Then, once we added all the things we thought made it clear, we went through and looked at it and took away what was unnecessary or confusing. We had originally looked at a lot of different aggregate statistics, because you look at a big body of statistics and the first thing you want to do is just say, “OK, what are the key things? Can we do the most popular crimes? The most frequent crimes? The most frequented location for crimes?” And what we realized when we had all that extra information in there was that a lot of it was meaningless because we’re dealing with a very limited time window. A lot of that aggregate information doesn’t tell you anything because you’re only limited to a small subset of data, so we took away everything that was unnecessary and doesn’t contribute to communicating the core information.
I think that process of starting with the very basic functionality and getting it there immediately, adding what you need to communicate more effectively, and then removing what’s confusing sounds exactly like the process of writing a news story or packaging a news feature. You’re looking at numbers, you’re looking at data or you’re looking at information, but it’s the same process as communicating a news story, and the key principle of news writing is be brief and communicate your idea as simply as possible. But within that you want to provide as much information as possible, so this is a great example of that. It’s very simple to get to the information, but there’s a lot of information there for you to access.
I think what makes chicagocrime.org different than the Chicago Police Department’s interface with the same data is that when you look at it, on the face of it they’re presenting exactly the same information with the same data and the visual presentation is not significantly different, but they give you a lot of options and ask you to enter information up front, and what if I don’t know what the intersection is or don’t care? So what I think we did—maybe not intentionally—is made these guided browsing links where every click in the site gets you closer to relevant information. There’s no barrier to entry as far as needing to know something before I get to information. I might know what I’m looking for, but I might just be interested in exploring, so there are thousands of facets to explore and there’s no wrong choice.
Andrew Sherry Deputy Managing Editor, News, USATODAY.com
Thank you very much for the invitation to speak here today about USA Today’s election night results map.
USA Today is very much about visual journalism and about delivering the most information possible in the least amount of space and the least amount of time. The challenge with visual journalism is that it is very labor intensive and also that it takes a lot of time relative to the pace of breaking news on the Web, which needs to be basically instant. That’s what this map project was intended to solve.
Even though we built most of this map and the infrastructure behind it in the last few weeks before the election, we weren’t going into it entirely cold. We actually learned a lot of the things we needed to know to make this work about this time last year as we were covering the election race itself.
As you know, the presidential race in the U.S. is really 50 individual state races, and we wanted to figure out a way that we could keep that story going, presented visually and updated very quickly and easily. So what we did was build this battleground state tracker. The breakthrough was separating the data from the Flash map. So instead of a designer having to go in and rebuild every single time we wanted to go in and update one of these states, we separated the Flash graphic from the data, which you see appearing down here below, and the data just resided on an XML page, which an editor could go in and edit with Word Pad.
So once the map was built once, our political editor could go in on a daily basis and if there had been an important poll he could update the poll results, which would cause the state to change color—if he felt it was a credible poll within the margin of error—and he could just put in a little line about that state. Some of them didn’t really need to be updated that often—it was pretty clear where Texas was going to go quite early—but some of the states changed back and forth on almost a daily basis.
That for us was really the breakthrough step in terms of technology and design to open the door to what we did on election night.
Juan Thomassie Senior Designer, USATODAY.com
As Andrew mentioned, our challenge on election night was to design a map—an interactive graphic—that would allow us to keep the ever-changing information funneled into this project without a designer or an editor having to actually touch pages. So based on the experiences, we learned from the battlegrounds map that we were able to design an interactive U.S. map with links to an XML file that was generated dynamically from AP’s election return information, and a click on the map would take you to pages for each of the states.
What was really interesting about this project, as we tested it on a mock election days before the real election night, was that we start off with a blank slate; a white map of the United States. And as returns began to come in, hour by hour, even minute by minute, the map began to take on a life of its own and change from the east coast to the west dynamically loading in returns—exit poll data—and then giving us this very familiar red and blue map that we all looked at after the election.
And based on what we learned from this project, we looked at other places on our Web site where we might be able to integrate an interactive interface like this map with more dynamically changing information, and we decided to use it on our weather graphic. It’s a very similar interface, but with different types of information that load in by rolling over different sections of the map, and by clicking on the map you can go to more in-depth information.
Audience Question: Where do you see it going in the future?
Thomassie: I don’t know. I wish I had a crystal ball. We are really committed, though, to better integration of information and presentation. USA Today’s newspaper was somewhat of an innovator in the use of photographs, information graphics and color printing, and our Web site has really tried to maintain that brand identity through use of more design, perhaps, than an example of chicagocrime.org. Only to fit it into the style, though, not to say it’s any better or worse, but to maintain the look and feel of the Web site that our users are more familiar with through other types of graphics that we produce.
We’re looking ahead at opportunities to integrate content more seamlessly with our Flash presentations and there are many projects that we are now developing that tie into databases, including photo galleries and other types of interactive graphics, like for census-type data, analysis of neighborhoods and socio-economic information for a story like Katrina and how New Orleans’ demographics might have affected the news events of the previous weeks. We’re committed to doing more of that.
Sherry: We definitely see it as a very important part of our future, partly because what we all need to do as news organizations to remain viable is to use technology to leverage editorial judgment, and that’s what you can do with this kind of stuff. That’s what they’ve done with chicagocrime.org, by taking a set of data that wasn’t addressed with editorial sensibility.
USA Today does a lot of stuff on the changing demographics of the United States, so that could be an area to explore. But we also are quite active in our coverage of pop culture, so we’re looking at what other possibilities are there to use databases combined with very different kinds of visuals.
It’s really a range of things, but what ties it together is using technology to leverage editorial judgment and add value for the reader.
Rick Hirsch Director of Multimedia and Special Projects, The Miami Herald
I want to talk a little about a project we did on Miami’s skyline, and I have to say thank you for having me here. I am dazzled by the presentations, from David’s to the folks at USA Today.
I come to this from a news organization where, historically, 90 percent of our intellectual energy has been invested in the “iron and the ink,” so part of what’s significant about the skyline project is how it took us to a new place.
Welcome to Miami, a huge suburb that is undergoing a unique urbanization process. It’s one that we’ve told in print over the last couple years, somewhat incrementally, sometimes in project form, but we thought we needed to find a way to tell that story differently to people. What is unique about this project for our institution is that the impetus for this project came from online. We wanted to show the changes that were taking place in a city where, along the waterfront, there were a hundred high-rise buildings planned in a course of five years that were going to take the cityscape and turn it into something very different.
We wanted to show what we were doing with scale and with depth, so that led us to conceive this project online.
There are 61,000 condo units planned in the city within the next five years. We put those on this scrolling cityscape and made them accessible to people throughout the city.
It was a project that required participation from our newsroom. Our business staff had been writing these stories, but in this case our online staff came forward and said, “Let’s show this story. Let’s engage the community. Let’s actually give people the opportunity to see what Miami would look like if all these projects were actually built.” So we built it on a series of photographs and incorporated Flash to tell that story.
The response was tremendous. We had 55,000 page views to this graphic, and that doesn’t include the clicks within. We also had a great deal of discussion. More than 15 community organizations linked to our Web site, as did the downtown development authority, and realtors found this a very engaging place.
It led us to an interesting dichotomy within our coverage. We didn’t set out to show this development as something inherently good or bad, and yet it was viewed in both ways by people who accessed this project. We had forums that engaged people in a fairly vigorous debate, we had dozens of letters to the editor on the topic, and to this day there is still an ongoing discussion about this.
It has enabled us, as we continue our coverage, to drive people to the graphic. Every project we do in print pushes people to look at the skyline, and we update it monthly.
As you look at the different colors on the graphic, it shows you the buildings that have actually been completed, those that are planned, those that are under construction and those that are in preliminary stages. We update those and we’ve taken buildings off the graphic that have failed as this huge real estate boom takes place in Miami.
Audience Question: Do you think the discussions would have occurred if the visual hadn’t happened?
Hirsch: I really don’t. The Miami Dolphins and real estate are the hot topics in discussion in Miami most of the time, but there had never been any successful effort to put together what Miami would look like if all these projects were built. You have to understand, this is the prototypical sprawl suburb. As Miami reached south and north and west to the everglades, the city was running out of land and there had been talk for years about the importance of infill development, but it was something that never seemed to be real for Miami until the last couple years, hence this boom.
Infill development was good, but how much was too much and how would that tax and stress the system? Really, until we put this together, I don’t think that conversation was engaged.
Audience Question: What out of this was from the iron and ink folks?
Hirsch: Interestingly, the iron and ink folks produced a 1A story and a perspective section piece that went along with this. They also produced a double truck graphic, but it was built off of our work. So the components of that, which are the 114 buildings incorporated in our graphic, are shown here along with the sections of the piece. And of course what they couldn’t do in print, even with a broadsheet double truck, was take the eye and stretch it along what is about 12 miles of coastline.
Audience Question: Could you have used actual pictures and made it look a little bit more realistic?
Hirsch: We actually incorporated two photographs of the existing skyline in the graphic. This is built on a version of that, but to get the detail and to really pick out the buildings to some sort of scale, we couldn’t have done that.
Audience Question: Were you able to incorporate some of the content from the reporting in a way that raised the issues and the opinions about whether this is too much?
Hirsch: Absolutely. All the stories that appeared in print, and in fact all the stories that we’ve done on downtown development, are linked to from this project. As we do succeeding stories we add them to that, and we have an ongoing development forum.
A lot of the use of this site has come from neighborhood groups. There’s one neighborhood highlighted in a story called Edgewater, which is just north of what has traditionally been called Miami’s downtown, and all but about a block and a half of Edgewater is going to be high-rises in five years if all these projects are built.
Audience Question: Could you gather data on the demand on electricity and water and other development issues and incorporate them on the map?
Hirsch: I would imagine we could, and in fact we debated about how much detail to put with each building. It’s effectively limitless how much detail we can put, but it was simply a matter of workload and practicality. But it’s certainly doable.
Jan Schaffer Batten Awards Advisory Board J-Lab Executive Director.
I want to thank the Miami Herald and USA Today for coming. They’re notable entries in this contest, and they’re just some of the examples of the other notable entries that we show online as marvelous ideas that surface that we try to give additional legs to.
I think that in this panel, we’re going to move a little more toward citizen engagement. As we all know, journalism is no longer monolithic. No one size fits all, and I think a lot of journalists don’t like that. They like the hard and fast rules and they like the conventions of journalism, but there are a lot of new players on the scene, many of whom are not journalists at all. In fact, I think they frankly abhor the label of journalism.
Yet they see themselves very much as hunters and gatherers of news, able to define what to them should be news. To them journalism is not just a one-way pipeline, it’s not a monologue, it’s a conversation, and it’s very back and forth. I think journalists fret a lot about these interlopers. “How dare they? Who could believe them? They don’t know the rules.” And amid all this activity, we have mainstream journalists coming out who are converts to the idea that it’s not just bloggers and citizen media that can build on this two-way conversation pipeline, it’s mainstream media as well. It’s no longer “The” media, as The Media Center has been known to say, it’s “We” media.
With that, I’d like to start with John Robinson, who is here from the News & Record in Greensboro to talk about his Town Square project.
John Robinson Editor, News & Record, Greensboro, N.C
I really need a picture of myself in front of the Batten Awards sign to take back with me to my office because we at Greensboro don’t consider ourselves innovators at all, we consider ourselves survivors. We’re trying to find new readers wherever we can, and this is one of the ways we’re doing it and having a little fun too.
Our mission with this, which we started about eight months ago and called Town Square, is really to transform our 115-year-old, ink-on-paper newspaper. It’s filled with people who believe very strongly and cherish the ideals of journalism, and you know who I’m talking about with the arrogant, obnoxious and pushy reporters and grouchy editors. We want to transform this group into the 21st century where we’re not constrained by our daily deadlines or by the schedules that the carriers have. We want to show them that we can have a different kind of conversation with readership and that we can explain what we do and how we do it, that we can ask readers what we should do, that we can create video and create audio and compete with radio and television in ways that we never thought possible. We really want to tap into conversations that the community is having without us and help enable those and participate in those. We did this by calling it the Town Square.
There’s nothing particularly distinctive and unique about what we’re doing at the News & Record, with the possible exception that we’ve done it all pretty much in public with this transparency that is unnerving at times and creepy at times and, when we make mistakes, embarrassing at times. Essentially we asked readers online what we should do on our Web site, published a report about it online and said we were going to do it and we’re starting on it. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.
Our efforts essentially have taken two tracks. The first stage that we’re in right now is us outward—taking the newspaper model and transforming it into online. We started with blogging, and we now have 15 or 16 blogs, all done by our staff. We have news related blogs where our reporters take a whole different tone and produce more information from their beats and from their meetings and put it online. This is pretty much all stuff that does not get into the newspaper.
We have one on education where we’re able to link to school board agendas, to maps for redistricting, to school redistricting projects and to cost analysis done for the projects. It gives readers a different look, much more in-depth than what we can do in the newspaper.
This blog in particular is very feisty—as you’ll see we’ve got 69 comments on SAT scores dropping. These are parents arguing about the value of the school system and, in many cases, the competence of the school board and school superintendent.
We also do the same kind of thing with some other news blogs. We have one on local government that we call “Inside Scoop.”; In this case it’s just about the City Council talking about buying some property and it’s got some news about a candidate for the city manager’s office. Also, we now link online to the campaign finance reports of all the City Council candidates, so you can read more about that.
There are just more things that we are able to do online than we are able to do in the newspaper.
We have other news blogs: One out of Raleigh, the state capital, and one on religion.
We have a couple sports blogs. Sports is the first one we started, thinking that we’re in the middle of ACC country where we could put a lot of information online about Carolina and Duke and Wake Forest and State. Our sports guys really had to be dragged into this, and it was a great learning for me not to drag people into it because they wouldn’t do it very well. They write about a whole lot of stuff but very little about local sports and the things that people would come to our site for. Like here’s one about a Major League Baseball player, and there’s not a Major League team within miles of us. So we’re still working on it. It’s our first one, and it’s like your first child…
We do have one on NASCAR as well—which is big there and now big a lot of other places—that’s done by our assistant sports editor who is very much a gear head, and it’s very popular.
As you’ll see, the tone is very different on these, as they are on all blogs. One of our interests with all the blogs was, foremost, we wanted to learn. We really needed to get in and learn by doing this whole different medium, so that’s what we tried to do. We wanted to interact with readers in a different way, to talk to them differently and to listen to them differently, and we wanted to expand the sort of journalism that we do.
The neat thing that we’re trying to do now is take the much more casual tone of the blogs and bring them into the newspaper proper where it’s much more accessible and easier for the readers to get through.
We have a couple of editorial blogs done by our editorial folks that are just an extension of what they do. There’s the editorial page editor who puts his column online, but also throughout the week does little mini editorials about issues before the community that sometimes spark a little bit of controversy. Here’s one just on the train station. You wouldn’t think that would be a big deal, but it’s got nine comments as people go back and forth on how the city does with its mass transit.
We have features-related blogs. One of our online editors in the news department highlights a bargain where he has done some research and found good places to shop for, in this case, photos, magazines, boneless chicken breasts and that kind of thing.
We also have one on music, we have one on cooking—which is our newest blog that’s a lot of fun and is so new I have no idea of it’s page views so I don’t know how popular it is—and then of course we’ve got the best one, which just happens to be mine where I talk about the newspaper, issues of journalism, how we cover things, and I apologize for stupid things that we do and that kind of thing.
Actually the most popular blog that we have—which is a good thing and a bad thing—is our letters to the editor. We have enabled comments to the letters that we publish in the newspaper so people can come and comment on the letter writer’s opinion. This was a hit right off, to the point that it forced us to consider a great deal of registration issues because we had a whole bunch of “trolls”; on the site who would take the conversation down into the gutter so quickly your head would spin.
As you can see, all of these letters have comments. I saw one this morning that had 50-some comments. Usually the ones about the war get the most replies. I used to be an editorial page editor and anytime anyone would write a letter with the words, “wake up America,”; in it, you knew it was a good one, and here’s “Mr. Bush, wake up,”; where we’ve got all these comments from people talking about politics. And just for fun you can go there and read them and it will make your world feel a lot better since you’re not one of them.
Jan Schaffer: John, talk about your motivation for doing this.
Robinson: Our motivation was that Greensboro has a very healthy blogging community. I stumbled upon it a year or so ago and found that they were talking about the newspaper a lot and most of the things they said were misguided, I thought. Once I started reading more and saw that there was a real community there talking to each other—very civically engaged people—it was clear that we needed to get involved in that and learn about that. As a result we had one of our more technically based journalists do a study and come up with what we should do online to expand our journalism, because for us it’s really about expanding our journalism. He asked readers online, wrote this report called “The Town Square”; that we put online, and we really just took off from there.
We’ve gone into several other areas. I’ve only dealt with the blogs, but we’ve gone into other areas of journalism and multimedia where we have video. Our version of what Newsday did on a very small scale is that we had a woman in Iraq who is a print journalist—she’s just a reporter—who sent back stories from Iraq where she was there looking for people from our area. She also took a video camera with her and sent video of marines talking to their loved ones at home, marines talking about the experience, and an evangelist Christian marine who put on a dance show for everyone that was very entertaining. She also did audio, we interviewed her over the phone and she talked about her work, and she did still photography, all of which we put online for people to see.
Mostly for us it was just learning. It was learning how to do this, to see how easy it was. We’re a small paper in North Carolina and we have a small staff, and we wanted to see how to do it.
We currently solicit citizen journalism, but it’s not all that good. I think everyone’s discovered that there are varying degrees of it. We have something called “Your News.”; I say it’s not all that good not because the articles aren’t especially good, but because we haven’t really developed it and solicited it. We’re still trying to figure out what we want to do with it. Before the end of the year we’re going to have three communities of geography, which are towns around Greensboro that we don’t really cover except when there are major crimes there. We’ve found citizens who will be bloggers for us and who will contribute articles about things going on around the town, and we’re going to create a site around that. We hope to expand to all the communities around us, and later on to neighborhoods inside Greensboro.
Oddly enough, this little story about this lemonade stand was somehow picked up by the Chicago Tribune and featured in an article about small efforts around the country that people were doing to raise money for Hurricane Katrina victims. I know Lori Wilson and I know that she did not send the Tribune her news release about their lemonade stand, so all I can guess is that they found it on our citizen journalism site.
But the site’s not very well developed. Six months from now it’ll be much more developed.
We also have forums where we’re going to enable comments on stories so citizens can come in and talk with us about the stories by the end of the year. We really want to transfer our organization into as much of a Web-to-print organization as now it’s a print-to-Web organization.
Audience Question: What’s been the reaction in the journalism community?
Robinson: It’s actually been very positive. I think the people who resisted don’t understand it, and those who come and look and mess around and see things they like appreciate it.
Audience Question: What kind of business models do you have around these things?
Robinson: The most famous thing I’ve ever been quoted on is me saying, “We don’t need no stinking business model.”; I’m a former reporter, so I’m very proud of the fact that I don’t have to be responsible for the business side of this. This is done with very few extra resources, I’ve just created it out of my news compliment and these reporters aren’t getting paid any extra to do this. This is part of their job. There is an interactive group that’s responsible for monetizing this, and actually the person who does one of the music podcasts got a music store to sponsor that, but we aren’t making money on this.
It’s easy for me to say because it’s really to extend the journalism. That’s what’s important to me, and I’ll leave the money making to the business side.
Audience Question: How do you preserve the freshness of all this and still keep it clean enough to meet some kind of journalistic standard?
Robinson: We don’t edit the blog entries, for the very reason that we want readers to have a much more accessible, casual tone and we want to be fresh. We know that if we send it through editors it would take a long time and they would beat the tone out of it.
The expectation on the blogger is that it be grammatically correct and that the spelling is correct, and most of the time it is. What I’ve told reporters is to find someone else to read it if you’re in doubt or if you’re a chronic misspeller, which newsrooms seem to have a lot of. But don’t wait on an editor, and don’t get us in trouble or get us sued—and they haven’t.
Readers will tell us when they make a mistake on the blog and we’ll correct it. The whole culture is different on the Web and there’s a sense of forgiveness on grammar, and if you go other places you will see that there are spelling and grammar mistakes, but it’s an issue out there.
Audience Question: What kind of conversations have you had about the legal concerns and liability with unedited things?
Robinson: Our concern is more about comments from readers than the bloggers themselves. All of the people who we have blogging have a clue about what libel is and they don’t do it. And the sorts of things that we write about on the blogs are not the traditional things that would get you into trouble with libel issues. We don’t do a whole lot of investigative reporting on the blogs and we don’t have a crime blog, which tend to be places where you’d get in trouble.
Our lawyers tell us that the latest court ruling is that if you don’t edit the comments, you’re not responsible for the content of the comments, so we don’t edit the comments. Also, we will remove comments if they become particularly offensive and we have done that in a few cases.
There will be some court cases that will clarify the law. I just hope that we’re not the pioneers there.
Audience Question: How are you re-conceiving your audience?
Robinson: I think we see our audience as a whole bunch of niches. You may be interested in football and cooking, and not interested in Washington politics and basketball. We know that you can find very deep information on the Web on all those topics and ignore all the others, and our hope is that you could come to our site and find very deep information about all the things that you’re interested in, and if you live in Greensboro, find information about your neighborhood or your community of geography. Also, we want you to be able to find conversations about the subject matter that interests you.
So it really is trying to produce a whole bunch of areas that you can go in and out of at your leisure.
Michael Skoler Managing Director of News, Minnesota Public Radio
It’s exciting to be here, as a number of people have mentioned, partly because you don’t get a lot of chance to talk to other people who are trying new things and sometimes you wonder how crazy you are for what you’re trying to do. So it’s just wonderful to have a whole morning—and I really hand it to J-Lab and Jan and the Knight Foundation for providing an opportunity like this—to just sit and think about what people are doing and talk about what our lessons are. It’s very exciting for me and I’m very pleased to here.
What we’re doing is less about a site and more about a system for engaging the public.
Some of the things that I’ve seen here are things that have caught fire in the newsroom. Certainly what we just heard from John is something that all of journalism is talking about. Adrian, when he spoke about chicagocrime.org, I was remembering people in the newsroom gathering around that site saying, “Look at what these guys have done!” So there’s just a maelstrom of stuff going on.
What we’re doing is a little quieter, but I think it actually is making a ton of change in our newsroom.
How many of you yell at the radio or at the TV during the news or at the morning newspaper over coffee? Well, I’m one of those too, and my wife is one. And as I drive around I often see people yelling in the car and most of the time I don’t think it’s the cell phone, I think they’re yelling at the radio news. That’s why we created what we call Public Insight Journalism. Ultimately, we wanted to capture the knowledge that people had because often what they are yelling is, “Yeah, but you missed this!” or “Why didn’t you talk to this guy in my organization? He knows more than the people you had on.”
We started with the premise—and the president of Minnesota Public Radio said this—that there’s always someone out there that knows more, and if we can get that in the newsroom before we do the story or quickly after so we can do follow-ups, we’re going to do better journalism. That’s the simple premise that we began with, and what we’ve done for the last three years is basically turn that into a systematic way to tap the knowledge in our audience and the public and bring that into the newsroom.
We’ve built processes, we’ve created some knowledge management tools, we’ve taken some things that have been off the shelf and we’ve created a new role in the newsroom—a position we call public insight analyst—to manage the relationship between the public and the newsroom.
We feel this is important because I think—and I think many people think—that we are really on the verge of the death of quality local news. It’s vanishing for a whole variety of reasons in the commercial media, due to consolidation, do to attention to the bottom line and the attempt to improve the bottom line by pulling resources from what’s most costly: the news. And there’s a move toward infotainment.
We wanted to own local news—just as commercial media are leaving—so we wouldn’t lose it when media organizations all of a sudden realize that there is an important market in local news in terms of the money sense and in terms of the public service sense.
Our measure of success has always been if we are creating better journalism, and that’s really our standard for involving the audience. It’s not involving them for the sake of involving them or to get them to do anything, it’s whether or not we can actually do better journalism, and this is what Public Insight Journalism has done for us.
This was a series we did last fall, “Whose Recovery Is It?” It’s an example of what we couldn’t have done any other way except through Public Insight Journalism. A business reporter said that the macroeconomics show the nation is in recovery, but what we want to do is figure out how it’s effecting people’s lives, because I’ve talked to a lot of people who said it’s not touching them at all. So we sent to a targeted group of 500 people—which is pretty much our standard push now—a survey that said, “Were you impacted by the recession? Have you been effected by the recovery? And what signs do you look for to determine whether or not there is a recovery happening in Minnesota?” And what we got were 87 incredible, thoughtful responses from people. We had a truck mechanic saying that he was working overtime for the first time in three years. We had someone who owned a floral shop saying, “I tell whether there’s a recovery by the amount of money people are willing to spend on weddings and funerals.” We had a bunch of public servants, teachers, government workers, and hi-tech workers saying that not only did they not see any improvement, but that it was still getting worse for them. So what we were able to do was create a news story that was built from the ground up. Instead of going to the federal reserve economist that we often use as a source, we went to CEOs and asked about the trends, then we looked for examples of the trends by finding the person in hi-tech that’s lost a job recently.
We were able to get a map of what sectors or what parts of Minnesota were being affected by the recovery. And what we were able to do was tell a story of why Minnesota’s recovery was so incredibly uneven, and it was a story that hadn’t been told. We were able to do it because we started at the bottom and brought the trends up to the experts to find out more.
We’ve broken a number of stories thanks to Public Insight Journalism. One that really surprised us was that we had done a story about public transportation and one of our public sources came back to us and said, “By the way, did you know that the Department of Transportation is diverting its funds into new road construction so that the number of unrepairable roads is increasing at a huge rate?” It was kind of a “pennywise, pound foolish” approach, and it made a great story.
Most recently we’ve been using this for the Northwest Airlines strike, which is our backyard—we’re based in the Twin Cities. In a way this has been a breakthrough for our newsroom to see how you can use this network of public sources that we’ve created to help your reporting day in and day out. One of our public sources helped us break a story on an FBI investigation into potential tampering by some flight crews on a particular flight. We’ve tapped flyers to get a handle on how Northwest has been performing in terms of its service to customers in this time. We’ve tapped FAA employers and inspectors as well as former Northwest managers and current Northwest employees to try to get their story of what’s actually going on with the airline.
We broke a story recently through some of our public sources and some good, hard-footed reporting on an FAA inspector who three days into the strike wrote a memo that said, “I have serious safety concerns and I think people are jeopardized.” So we just broke the story that there are two investigations going on based on that. When we found that, what we did was use this network of sources to check into information. We have targeted sources now at Northwest—and I’ll go into how we did that—but when we found out that this FAA inspector had written this report and had been put in a desk job while they were investigating this report, we went out to our network and said, “Do you know about this guy and his allegations?” And more stuff poured in.
So this is where we are at this point: We’ve got 10,000 people who have agreed to be public sources, typically not by saying, “Sign up and be a public source for us,” but by us going out and saying “Do you know anything about this? Do you know anything about schools? About transportation? About crime?” People come in, and when they do we tell them that they’re giving us permission to ask questions for future news coverage. We’ve gotten 10,000 people that way—from CEOs to social workers to students.
Diversity is something that we’re trying to track now. It’s hard to do, but we are asking people to provide voluntary information and we’re getting a fair bit about income. We haven’t started asking about ethnic background, but we’re thinking about that. We do get everyone’s zip code, so we can kind of determine diversity partly based on zip codes.
We’ve used these sources for over 100 stories and now we’re in a mode where we’re typically doing one to four queries a week for reporters.
We’ve found fresh sources, we’ve defined and reported new series—including that “Whose Recovery Is It?”—using these sources, and we’re increasingly trying to use it to set our coverage agenda, not just to get information about stories we want to cover, but by actually pulling in a wide range of perspectives on story ideas from the public and bringing it into our editorial meetings. To me that’s the most exciting part of what we’re doing—it’s changing us.
We have a ton more work to do. By no means is this established and running smoothly, but we’ve made a great start and we’ve got plans to extend this in a number of ways.
What we’ve done is we’ve basically added a new layer to the newsroom—a layer of analysts and feedback—where we ask for input from the audience and then the audience comes back and tells us something.
These folks who are analysts are journalists. We only have two of them at the moment but we’re hiring a third in a month who is going to do some work on the national programs that we have, and we’ve added a bunch of software tools to enable us to handle the huge volume of information and tips that we get from the public.
The heart of the system is something we call the Audience Insight Repository. It’s something that our IT folks created—we’ve got an IT department of six that handles far more than just our newsroom. And this is what the Audience Insight Repository looks like to an analyst, and this is a president and CEO from a town outside of the Twin Cities and he’s into health care and fly fishing and he’s a retiree of the U.S. Air Force with an income over $200,000. All that information was voluntarily given to us when we went back and asked him to tell us a little more about himself. Our analysts use this to target queries to people who are most likely to have expertise about a story.
So in the case of the Northwest strike, people who told us they work for Northwest were among the first folks that we went to. So we ask people to tell us about their experience with Norhtwest as an employee, as a flyer, or as a former employee, and people come into a Web site link where they’ll fill out a little survey. If you’re in the system already, it will recognize you and pre-fill in the information about you. And we ask very simple questions: How have the Northwest labor disputes, present or past, affected you? What’s your relationship with Northwest? And we give you a bunch of options so that we can quickly sort these things.
And this is the response we get: “I’ve worked as a technician for 15 years, I’ve been laid off five times and moved four times to keep my job.” That was one of our sources that we got just a couple of days ago.
We have analysts who read every one of these responses and annotate them and classify them by the type of response so that we can find them quickly and put them together. Then they prepare a summary of the key themes and issues and the best sources to provide a very compact, two- or three-page memo that goes out to the reporters and editors working on the story. The editors and reporters then follow up with an added pool of resources and some knowledge of what those sources actually know and what they can provide.
The strike coverage, as I mentioned, has been a breakthrough because it has shown how Public Insight Journalism can keep us ahead of a story day to day. We’ve put out tons of queries and new information is coming in all the time. We sent one of our public insight analysts out to the airport handing out cards on the first day of the strike—a Saturday—that said, “Tell Minnesota Public Radio your experience with Northwest Airlines.” It has an 800 number, it has our Web site on it, and it has a little explanation of Public Insight Journalism and what this network is.
We always, always thank people, which is huge. We send a thank you note and it always comes from a person. People tell us, “I didn’t think anyone was actually listening. I thought I was sending this into oblivion.” We try to thank people at least twice and tell them when the story that they actually helped provide information for is going to be on. Even if they didn’t provide information we used, we tell them they helped us design the coverage.
We’ve got a bunch of tools. What I’ve just outlined—a targeted query to a specific group—is really a lot of what we do. We also do open queries on the radio where we give an 800 number, but we’ve got a bunch of other tools. We have simulations like a game to balance the state budget, we hold meetings around the state where we gather people, feed them dinner and talk about what’s going on that the media aren’t covering.
At the bottom of every story on our Web site we have a button that says, “Help us cover this story.” A ton of leads come in from that, and it’s the simplest thing you can do on your Web site.
We occasionally send out these surveys that say, “What are we missing? What is the media missing?” And we also do what every other newsroom does, which are listener calls, mail, complaints and other things that aren’t often widely read, but we have our analysts read it all and pull in any information and tips we get, and we get a lot from there.
This is a quick example of one of our simulations that drew in tons of people. It’s a game to balance the state budget, and people really responded to it. We had thousands of people use it. We’ve done it twice, and the first time we got 11,000 budget plans submitted and this year we actually enabled people to save different budgets and send them to their legislators. In terms of impact, we got notes from legislators saying, “Thank you. I was finally able to have an intelligent conversation with constituents because they sent me their plan and I could talk about issues with them.” But most importantly—because we don’t really do it for that, we do it for us—we read every comment. Whenever you click on aid to local government or higher education, you get a series of options for adding money or subtracting money and there’s a box saying, “Tell us why you made that choice?” We read all those comments and we aggregate all of the choices people made and then we sit down and say, “What does that tell us about what our coverage should be?”
In this case, we saw that people didn’t like the gambling tax the governor was proposing. We got a bunch of comments saying, “I didn’t realize how easy it was to balance the budget. There are so many options.” So we looked at what those people were doing, and they were going to rather obscure taxes that weren’t even on the public debate. So we did a story talking about all the different options for balancing the budget by providing new revenue, when all the governor was talking about was gambling, and in a few weeks they were all of a sudden talking about a gas tax and a tobacco tax. The gas tax was thrown out, but the tobacco tax was hugely popular and was adopted. And we were able to anticipate issues like these that would be coming up quickly. Also, we used those results to help us determine poll questions so that when we do scientific polls, we actually take some hypotheses from this and we test it and get real results on it.
We’re now broadening our initial idea of one-on-one communication with people to try to connect people so that they spur discussion among themselves, because ideas come out of those discussions that are surprises to them and to us. Then we assign reporters to cover them if they’re interesting enough.
We created something we call the “Idea Generator” software. It’s very simple, but we did this for the future of small towns. Small towns are dying in Minnesota and many places, and we posed the question, what are the key problems and how do you solve them? We give people certain categories—people, economic opportunity, human services, telecommunications—and people submit ideas, then they comment on each other’s ideas and they rate each other’s ideas. The green balls you see are the ratings, and the front page has the most highly-rated ideas. You can click on it and read the ideas and you can read the comment thread, and we read all of that. We also provided it to the University of Minnesota, who had a small town symposium, and we fed this to facilitators for their discussions. Then we sat back and said, “What are the issues that people are seeing that we want to be covering?”
Why are we doing this? We’re raising money, but we’re also spending a certain amount of money and certainly a lot of time trying to do this, and we’re putting in a lot of effort trying to change the newsroom. We’re doing it because it’s part of our core strategy for growth. We really feel that mainstream journalism is heading toward an evolutionary dead end unless it changes.
The trends that are pushing this—and this shouldn’t be new to anyone in this room because you folks are the ones that are understanding this—is a huge rise in the online culture of sharing information. There’s an explosion of user-driven media, just in the blogs and the comments John was just talking about, and there’s an increasing public distrust of the media.
It’s really incredible the amount of time that people are willing to put in to just write an add-on for Sim City 4 or whatever. And you see that everywhere—Epinions and a million Web sites—including citizen journalism, which is taking off thanks partly to the funding that J-Lab is providing. At the same time, mainstream journalists are losing their connection to the public—and some of you worry about this more than others; I know I worry about it a lot. This is how Nicholas Kristof put it in a New York Times op-ed: “We in the news media are widely perceived as arrogant, out of touch and untrustworthy.”
The Carnegie Foundation of New York just released a report earlier this year called Abandoning the News about how youth were abandoning the news, and their conclusion was that news organizations must bring the public into news gathering and delivery in ways unimaginable a few years ago. And again, I feel like I’m preaching to the choir because I don’t think these are new ideas for anyone.
Where are we going with all of this? We’ve come a long way but there’s a far longer road ahead. We have a national set of programs under our national brand, which is American Public Media, and our next step is to test this on a national basis rather than a community basis in Minnesota. This is a big stretch for us. Can we actually find networks of people interested in certain topics nationally and tap that for series?
We’re working with Marketplace Money and soon with the Marketplace business show that many of you may know about. American Radio Works is our documentary unit, and we’ve got a series on international adoption that will be airing in October. We’ve been doing a lot of work with them and are conceiving databases about youth and children’s issues that will spawn a number of documentaries, so we’re going to be testing this nationally.
Finally, we’ve just started piloting a new radio show that is all about public insight. We’ve created an online community that literally sifts themes, suggests stories and interviews, and we even invite those folks to come in and help produce the segments. So it’s an attempt to actually create a community that determines what’s going to be on a radio show. We’ve done one pilot, we’re going to do another, and our vision is to have a weekly radio show with a group of people that basically are figuring this out along with us.
Question Are you doing anything with podcasting so that it’s not just text?
Skoler We are. In the newsroom we’re in the midst of figuring out our podcasting strategy, which we’ll be rolling out in about two weeks. We’re thinking about ways to have podcasting and audio blogging and the like as part of Public Insight Journalism. Right now we’re just trying to figure out how to get the information in and how to distill it in a way that journalists can actually use it.
And before the question gets asked, journalists in our newsroom were incredibly skeptical. The first reaction to this was, “Oh god, another hoop we’ve got to jump through on deadline to do a story. Now we’ve got to use Public Insight Journalism.” That was about two and a half years ago, and that’s completely changed. Journalists have found that they can get sources faster using this extended network of sources and they can find stories they wouldn’t have found.
Not all the reporters are using it, especially some of our bureau reporters because we don’t have enough sources in their specific area, but increasingly people are jumping on the bandwagon. Now the big change for us is to get their thinking from, “How do I use these tools to get the story I want to do?” to the editors thinking, “How do I use all this information to decide what stories to cover?” And that’s tricky in a newsroom that’s used to basically saying, “This is what we think is the news that you should be hearing,” rather than, “Help us understand the news that you want to hear.”
Question What is your relationship with your public?
Skoler That’s a tough question, so I’m going to kind of veer off to the side of it. Often we’re asked, “Is this civic journalism?” And the answer is no. We don’t think of it as civic journalism, partly because civic journalism at Minnesota Public Radio was this bolt-on unit that was not part of the newsroom that was an attempt to get citizens engaged in issues based on reporting or issues that we determine. And in a budget cut we lost the person doing civic journalism, and it went away and no one noticed.
Our aim with this is to make this such a part of the newsroom that it can’t go away. It’s the way we do journalism, and these analysts just happen to be reporters who are doing this sort of work rather than reporters doing other sort of work.
There are many tough questions around it and we try to approach it with that basic notion of “are we doing better journalism?”
As a byproduct of that, we tend to pull people together. I showed you a meeting we had about a series we did on the education achievement gap—the gap between minority and white students on standardized tests—and at that meeting we got 200 people and it was an incredibly diverse group. It was the end of a series and the end of an Idea Generator about how to solve the problem and we got these people together. And the end result for me was 200 very diverse people in our database who we know care about education and that we can tap again. For them, there were a lot of discussions that came out of that, but if this were civic journalism I would worry about where that went and whether or not people mobilized, and we haven’t really been tracking that.
Our aim is better journalism, and I suspect that it’s changing our relationship with the community. John mentioned that he thinks of his consumers as niches, but I would argue that we think of our readers as names and addresses, and that’s what that database is. They are people who we know what their interests are. They tell us a ton of information about themselves and we’re trying to use that information to figure out where they can help us and where they have expertise. So it’s a slightly different perspective.
Question Can you tell us how you verify that all of these people are who they say they are and have done what they say they’ve done?
Skoler One thing that’s built into our database is this thing called “confidence level” that we’re just beginning to figure out. It is something that’s partly automatic and partly manual, and it can be adjusted. It shows how much confidence we have in the source and the information we’re getting. It’s mainly based on our prior experience with the source—whether or not we’ve met the source face-to-face or if we’ve had conversations on the phone with them or if we’ve just pulled their information from a query. Their confidence level starts at 50 percent and you can lose confidence or gain confidence based on the comments you get. It also has something to do with the number of interactions we’ve had with the person and when information they’ve had has actually been helpful and when it’s matched certain things that we’ve wanted.
We’re trying to actually build in a system that gives us some guidance because what we want to do is build a system so new analysts can come in but the relationships are maintained. We don’t want it to be the typical reporter-source relationship that dies when the reporter moves on to another publication or radio station. So that’s that part of it.
How do we verify it? We take the information that we get from our sources and we put it through the standard journalistic practices of vetting information and double-sourcing material. I’ve got a bit of a tug of war with our online news editor, who likes to have us take whatever we get and put it on the Web as extra content. That’s not really the idea of this.
We promise people that we won’t put anything on the air unless we’ve checked with them beforehand. The purpose of this is that we then have analysts go back to prime sources, call them, get more information about them and pass it on to the reporter. If it’s an important bit of information, the reporter will try to meet with them, and if they can’t meet with them then we treat it as kind of an anonymous source who we use as a lead to get to a source that we meet face-to-face and know, hopefully to go on the record. So it’s standard journalism at a certain point.
Bryan Monroe Chairman, Batten Awards Advisory Board Assistant Vice President – News, Knight Ridder Inc.
I’d like to hearken back to the person that these awards are named after; Jim Batten. Jim was a mentor of mine and a friend of mine. He was the former CEO of Knight Ridder, but he was, at his heart, a journalist. A journalist who, two decades ago, was experimenting with storytelling, experimenting with journalism, experimenting with innovation.
With the rudimentary tools we had back then, he was pushing all of us to explore new ways to help engage our readers because he knew that if we didn’t change, if we didn’t adopt, if we didn’t try new things, we may be in danger.
We were working on a project 10 or 15 years ago called the 25-43 Project where we looked at baby boomers, the readers born between 1946 and 1964, and looking at ways to make newspaper – you know, the old soybean ink on dead trees thing – more appealing to younger readers. And he told us when we were working on the project, “Go out on the edge of the tree limb; jump up and down. If it doesn’t break, take another step; jump up and down. If it doesn’t break, take another step. When it breaks, take a step back.”
And I think all the folks you’ve seen today have been taking those steps out on the limb to really test the edges of storytelling and innovation in journalism.
The great thing about this process has been that, while there has been technology involved in a lot of things, this is not a technology award. While there’s been journalism and writing and editing and photography involved in a lot of these efforts, this not a journalism or writing or editing award. It is about innovation and it’s about journalism.
Technology has become the great equalizer. You can have the powerful presentation you saw with Newsday or the Miami Herald, where a large staff works hours and days and weeks on something to really make it powerful and make an impact on the community and nationwide, or, in the case of Newsday, around the world. And you also have the one-man bands: David, and the couple folks – Adrian and Wilson – who put together chicagocrime.org, who showed that with just a dream and some passion, a few late nights, and maybe a couple of beers, you can really do some great things.
Still, not just anyone can do this. This is some extraordinary work you’ve been seeing. Not just anyone can do it, but the great thing about it is anyone can try.
You’ve also seen the increased yearning for news. I just returned from south Mississippi. I arrived in Biloxi, Miss., Monday evening during Hurricane Katrina. I actually flew into Atlanta, drove down I-65 through Montgomery, Ala., made it into Mobile at about 6:00, and made it to Biloxi at about 7:00 as the storm was going up the other way. For the next few days I was working with our newspaper there, the Biloxi Sun-Herald, to help them produce the paper throughout the storm, and I believe they were the only paper on the coast in the affected area that published in print every day. The Times-Picayune published on the Web and then resumed later that week.
As we were in that community, I was out passing out papers on the streets with homes destroyed and the place leveled like a nuclear bomb hit it. Aide workers and the media were the only ones who got in early. As we were passing out papers to the citizens left in that community, we were seeing the looks on their faces about getting the information. Then we looked at the Web presentation: For instance, in Biloxi, their normal Web traffic was somewhere around 65,000 page views a day, but during the week that the hurricane hit they were averaging 1.5 to 1.8 million page views a day. There was a significant change because people were hungry for information, they were hungry for stories, they were hungry for context. They wanted to place this great tragedy in their lives and reach out to those – whether they were in Mississippi or New Orleans – whose lives were changed. And that’s the role we continue to play.
People who say we’ve got an endangered business – whether it’s newspapers or television or online – I don’t buy it. I don’t buy it at all, especially looking at what’s happened over the last couple of weeks in this country and in the gulf coast and how important a role journalism and storytelling has played throughout all the mediums.
So when people say we don’t matter, don’t listen to them.
Tom Kunkel Dean, Philip Merrill College of Journalism, University of Maryland
I’m Tom Kunkel, dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, and on behalf of Maryland and J-Lab I’d like to welcome you to the Batten Awards and Symposium. I’d also like to welcome you to Washington, D.C., or as we refer to it, greater-College Park.
This has been a wonderful session and you’re in for more of the same. We’re fortunate to have these two remarkable folks who are going to have a discussion about the media world that we’re in and where we are going.
How appropriate that we’re doing it in the wake of one of the most important – sad but crucial – multimedia stories of our time.
I think Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath have really demonstrated what a true multimedia world we live in, because each of these media platforms has its great strengths and they have been able to show those and demonstrate those to great effect.
There was an interesting statistic just out that indicates how people are getting their news about Katrina, and the main source of news, as you would expect, has been television, 89 percent; followed by newspapers, 35 percent; and the Internet, 21 percent, and so on and so on.
We are living in a wired world, and one of the neat things about the Batten Awards is that it really brings home to us the kind of remarkable things that can be achieved. I think it also puts up the challenge for all of us to make sure that the kind of work that we are rewarding today are not anomalies; we can do more and more of it every day.
So welcome, again. Sit back, and I know you’re going to enjoy this session.
Jimmy Wales Founder, Wikipedia; President, Chairman, WikiMedia Foundation
Michael Kinsley Former Editorial and Opinion Editor, Los Angeles Times
Moderators: Jan Schaffer and Bryan Monroe
Jan Schaffer, Moderator: We’re going to proceed right now with our luncheon dialogue and we’ve asked Jimmy to start by giving us a little intro into wikis. As you know, we have with us today Michael Kinsley, editorial and opinion editor of the L.A. Times, founder of Slate Magazine and distinguished columnist, who recently launched into the news with his efforts to do some experimentation with the editorial page. And Jimmy “Jimbo” Wales, who is the founder of Wikipedia, which has now branched into many other things: Wikibooks, Wiktionary, Wikisource, and, of interest to the journalism crowd, WikiNews.
I’ve asked Jimmy to give us a seven to 10 minute primer on wikis to help everybody in here understand how it works, and then we’ll launch into the conversation from that.
Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia: First of all, how many of you in here have used Wikipedia?
(Most of audience hands raised.)
And how many of you have actually edited Wikipedia?
(Almost no hands raised.)
OK, so not good.
I was just speaking at a music festival, of all things, in Austria, and I asked the same question and at least half the kids in the audience raised their hands that they had edited Wikipedia. It was a lot of college kids, so it’s the new thing.
I’m going to give you a quick overview of how Wikipedia works and show you what it’s all about.
Wikipedia is a freely licensed encyclopedia written by thousands of volunteers in many languages. All over the planet people are working. The English Wikipedia has 727,331 articles as of a couple of minutes ago.
One of the things that’s of particular interest to journalists is that we’ve had a long tradition at Wikipedia of doing a really interesting and good job on breaking news stories. So even though we’re an encyclopedia and we focus a lot on historical topics and things like that—here we have Sandy Koufax, the famous baseball player—we also do a lot of breaking news events and we do a very nice job of that. I wanted to show you a little bit about how that happens.
Listed on the front page in the news is our Hurricane Katrina article, which was created when it was still Tropical Storm Katrina and renamed when it was upgraded to a hurricane. It’s been an ongoing, changing article as events have developed, and we basically cover background information. The table of contents of the article is over here on the left and it goes on and on and on with lots of information. You can see comparisons for some historical context, information about the evacuation and preparations.
So how does this all happen? Who writes all this and how do they do it?
First, I’ll show you what it looks like to edit when you click to edit the Hurricane Katrina article. You click “Edit this page,” and here’s the edit box. You can see all of the information here that is in the article, and one of the interesting things in this article is that it says, “Anyone vandalizing this article may be blocked for up to 48 hours without further warning.” That wasn’t put there by me, and in fact I was a little surprised when I saw it because there’s not actually any formal rule that has come from me that has said that people are allowed to do this. But the community decided that if you vandalize this article it’s like a “shoot on sight”—maybe they saw what happened with the looters—because this is a very high profile, very important article, and we don’t like it when people are goofing around with such an article. So the community just warns people when you click that if you mess with this article you’re going to be banned for 48 hours without warning.
It’s very easy to edit; all you have to do is go down here and change something and hit the save button and here’s the save page that shows you a preview of your changes. I’ll show you just how quickly I can delete a lot of the article, but I’m not going to save because if I save they’ll probably ban me and we won’t be able to finish the demonstration, so I’m just going to show the preview. So that quickly, you’ll see what the page would look like, and all you have to do is hit save page and your changes would go live directly on the site at that moment. That means you could vandalize this page and for a minute or so the page could look really bad.
Every change to the page goes to the history, so I just click on this tab, “History,” and it lists all of the changes that have happened to the article over time, so you can actually look and see different edits by different people. I can go down here and see these names—I know several of these people—and I can check and compare this version after a change that EveryKing made to the last good version by RatBoy. We can quickly look and see the actual change that was made.
These are the tools that the community uses to monitor itself. We can look here, and all of these numbers are anonymous people we don’t know, and the names are people in the community, for the most part.
Here we see the changes that were made, and it looks like this ended up being no change at all, so I guess they were just changing it back to a previous version. Normally you would see the two versions side by side and any changes would be highlighted in red so that it’s very easy for people to monitor. You look and you can quickly see if someone edited the article that you don’t know, then you can check to see if the edit was good.
Associated with every article is also the “Discussion” tab, and that leads to a “talk page.” This is the talk page for Hurricane Katrina, and this is where the community discusses the article and decides what we need to do next or what’s going on here. One of the interesting things here—this is the talk page for discussing changes—is that people have gotten together here to discuss the pending tasks for the article on Hurricane Katrina. There’s a list of sub-articles that need to be created: The effect of Katrina on the United States, Louisiana and Alabama; there’s nothing yet for Florida, and you can tell because the link is red, which means someone has proposed this title for an article but nobody has filled in that article yet. People in the community are devoting themselves to finding this.
There are some notes: “Please don’t feed the trolls,” which is an old saying on the Internet. Some people like to come in and cause trouble, and what they’re trying to do is get a rise out of you and if you respond to them by arguing, you’re feeding them—that’s the energy they’re looking for. So if you click the “please don’t feed the trolls” note, it will give you a little explanation that the best thing to do with troublemakers is just to delete their changes and ignore them because then they get bored and go away.
Here we have a whole list of discussions, and one of the interesting discussions that has come out of this—and this actually came from the WikiNews community—was that we were looking at photos from the media and finding them on Yahoo! News that were pictures of people, uh, doing something. They were either “finding stuff” or they were “looting.” Apparently if you’re black you loot, and if you’re white you find. There were several instances of this, and there’s been a discussion on it. As far as I know, we were the first people to talk about that story and I don’t know if it’s been widely reported or discussed. It’s not 100 percent in all cases, but there were several cases where you would see these captions. Apparently now some of the reporters are saying there was actually a reason for it because they saw someone smash a window and go in and carry something out, or they saw somebody find stuff on the street, but it’s still the kind of question that the community loves to discuss. I looked just now and that doesn’t seem to be in the article, so maybe there aren’t any confirmable facts about it, but they’re discussing and saying that this is interesting.
There are all kinds of things like this that go on. This article starts out, “Hurricane Katrina, one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history,” and the person says, “This fact is purely emotional and should be removed. It’s a little too early to tell.” This was September 6, 2005. So this discussion takes place to say how exactly we should word all this, and that’s basically how it works.
Audience Question: What is the business model for Wikipedia?
Wales: We’re a community, and in that sense we’re just doing it, so we don’t need a business model. It’s like asking what the business model is for getting a group of friends together to play softball. You don’t really need a business model to do that. It’s fun and it’s something that people like doing, so that’s what we’re doing.
The more serious answer to the question is that we’re now the number 40 Web site on the Internet according to Alexa. We have about 2 billion page views per month and we have a huge reach, and we do that with money donated from the public. We’re a 501(c)3 organization so we get donations from the public, we get some grants and we get some large donations. We just raised $200,000 and our total budget for the coming year is going to be about $1 million. We raise that in various ways, but we don’t have any advertising on the site.
One of the reasons we can do all of this so cheaply is that it is all volunteers editing the site. We have one employee—it’s not me—and our one employee is our lead software developer who coordinates with all of our volunteer software developers to change and modify the software that we need to run the site.
Audience Question: By shifting the editing to the community, have you created a situation where any edit will be on the site, even if for a few moments? How do you generate confidence in the articles?
Wales: One of the things about our model that is a little bit astonishing is that if I delete this article, it would be blank, but it would be fixed very quickly.
One of the biggest parts about it is that there is a genuine community of people who know each other online—and we do have offline meet-ups and things like that—but these are people who know each other. So I can look at the history of the article and very quickly see the people who are editing the article and know who they are, and I trust them because they’ve been doing this for a long time.
People specialize in certain areas, so in baseball articles—I know absolutely nothing about baseball, so I probably wouldn’t know anyone editing baseball either—they know each other. Having that genuine community of people is what really matters, and that was one of the things that I think went wrong with the L.A. Times experiment. They launched right into it and there wasn’t really the time to quietly build a community first. A lot of random morons showed up and caused trouble.
Also, since we’re so decentralized, there are no administrators from the staff. The administrators are elected from the community and there are lots of them—there are over 600 administrators on the English Wikipedia. At the L.A. Times, they had just started and they didn’t make anybody from the outside administrators, so a bunch of us from Wikipedia showed up to try to help out because it was starting to look like a mess, but we couldn’t block the trolls and the vandals. So even if you’ve got more good people than bad, if you don’t give the good people the tools they need to kick out the bad people, it becomes the job of the internal staff and that gets very expensive.
Audience Question: How do people become administrators?
Wales: They’re elected by the community. There’s a nomination process and people come in and make comments: “Yes I’ve known this person and we’ve been editing the baseball articles together and he’s doing a good job. It’s no problem.” Or people will say, “Well this person’s always getting into edit wars or doing troublemaking things and they probably don’t have the cool temperament needed to be an administrator.”
But it’s all up to the community and I have nothing to do with it at all.
Schaffer: Mike, you’ve been listening to all of this, take us back in time a little bit.
Michael Kinsley, Los Angeles Times: Well, it’s true that I’m the opinion and editorial editor for the Los Angeles Times, but it’s only true for another couple of hours, and Jimbo is partly responsible for that, so I thank you.
The question the gentleman over there asked him, you might better ask me: What is your business model? At the moment I don’t know. Maybe I’ll be an administrator on Wikipedia.
I do not know Jimbo—we never met until last night—but I’m really grateful to him actually, not for anything involving me, but for what he did when we tried this experiment.
I came across the Wikipedia a little later than I should have, and I thought that it was a really remarkable thing. Then I thought, as a member of the mainstream media, how can I exploit this and, if possible, destroy it so that it doesn’t take away all of our jobs. And then as an editor of course I loved the idea that you put up the headline and a story magically appears. I thought that was very good, and the publisher actually liked that idea, too. So we decided to try it, and it’s absolutely true that we did not know what we were doing.
I discovered at the L.A. Times—and maybe it’s true at other newspapers—that getting anybody to try anything is hard, so when the Web site guy said “yeah, we could try this,” I said “great, let’s just do it.”
We did it, and we used an editorial about Iraq—the L.A. Times is very much opposed to the war—and we published that and then we let people at it. For a couple of days, it was pretty good. There was a very positive response and people got very involved but it was not well structured to start out with. As Jimmy figured out before anybody, it’s one thing if you’re putting out an encyclopedia that is essentially collaborative because you all have the same goal and you’re working together, but if you’re trying to create a dialogue about an issue, it doesn’t really work in the standard wiki format.
But Jimbo and his friends took over. I think we launched this on a Friday or a Thursday, and by the weekend he sort of took it over and restructured it, split it into two threads—one for antis and one for pros—and some of his people got rid of some of the early troublemakers. Then on Saturday night, Slashdot published a snooty piece about it and within hours there was some stuff put on it that was so bad, the newsroom lawyer—who is one of the most hardcore “First Amendment covers everything” people I’ve ever met—came in shaking on Monday morning and said, “I’m ready to censor this stuff.” So it was really bad and we just decided to take it down and not even attempt to reformulate it.
I will mention one other thing, which is that the Seattle Times—I think inspired by us and in an attempt to stick in the knife a little bit—had an interesting innovation, which is very low tech and started two or three weeks ago. You go to their editorial page and in the paper itself they list the subjects they’re going to editorialize about tomorrow and they invite you to send e-mail in, and that accomplishes 50 percent of what we though we were going to accomplish with zero percent of the downside. And you know it was really embarrassing to us.
Schaffer: Well, you had 2,000 people who contributed something over two days.
Wales: That’s a lot of people for essentially what was one article that migrated into two, and then there were a few other things that people created. That tells you that people are very interested in the experiment, and out of those 2,000 people I was able to identify maybe 10 Wikipedians I knew and the rest were just interested parties who didn’t really know the culture or the methods of the software. So even if they wanted to help, they didn’t know how.
Schaffer: So eventually you split it into two parts, a pro and con, hoping that you could get some consensus around one side or the other, right? Going forward, would you envision this being an antidote to the problems?
Wales: I’m personally quite skeptical about how you can do editorials collaboratively, because even USA Today has popularized this format of “War: Good. Bad.” And you’ve got the two editorials, but those are still two views, and you can think of a thousand possible views. On the war on Iraq, people think, “Well I thought it was a good idea but then I found out there were no WMDs and now I’m mad about it.” And other people think, “It’s such a bad idea and we have to get out now,” or, “It’s such a bad idea but now we’re there and we have to help.” There are so many positions you can have, so how do you write an editorial collaboratively as opposed to it being one person’s unique voice? That doesn’t mean it’s just mere opinion, but still it’s a commentary and it has to have a voice.
Kinsley: I’m an expert actually on taking complex ideas and oversimplifying them into two sides from my six years on Crossfire, and it is very frustrating, but I don’t feel bad about this little experiment we conducted because we learned something and there will be something that even Jimmy hasn’t thought of to come along.
One of the great things about the Wikipedia, in fact, is that things come along because of the structure you set up that you haven’t thought of.
One thing that I thought of that is not involving the Internet but would be an innovation would be on TV or radio to have a show called “Ceasefire.” You get two sides and you get a moderator if you have to, and instead of kicking them under the table to keep them mad and to maximize they’re disagreements, you work them together. This is a very familiar concept in labor mediation and, I’m told, in marital counseling.
There was that Fred Friendly stuff that he used to do, but I’m thinking of something more focused. I’ve pedaled this idea to every news network and other places and no one has bitten, but I think there’s something, maybe not exactly like that, that could force people into agreement.
Schaffer: When all the attention went on the wiki experiment for the Times editorial page, you had other things you were trying as well, right?
Kinsley: We have something, which I think is really good but has gotten no attention, that is called “Editorials Elsewhere.” We manage to take advantage of the time difference between us and the East Coast—we’re three hours and three years behind them, as they like to say—but the three hours give us an advantage in that we can read the East Coast papers on the Web, and we’re running almost every day—I don’t know if it will be there tomorrow—a feature where we go and see what the New York Times and The Washington Post and other East Coast papers have said about the issues that we’ve editorialized about and compare them. It’s basically a gimmick, but it also has the sense of dialectical progress in that if we’ve taken a stand, it’s interesting to see what another newspaper has said. And we do it the same day, so that’s our pathetic attempt to be timely in newsprint.
Schaffer: So, Mike, what was your aspiration in starting this wiki experiment?
Kinsley: I just thought that this was something we could try and I didn’t know where it was going to lead.
Schaffer: Did you want to improve the editorials?
Kinsley: Sure, we wanted to figure out a way to get more community involvement. I will not claim to be as pious as to think that more community involvement would necessarily make them better, but I think it would be interesting. Of course one of the things about cyberspace is that the space is endless, so we publish an editorial and we can publish 18 million versions of it in cyberspace and it doesn’t matter. I figured we had nothing to lose—not quite true.
Schaffer: Aspirations for you, Jimbo?
Wales: Well, with Wikipedia, the encyclopedia project, the big picture charitable notion is that the world needs information and, particularly in developing countries, we want to give a free encyclopedia to every person on the planet with high quality, good, basic information. Right now what I say is that if you live in an English, German, French or Japanese speaking country and you’ve got a broadband Internet connection, our mission is accomplished. But the big picture goals and aspirations go much beyond that into all the languages in the world.
Kinsley: What percentage of the information in your Katrina story actually comes from the New York Times and the established media, at least indirectly?
Wales: Virtually all of it. The only exception is in things that are being pulled from the National Weather Service or FEMA or things like that. Definitely the role that we play is the role of synthesis and analysis, not the role of original reporting.
In fact, in the Wikipedia, one of the rules is no original research. People aren’t supposed to go out and do that sort of thing because as a community that’s really hard for us to check. If we can cite something and say “according to the New York Times,” then that’s a trusted reliable source, but “according to some guy we don’t know,” you can’t really rely on that.
Schaffer: But you’re not just aggregating the news.
Wales: It’s synthesizing, yes.
Audience Question: What does that say about WikiNews? One tends to associate news with original reporting.
Wales: WikiNews is still a young project, and what they’re experimenting with in the community is if people can be trusted. It’s the same as if you step back for a second and say, “Well how do reporters at the New York Times trust each other?” It’s partly because of reputation within the community.
So they’re looking at how they can basically elect people to be certified reporters who can then go on and report on events. That’s extremely limited, because I think my reputation within the community is at least as good as a New York Times reporter, but I live in St. Petersburg, Fla., and nothing really happens there.
The chances that I’m going to be able to report on a story are slim, because if something like a big murder takes place in town that’s getting national attention, I don’t have time to go down and report on it. So I think there are limits to the WikiNews model in terms of what you can do as original reporting.
Bryan Monroe, Moderator: Along those lines, your technology is the ultimate in disruptive technology—it’s disrupted Encyclopedia Britannica, it’s disrupted the L.A. Times—who else is out there that’s ready to be disrupted?
Wales: I think several things are going on that would be candidates. Right now we’re all text and blogs are all text, and we haven’t seen a whole lot of models built around citizen video and that’s a whole area where people can go out and do all kinds of things that are going to be disruptive, perhaps, to television. I’m not so much talking about the television news because I think that’s a difficult one, but situation comedies or reality shows or whatever are things that people can go out and do. Reality shows have become very popular, but they’re great because they’re cheap to film as well, so why can’t a group of people get together and make up a game and make it interesting? We haven’t seen a lot of that yet, but that’s partly becaue the tools aren’t there yet.
Audience Question: So how long before you do so much disruption that you have nothing to synthesize?
Wales: That’s a good question, but I think the question contains the seeds of an answer, which is that it’s really not possible, I believe, for citizen journalism to completely displace professional journalism.
What I think we’re going to see is hybrid business models. When the first beginnings of the personal computer revolution came about, people predicted the death of IBM because they did things the old way with big mainframes and so on, but IBM changed their business practices, adapted and survived while other mainframe companies died.
I think it’s the same thing for mainstream journalism. There’s all this interesting stuff that’s starting to happen on the Internet with citizen participation and some papers are going to ignore that and they’re just going to die because they can’t keep up. Some smart players are going to say, “Hey, this is a great way to form a hybrid organization where we’ve got professionals and we’ve got citizen involvement so we’re getting the benefits of both.” I think those are the models that are going to make sense in the future.
Kinsley: Yahoo! News has three staff members and they’re the number one or number two news site on the Web, and that’s basically because they’re getting it from some of the people in this room. How is that going to sustain itself?
Wales: I assume for the news feeds they get from everywhere, Yahoo! pays for that. Like when they have an AP story on their site, they pay for that.
Kinsley: Google News doesn’t pay.
Wales: Google News, though, drives traffic. So whoever they’re driving traffic to would monetize it that way.
Audience Question: What is the affect that wikis will have on other professions as they lead citizens to be more educated about things like legal advice and health care?
Wales: That’s a tough question. One of the things that I think is happening right now is that every journalist lives in fear of making some sort of mistake that’s going to get the blogosphere going crazy, so they have their feet to the fire all the time, which isn’t a bad thing.
The one thing that comes to my mind is textbooks. The textbook market is really a narrow group of powerful publishers who don’t face the kind of pressures yet from the Internet that newspapers do. Projects like Wikipedia to some extent—but we’re not doing textbooks—and our project WikiBooks and a lot of other projects out there are trying to get together experts to create freely licensed textbooks, and those kinds of things are going to radically change the market for textbooks. Even in the wealthy Western countries, it’s quite a burden to buy a chemistry textbook—it’s quite expensive for students. It’s completely impossible for students in Africa to get a chemistry textbook—it just doesn’t happen. These technologies are going to change that.
Monroe: Mike, you have been through many forms of journalism and media—broadcast, online, and print at the L.A. Times. How have you seen change being adopted—or being fought kicking and screaming—in the mediums you’ve been through?
Kinsley: The most kicking and screaming was at the L.A. Times. It is amazing the things that are automatic on the Web that newspapers still don’t do. I tried to get a little box on the editorial page that simply said, “We have lots of comment analysis elsewhere in this paper,” and there’s great sports columnists and the L.A. Times is full of wonderful stuff, and I was thinking like a Web person with the idea that people would come to the editorial page to get to other pages. But that never happened and I spent a year trying to do it.
Schaffer: You both just recently had journalism done to you in some ways: You (Michael) with the wiki story, and you (Jimmy) with a couple of things—the Time Magazine article and the reports that you were going to have some editorial controls. I am interested in what your takeaways were from that experience of being on the other side.
Wales: It’s interesting.
Kinsley: You’re supposed to say that whenever journalism writes about something I have personal knowledge of, they get it wrong.
Wales: For me it’s been kind of funny because I get really positive press. So you read a really great, positive story, and you read that you were home-schooled—and my mother was surprised to read that. That’s a little odd because do I really want to complain? It was such a nice story and it’s kind of cool to be home-schooled—that’s kind of neat.
Kinsley: I would say if you’ve had all these favorable stories, there’s another shoe waiting to drop.
Wales: That’s why I don’t complain too much.
Audience Question: I used Wikipedia to do some research and contacted someone who wrote an entry to ask what their primary source was and they couldn’t give me an answer. Is this an anomaly? Are the people writing for Wikipedia all just self-appointed experts?
Wales: I wouldn’t say “self-appointed experts,” but yeah people come and write whatever. We encourage people very strongly to cite their sources, but obviously it’s an editorial judgment of what type of fact you need to cite sources for. If you want to say that the moon can be seen in the sky at night, you don’t really need to go get a scientific source for that. But for other things, obviously, you do need to get a source.
Typically what we do is if it’s called into question it has to be cited or it has to be removed. Within the community, if someone comes in and says, “I don’t know, I thought that was true,” that’s considered very uncool.
Kinsley: But the ability to take things out is a pretty good advantage that the Web has over print, and it’s almost an answer to you. It’s true that the error will be up there for a while but it will ultimately be corrected, which we can’t do in print. That is powerful.
We had an interesting argument in the beginning of Slate about what to do about errors, and I took the side that we shouldn’t leave them there because we can correct them, but my colleague Jack Schaffer, who was the deputy editor and a press critic, thought that was cheating to correct the error. He said that we should leave the error there and then say that it was an error. And we ended up removing the error, but at the end of the article we confessed that we had made it and apologized for it.
Wales: In our case, because every version of every article is always in the history unless there is a legal problem that leads us to remove versions, that transparency is the answer to this problem.
We say, “Yeah we had it wrong, and you can go look at the wrong version because it’s still there.”
Kinsley: Do you have lawyers who work pro bono?
Audience Question: What are the tools to deal with trolls, and who gets to wield them?
Wales: Some of the things are open to anyone. If you see a bad version, you can go into the history and click the previous version and save it, which is three or four clicks for an ordinary user. For people who have been elected administrator it is one click. They just click “revert” and it rolls back to the previous version.
Another tool is blocking by IP number. Usually when people make one bad edit, they get a warning—depending on how bad it is—because if you just go in and blank a page it could have been an accident and we try to be friendly, but the administrators can block IP numbers. That doesn’t prevent you from getting another IP number and coming in again, but it slows you down. A big part of our control mechanism is—realizing that there is no absolute security—raising the cost of doing bad and lowering the cost of doing good. You make it easy for the trusted person to revert, and you make it five steps for the bad person to log back on.
Audience Question: How do you build the community? What did you start with?
Wales: I type a lot on the Internet and talk to a lot of people.
What we started with is a good question. Before Wikipedia, for two years we had a project called Nupedia, which was the same vision and same mission to create a high quality encyclopedia with volunteers, but we followed a very old-fashioned academic hierarchical method of doing it, with a seven stage review process. It was really boring and not very fun for volunteers, but because of that we publicized this and a lot of people came and were very interested, so there was already a core group of very intellectual contributors who were very excited about the idea. So when we put up the wiki, it was in a sense the opposite of the L.A. Times experiment, because for two years we had mailing lists and people discussing it and forming a community, and after two years of getting to trust each other, then we opened the wiki. That wasn’t the plan, that was just the way it happened, but there was already an existing community that from day one was eager to work and then the software just made it possible.
Also, the only people who knew about Wikipedia for the first couple of months were the couple hundred people from the mailing list, so they were able to work more or less in peace. We didn’t have very much vandalism at all for a while because nobody even noticed what we were doing.
Audience Question: Is Biography your most controversial project?
Wales: No, we don’t have too much trouble with Biography. The main thing that we have to deal with is a lot of strange trademark complaints. For example, the people from Formula One were complaining vociferously about our article that contained their logo, and we told them to go to hell and they apologized. They were complaining about the use of their logo and that’s ridiculous, so we told them so.
Other problems we have are with images from public domain; paintings, for example. In a lot of museums today, the art that they own is no longer under copyright because it’s 400 years old, but they own the sole physical copy of it and they want to control the rights to all their images. They send a lot of nasty letters, but if you read them very carefully they don’t actually say anything, they just ominously suggest that something bad will happen. So that’s one of the things that we have the lawyers look into. I’ve taken to sending out a very polite letter explaining public domain, and at the bottom I say, “You are the custodians of our cultural heritage. You should be ashamed of yourselves.” So far none of them have called back to apologize, but I’m waiting for that to happen.
Audience Question: What is the process for keeping track of sources in the history?
Wales: It varies from case to case so there’s no mechanical process for it, but if somebody calls something into question, usually what they’ll do is remove the suspicious fact and then put it on the talk page and say that they took it out because it sounds implausible and ask if there is a source for it.
What they should do is find who wrote it and leave them a message on their talk page, and either they respond or they don’t, and if they don’t then it’s already out of the article and it doesn’t get put back in. If it’s a really contentious point and someone says, “It’s on this page of this book,” they’ll put a footnote at the bottom saying where they got it.
It’s informal because there are so many different possible cases that you can’t really systematize it.
Audience Question: In the case of the L.A. Times, do you think it would be more successful to pose the question “What should we do about it?” instead of just “What do you think?”
Kinsley: Jan and I were talking about some things that are literally constructive. We have a primitive one at the L.A. Times about what can be done with downtown L.A., and the New York Times had lots about 9/11 and what to do about the World Trade Center, and those can be constructive.
I agree that there is a lot of idiotic interactivity for its own sake, especially in establishment Web sites run by people who feel like they ought to be more interested in this than they are. My favorite one is on MSN or MSNBC where at the end of every story they say, “On a scale of one to 10, would you recommend this story to a friend?” “Thousands die in New Orleans flood.” Would you recommend that to a friend? It’s sort of ridiculous.
Monroe: Along those lines, particularly in opinions, our friend Dan Gillmor would say, “Our readers are smarter than we are.” Certainly wikis have shown that in some areas, but, for example, my father is a retired two star general who led the logistics operation during Hurricane Andrew in Miami, and he’s been calling me during the Katrina recovery saying, “They screwed this up, they should have done this.” And I say, “Dad, someone should hear you besides me—I can’t do anything.” So the Miami Herald called him up and interviewed him for the editorial page about what went wrong with the FEMA response, and he was excited to share his opinion with more people than just his son who doesn’t listen to him anymore.
Certainly the experiment with the wikis in the L.A. Times didn’t go as planned, but there are still other ways that traditional mainstream media can reach out to regular folk out there and get those thoughts and ideas, especially from people who are informed in the process.
Kinsley: First of all, I would say that a two star general is not “regular folk.”
I actually resist complete slavish toting to regular folk. I think the Internet has really helped find people who can be of use in news stories. My brother-in-law was trapped in a hospital in New Orleans and he sent us some e-mails and I passed them on to the L.A. Times and CNN and he was a good source for them. That goes on every day, but I think that my colleagues and I do have something to offer people who aren’t journalists, and I would hope that if you’re working at a journalism school you think you are producing graduates who have something to offer. My analogy is if you go to a restaurant, you do want the food cooked by the chef and not by the guy at the next table.
And furthermore, since I’m now ranting, people love to have their own voices heard, but I don’t think they’re quite as passionate about listening to the other non-journalists as the word “community,” which is used to describe this, would suggest.
Wales: I think that’s probably right.
When you look at the blogs, which is really where you get these unfiltered voices, the bloggers that become successful are similar to someone like Michael Kinsley. They have a unique voice, it’s well written and it’s interesting. I think most people who are writing blogs are not being read by anyone because no one wants to read about their next door neighbor’s cat and things like that.
Audience Question: How do you work stories on Wikinews when there is controversy, such as abortion?
Wales: The difference is what the aim is. If the aim is to produce an opinion at the end, then it’s pretty hard to produce just one. If the aim is to produce a consensus summary of what the problem is, then it’s possible to have just one.
If a newspaper like the L.A. Times came to me and said, “What could we do with wikis? We’re thinking of doing editorials.” I would tell them that it’s really hard.
The thing to do would be to find good members of the community—most newspapers already have a message board so you could use that community—and invite them to participate in a consensus building approach. So you’ve got some local issue, and you say, “Should we build this road?” And there are some positive developmental aspects but some negative environmental aspects, so you bring in some people from different sides of the community and summarize what the issue is and who says what. I think people can cooperate on things like that.
Audience Question: Do you have projects that have compromises like that?
Wales: Yes. In Wikipedia a lot of the issues that you would think would be impossible end up being some of our best work.
Kinsley: What do you have on abortion?
Wales: It’s a great article, and one of the reasons it’s great is that it turns out there are people who may disagree, but they are reasonable people who are not unhappy that other people have a voice. So those people get together and if someone comes in with a really one-sided view they tell them to stop because they’ve spent six months negotiating one paragraph that has been carefully vetted and worded.
Kinsley: It sounds like you’ve done Ceasefire, and if it works that’s great.
Audience Question: Everyone has some sort expertise in at least one area, so in that sense there is no such thing as “regular folk.” How does a news organization involve citizens in the way that best gets to their expertise?
Wales: I think what we’re seeing right now is a lot of healthy experimentation, including the L.A. Times experiment, in trying to figure out how to involve all of the people that want to participate.
The first step is to throw up a message board on your site and let people rant back at you. But what kind of technologies do people need to be able to empower healthy, good voices while at the same time not degenerating into the bad people just making noise. There is a lot of cool stuff that is yet to be figured out.
Monroe: The other piece to that is that there are regular folk who don’t have access to this and don’t have a broadband connection, who don’t have a credit card to establish a cable modem or DSL. The people who live in the Ninth Ward in New Orleans didn’t know the water was coming until Monday, because those who were reporting out of the French Quarter and the Superdome or covering those of a higher class level weren’t doing the reporting. Accessing the voices of those regular folks, especially in low income and often cases in communities of color, how do you do that when there are those barriers?
Kinsley: Maybe this is way too optimistic, but I think that problem may not exist in 10 years. There is not a problem in this country of people not having access to television, but there was a time when television was very expensive. A computer is now $300; it was $3,000 not so long ago, and I think there will be a time—in less time than it would take us to create a program to deliver broadband universally—when people will have it. Maybe that’s naïve, but that’s my suspicion.
Wales: I tend to agree with you for New Orleans. For us, we think in a really global way, and one of the issues we have is that there are more articles today in the Luxembourgish Wikipedia than there are in the Arabic Wikipedia, even though Luxembourgish is a tiny language spoken in a tiny little part of Europe. It’s spoken by people who have access, where Arabic is spoken by people who by in large don’t, so that problem on a global level of access is a big one.
But I tend to think with the increasing growth of wireless networks and cheaper laptops we’re going to see that problem go away, but it may not be 10 years.
Kinsley: Al Gore wanted a big federal program so that the computers could talk to each other, as he put it, and I voted for Al Gore—I’m a big fan—but that was a dumb idea.
Schaffer: Closing thoughts: What next? Is participatory with a capital ‘P’ the future?
Wales: I would urge people, especially the people in this room, to take a close look at how Ohmy News works out of Korea. If you’re not familiar with Ohmy News, you should get familiar because they’ve got a model that’s very different from our model. It’s for profit, they pay contributors—or some of them—and they’re huge in South Korea and they’re starting to branch out into other areas.
It may not be that they are going to compete, but their model probably has within it some things that could be part of the answer here.
Kinsley: I think that there will be in the next 10 or 20 years a place for journalism as we know it today, which is someone sitting down at a keyboard and writing a story that is then read by other people in the way we’re used to, but I don’t think it’s going to be on paper.
Wales: I think what’s going to kill paper isn’t citizen journalism, it’s Craigslist, because they’re taking the classifieds away.
Monroe: With 15 employees…
Kinsley: I think that’s right. I think in newspapers, the first things to go will be the classifieds because they are so profitable, and opinion because it’s so unprofitable. It’ll be the stuff in the middle—the news—that they’ll keep for a while.
Schaffer: Our time is up, but this has been great. We’ve loved having both of you. Thank you very much.