Bill Mitchell


Bill Mitchell is a Poynter Affiliate who most recently led Poynter’s entrepreneurial and international programs and served as a member of its faculty. Previously, Bill headed for 10 years. Before joining Poynter in 1999, he worked as editor of Universal New Media (‘95-‘99) and director of electronic publishing at the San Jose Mercury News (‘92-‘95). Bill previously was a reporter, editor, Washington correspondent and European correspondent for the Detroit Free Press & Knight Ridder, and a bureau chief for TIME. He served as a Pulitzer juror in 2002 and 2003. Contact Bill at


5 tips for getting people to go on the record

Michael Kranish, the Boston Globe's deputy Washington bureau chief, was able to get classmates of Jeb Bush to talk on the record about their recollections. (Screengrab from the

Michael Kranish, the Boston Globe’s deputy Washington bureau chief, was able to get classmates of Jeb Bush to talk on the record about their recollections. (Screengrab from the

With the presidential primaries just a year away, we’ve entered the stage of the permanent campaign that will include many foundational profiles of the potential candidates.

Among the perennial challenges of such stories: sources reluctant to go on the record with critical remarks or recollections about someone who might end up as leader of the free world.

The Boston Globe published a 4,100-word version of the genre in its Sunday edition: a profile of Jeb Bush’s high school years at Phillips Academy by Michael Kranish, the paper’s deputy Washington bureau chief.

It’s the sort of look back at the bad-boy-years often diminished by blind quotes that readers have no way of verifying (and that I’ve been guilty of relying on myself way back when). Not so with Kranish’s piece, which includes on-the-record recollections of Bush by named classmates about everything from pot-smoking to bullying.

Kranish also got Bush on the record for the story, which included his acknowledgement of drug use and his lack of recollection when it came to bullying.

As the co-author of two biographies of presidential candidates (John F. Kerry: The Boston Globe Biography, and The Real Romney), Kranish has also published a book about Thomas Jefferson. Perhaps as a result, his approach to candidate profiles seems to me to reflect the attention to process and rigor you’d expect from a careful historian.

The timing of his Bush piece was just right for the journalism ethics class I’m teaching this semester at Northeastern University, since this week’s topic is attribution and sourcing. I’d already pulled excerpts from Kranish’s story for an x-ray reading in class when I sent him an email probing the details of his approach.

You’ll find a transcript of our email exchange below, but here’s a list of five techniques that Kranish described, along with some of the ideas I shared with my students in class yesterday. They’re not that different from the fundamentals of solid reporting, which shouldn’t be surprising.

  • Contact as many possible sources as early in the campaign cycle as possible. Some will insist on speaking on background, but these conversations will help inform your subsequent interviews with sources willing to attach their names to their comments.
  • Do sufficient homework to let the sources know they’re talking with someone who’s taken the time to become knowledgeable about the subject matter. That kind of preparation can increase the comfort level and trust many sources require before agreeing to be quoted by name.
  • Assume nothing about the accuracy of previously-published accounts of the topic you’re reporting.
  • Recognize the sorts of stories that require anonymous sources, and the ones that don’t.
  • Negotiate the time and space from your employer to invest what it takes to produce fully documented journalism.

I wasn’t the only reader to follow up with questions about Kranish’s Bush piece. Bill O’Reilly pressed him on the question of what level of scrutiny is appropriate for a candidate’s high school years.

Since our email exchange was originally intended for classroom use as opposed to publication, I invited Kranish to edit the following transcript. He made some minor changes and deletions.

How difficult was it to get those comments with full attribution? Did some of your sources initially ask not to be quoted by name? If so, how did you persuade them otherwise?

Kranish: Getting folks on the record for this story was a matter of tracking down many classmates. Of the 30 or so I was able to reach, most were happy to talk to me. A few only did so on background, and one didn’t want to talk to me at all. Having done profiles like this many times, I knew it was essential to reach classmates early, preferably before other reporters. I went through the same in doing an early story on Kerry’s fellow Vietnam vets. That’s why I did this story so early. (A few had talked for a magazine story 14 years earlier, but in much less detail.)

A key in getting folks to talk to me on the record is to show that I’ve done my homework. Before talking to them, I scanned every issue of The Phillipian from Bush’s time, read the yearbooks, went through the alumni magazines, and so on. By the time I make my calls, I have a good idea of what it was like to be at Andover at that time. Archival research set me up for rest of the reporting (I love archival stuff and have also written history.)

None of this is possible without time and space. I’m really lucky that the Globe will give me what I need on both counts.

The other thing, importantly, is not to assume what you’ve seen repeated in various stories is correct. (I came upon various things that were either wrong or that I couldn’t verify and thus left out). I read what’s out there and then start from scratch.

There’s at least one summary observation attributed to “classmates.” How do you decide what needs direct attribution with a name attached, and what doesn’t?

Kranish: On reference to “classmates,” I use such if readers can see I’ve quoted many on the record and it’s on a minor point that doesn’t merit a full quote. This only works if there’s a lot of on-record quotes.

Additional comments from Kranish:

I am conservative in the use of unattributed quotes – it has to be a very high standard. I spend half my time as an editor, half as reporter, and I apply the same in editing mode. Every time you use an anonymous source, it can raise questions about the authority of the piece. I do use them when absolutely necessary, of course. And some types of stories, such as national security, are difficult to write competitively without them. But too many stories have anonymous sources who have an agenda, are being critical, etc. I’ve co-authored two biographies on presidential candidates for the Globe. The Kerry book had none or very few anonymous quotes. The Romney book had a handful for various reasons, but also had more than 1,000 footnotes. If we are going to write about a person who may be president, some readers are going to unfairly assume there’s an agenda (in today’s world), and all the more reason to be careful on this issue.

As a two-time participant at Poynter, I’m sure I picked up some of these views at those sessions (my first when it was Modern Media Institute in 1983). Read more

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Journalists can learn how to use Medicare surveys of their local hospitals to develop stories about the quality of the care they provide. (Depositphotos)

How to tap into patient reviews of local hospitals

If you haven’t examined how your local hospitals performed in the latest Medicare surveys, you’re missing out on some important stories with high likely readership.

Jordan Rau of Kaiser Health News joined us for a chat on how journalists can use the surveys.

The surveys, one of the first parts of the Affordable Care Act, probe patient attitudes on such questions as how carefully doctors and nurses listened to them, how often they were treated with courtesy and respect, how well their pain was controlled and, among other things, where they’d rate the hospital on a scale from “worst hospital possible” to “best hospital possible.”

The results of the surveys are used to provide more than 2,500 hospitals nationwide with federal government bonuses or penalties, depending on the survey results.

Rau, a senior correspondent for Kaiser Health News, covered the surveys extensively last month from the national perspective, accompanied by useful charts and spreadsheets. Still largely untold are local stories exploring patient attitudes toward individual hospitals. Rau can direct you to easy-to-access databases on the Medicare website that compare individual hospitals with one another and with national and statewide averages. Interviews that you’d do with local hospital workers and officials — as well as patients and advocacy groups — could significantly advance your audiences’ understanding of healthcare in your region.

Here’s an example of how the St. Louis Post-Dispatch localized the quality-incentive story with a focus on hospitals in its region.

Here’s a pdf of the questionnaire that patients are asked to complete.

Bring your questions to our online chat and walk away with the tools to write stories that will impact your community.

Check out NewsU resources for covering Medicare. Those resources and this live chat are funded by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation as part of the McCormick Specialized Reporting Institutes program.

You can replay this chat at anytime and find the rest of our archives at


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online money

How two small family-owned newspapers in Vermont had success with a paywall

(This case study, the first of an occasional series, was underwritten by a grant from the Stibo Foundation. Poynter affiliate Bill Mitchell did the reporting for the article in 2012, and it has been updated and edited by Media Business Analyst Rick Edmonds, who is general editor of the project.)

Most discussion about online paywalls has focused on the big guys, and more recently, on big chains. The New York Times boasts of dramatic results from the wall it erected in March 2011 and its subsequent success selling all-digital subscriptions and print + digital bundles. Gannett is the largest of the many chains that have followed suit and seen growth in circulation revenues, up in 2012 industry-wide for the first time in years.

More and more smaller and mid-sized news organizations are investigating ways to charge for content online, but it is a more daunting task for small papers, especially independents.

What follows is a close look at the experience so far of one such organization — the family owned The Rutland Times Herald and related Vermont companies. The Herald is the oldest continuously published family-owned newspaper produced under the same name in the same city. (I’m no relation to the Mitchell family that has owned the Herald since 1947.)

The Rutland Times Herald and its sister paper Barre-Montpelier Times Argus have added six figures in annual online subscription revenue while losing less than 9 percent of digital advertising.

The basic metrics

Here are some key figures from the Herald and the Times Argus, which are jointly owned:

  • 18,050: Combined Sunday print circulation
  • 1,815: Combined Sunday digital editions
  • 16,145: Combined daily print circulation
  • 1,833: Combined daily digital editions
  • 9,802: Users registered for access to or (includes print subscribers who register for free, day pass users, digital upgrades and digital-only access)
  • 1,640: Average number of logins per day
  • 721: Users subscribed to e-Edition
  • 502: Average number of daily visitors to e-Edition & mobile edition
  • 31/35: Average page views per visitor to e-Edition / mobile edition
  • 16/25: Average number of minutes on site per visit to e-Edition / mobile edition

How the paywall conversation began

A paywall done right can result in relatively little (if any) loss in advertising revenue and significant increase in digital circulation revenue. Maximizing digital revenue requires striking the right balance between reach (for advertising) and revenue (charged for access to content). A metered approach enables publishers to tweak the dials for each to address local circumstances.

In the fall of 2010, the Rutland Herald and Times Argus were producing online ad revenue in the low six figures. The sites were generating 3.8 to 4.4 million page views a month, and 18 million impressions from banner ads and other, smaller slots set aside for advertising messages on each page delivered.

The Herald company was getting paid for only about 10 million of those 18 million slots, though, with the remainder filled by house ads or other non revenue-producing messages. The Herald was not alone among newspapers publishing a whole lot of house ads, as documented in this study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Furthermore, the excess inventory meant the company could afford to lose nearly half its Web traffic with no impact on revenue. The restricted impressions also created scarcity, which pushed out the much lower revenue Google Ads impressions for retail ads. That’s how it did happen.

The scarcity did, however, result in some difficulty fulfilling very specifically targeted ad buys (many agencies/buyers work in 100k impression chunks, which can be hard to deliver when it’s targeted by a zip code). One answer the Herald came up with was to up ad positions by 20 percent in a redesign, which added a proportional number of impressions.

The challenge: That excess inventory framed the revenue challenge for president and publisher R. John Mitchell: The papers needed some new revenue streams in addition to online advertising.

Charged with addressing this challenge was Mitchell’s son, online manager/state editor Rob Mitchell, who is the source of the information provided in this case study.


The Rutland Herald and the Times Argus are the leading sources of local news and information in their communities. The state of Vermont is small enough that there is also competition on a statewide basis for news and advertising.

There are three network television affiliates covering Vermont — the CBS affiliate is locally-owned and by far the most competitive statewide, and there are NBC and ABC affiliates that are owned by chains. They compete from the Plattsburgh, NY DMA. There are roughly 38 weekly or bi-weekly newspapers statewide, with about 8-10 in direct competition for news and advertising with the Herald/Times Argus dailies on any given day.

There are eight daily newspapers in Vermont, with varying degrees of overlap in coverage areas and advertising competition. In the last two years all but one of them have gone to a paywall or have previously limited the amount of news they share on their website. In addition to Vermont Public Radio (VPR), there are more than two dozen commercial radio stations, but most of them do not have a robust online presence. VPR does, however.

There is also a nonprofit online news site,, which reports on statewide policy and political issues. Another competitor for local eyeballs is a startup called Front Porch Forum, which is a town-by-town community bulletin board that sends out a daily email summary of community notices and sells text-based advertising in these emails.

As a result, Mitchell tells Poynter his papers are in constant competition online for such statewide news as coverage of the legislature and the governor. A reader can partially replace the papers’ statewide coverage with free online sources but not always with the same depth or breadth. The papers face some competition for coverage of local boards and/or local sports, and that is evolving because of online-only competition. The local competition is more serious at the pancake breakfast fundraiser level or the youth sports team level, Mitchell says.

He says social media is helping the papers strengthen their role as a definitive source for accurate news. And he points to several events that he says “demonstrated our value in providing well-sourced reporting and calm, accurate narrative in the face of disaster, tragedy and controversy, including a drug-related death, the devastation of a tropical storm, a community revitalization effort and the firing of a popular principal.”

He adds: “We have also pursued two public records cases involving police misdeeds to the Supreme Court of Vermont in the last three years, and may have to take one of them back this year. All this is what we’ve always considered our role, but it’s growing ever more important because of the speed with which rumors can gain traction.”

The Herald experimented with using a simple WordPress blog called Vermont Today designed for quick hit updates and breaking news. It has evolved into more of a driver of social media traffic, while the papers break hard news on their main websites.

Mitchell explains: “There are a few others in different categories like art and sports; we’re building these out slowly, but they are meant to fill the need that people expressed when we put up the paywall — the need for us to continue as a community voice, as a place where anyone can have a forum to speak, that is free. So it’s in a sense a parallel but complementary system.”


Here’s Mitchell’s take on the money issues:

Our company as a whole has seen a negative trend in revenue since 2007. We have cut expenses by 38% in that time span, but have seen revenue fall by roughly equal amounts with most of that coming in the hard recession years of 2007-2009, and holding stable since late 2010. In late 2008, classified revenue began a free-fall and has never come back. It now accounts for around 10% of monthly revenue on average.

Circulation revenue is more or less steady, although it’s become a higher percentage of our overall revenues. We increased our single copy price in Jan. 2009, but aside from that have not increased delivery rates in eight years. Circ revenue is about 40% of total revenue, while online-only circ revenue is just under 3% of total revenue, but growing.

The first two and a half years of the paywall produced digital-first circulation revenue in the mid six figures. Most of the way through the third year, we are on pace for annual digital circ revenue to grow 11 percent.  Between the first and second year it grew 19 percent..

We have, on average, 4,211 distinct logins a month between the two papers over the last year. Each subscriber – not day pass or library users — can add up to three more email logins to their account – as if they were a family of 4 sharing the subscription. The logins come from a mix of options our readers have:

1. Digital-only subscription: Includes e-Edition, website access, business journals access. In February 2013 we introduced a $1 upsell for the same access to the sister paper to comply with new audit rules.  Most popular options are the 52-week purchase at $2.99 a week and then the 8-week purchase at $3.49 a week. Between the 2 papers we have 914 of these.

2. Digital upgrade: For print subscribers, we offer an e-Edition upgrade at $2 extra a month. We have 132 of those.

3. Day Pass: We offer a day pass for $.99, packs of 5, 10 or 20 day passes at a discount.

4. Library program: We work with 31 school and public libraries on a use program that operates similarly to a day pass. Logins for that library are restricted to a specific IP address and paid for either by donations or a library subscription, which is very affordable. We are working on expanding this to locations beyond our traditional coverage area.

5. Free online access: We offer all print subscribers access to our web sites through a registration process. This is free, does NOT include the e-Edition, but it connects us with more online users, enables us to pull further demographic data, and so forth.

Retail advertising revenue has declined, mostly due to the closure of large retailers in our market zone, and a shrinking share of the overall advertising pie because of online competition. Our particular challenge in this area has been to build options for smaller local advertisers that are affordable but also effective — in short, compete with Google AdWords and their like — and build content that can support ads that the big guys want, too, like video for pre-roll ads.

Print retail advertising plus online banner advertising has remained steady over the last two years, and is now at about 45% of overall revenue. Online / digital advertising currently makes up about 5% of retail ad revenue – more than three years ago, but still a small share.

So as an overall trend, our hardest hit has been from loss of classifieds, with a distant second print circulation revenue, and then retail. We also sustained a $7 million loss, only partly covered by insurance, due to a flood in May 2011, which set us back but also accounts for much of our expense reduction — we had to outsource our printing and lay off 40 employees who had been involved in the press and distribution operations.

(Thankfully several of them were able to move to our contract printer to work). However, we still have a larger-than-standard newsroom for newspapers our size. By comparison, the local Gannett daily has a circulation one-third larger than ours, but a newsroom one-third smaller.

The strategy

Mitchell and his team decided to introduce a paywall and selected Clickshare, a 15 year-old newspaper technology company based in Amherst, Mass. as the vendor to build it.

In October 2010, the papers launched a so-called “hard wall,” requiring a subscription to access most content with the exception of breaking news, obituaries and news or opinion that was available free elsewhere. They eased users into the new arrangement in stages that began with a two-week free trial that required registration but no payment.

The trial did not require confirmation of email addresses or any payment information, which led to a large percentage of fake emails being used as login names, until the trial was shut down after 80 days. After the trial ended, each registration required a credit card to be entered.

The paywall also coincided with the release of an e-Paper, or e-Edition, a Flash-based and interactive digital replica of the print newspapers and the Business Journals (the company owns four monthly business Journals that publish in Vermont and part of New Hampshire).

The e-Edition was designed to give subscribers something extra in return for the paywall, to meet the demand for this version of the paper, and to allow for transitioning remote rural subscribers from print delivery to online-only. The e-Edition was also a step toward a tablet/mobile version of the papers, but at the point of setup, Mitchell reports, adding: “These things were still relatively in flux and we had not settled on the tablet/mobile strategy.” The papers did introduce an HTML e-Edition for tablets and mobile devices in March of 2012.

The costs: Mitchell said Clickshare charged a set up fee of $1,500 plus $997 to synch the paywall system to the papers’ database of print subscribers. Each additional site (the Times Argus site, for example) cost an additional $997. Clickshare takes 3.9 percent of the revenue on an ongoing basis, and ongoing maintenance costs run about $400 a month.

Mitchell estimates that he devoted about eight weeks of his time to developing plans for the paywall system. This included researching the prevalence of paywalls at newspapers across the country, developing the subscription model, working on integration of the system with the print subscriber database, training staffers in the new system, and general setup and integration of the paywall on the site and the new e-Edition. There was also an estimated six weeks of other staffers’ time, mostly on technical issues and training.

The pricing: The Herald company offered three types of subscriptions:

  • The Classic: $3.99 per week for seven day print delivery of the Rutland Herald and unlimited access to and its online archives.

  • VT Newshound: $4.49 per week for everything provided by the Classic option plus access to the e-Editions and online archives of both the Herald and the Times Argus.
  • E-VT Newshound: $3.49-$3.79 per week for the digital components of the NewsHound option above, plus the e-Editions of the four versions of the company’s New England Business Journals. The company also offers the four Business Journals at a rate of $29.99 for print delivery and e-Edition access, and a rate of $9.99 for e-Editions only.

The results so far

By Jan. 25, 2011, the paper had attracted 29,000 registrations — a number that Mitchell and his team knew was way too high to be real. “We knew most were ‘fake’ logins,” he said in an email interview, “repeats who made up a new identity to get a new free trial.”

The flood of fake logins prompted the Herald to end the free trial, but Mitchell says it served its purpose despite the inflated numbers, providing “a database of email addresses and (enabling) people to get used to the paywall without turning them away completely.”

The most immediate impact was a big drop in page views — down from about 4 million to a low of about 1.8 million in December 2010. After a year of the paywall, page views were back to 2.6 million per month, and after two years stable at 3.1 million. Closing in on 3 years, the page views were for the first time within 5% of the pre-paywall numbers, at 3.6 to 4.2 million per month.

Partly (but not entirely) because of the drop in page views, online ad revenue has dropped from by 9 percent total. As of August 2013, the papers have about 914 subscribers paying for digital-only access, with another 132 paying for the digital upgrade, and roughly 48 percent of print subscribers have registered for online access. Day pass purchases add 35 more readers per day to that number.

The papers have continued to see their print circulation decline at the same rate as recent history (between 2 and 7 percent a year). Mitchell attributes some of the loss to the e-Editions, but because the e-Edition counts in the audit as a subscription, the subscriber numbers have held relatively steady.

“We’re tentatively OK with that,” he said, providing two reasons:

  • “The cost to deliver an e-Edition is much, much lower than a print paper.”
  • “We now have real-time behavior information behind our e-circulation. By that I mean we always knew we delivered 11,500 print newspapers (Herald daily circulation), but we didn’t have accurate info on how people used them other than surveys, anecdotes, etc. Now we can build an audience profile that we take to advertisers: ‘Your e-Edition reader opens it up at 6 a.m, spends 15 minutes with it, scrolls through the whole newspaper, and typically clicks on three links.’”

Mitchell reports that about 85 to 90 percent of digital subscribers are renewing their subscriptions. The most popular option is the 52-week subscription, followed by the eight-week, then the 13-week options.

“I’d say overall we are very pleased,” Mitchell said, noting that the paywall “has established a payment structure and expectation for online news that we can apply to other online offerings — like our paid tablet version, which debuted in April and has seen rapid growth in use. The revenue is very helpful, too, and we expect it to grow.”

Among the things he’d do differently:

  • Develop a marketing plan “that is heavy on journalism and principle up front (or whatever you think will work in your market.)” In other words, explain to customers why you’re introducing a pay wall and make sure that the quality of your journalism — and your core principles — are preserved, and hopefully enhanced, in the process.
  • Anticipate likely objections from users and have a plan in place to address them. Also be sure to have circulation/customer service representatives prepped to handle a large volume of calls about the new system and registrations.

Adjustments: In response to criticism that the paywall was “removing an important community forum for discussion from the public realm,” Mitchell and his team — as mentioned earlier — created  Vermont Today to serve readers and users of both papers. The papers are working on a workflow system to better handle the transformation of a brief produced for the Vermont Today blog into an article for the next day’s print editions. Read more


NY newspapers follow story of cop, boots and barefoot man

(Updated Monday morning with NYT interview of the homeless man.)

Some stories break. Others, as legendary editor Gene Roberts famously observed, ooze. The story of a New York City police officer’s kindness to a homeless man broke last week, went viral on social media and attracted widespread coverage from the established media. It began oozing on Friday.

[<a href="//" target="_blank">View the story "Next chapter in story of cop, boots and barefoot man" on Storify</a>]<br /> <h1>Next chapter in story of cop, boots and barefoot man</h1> <h2>Some stories break. Others, as legendary editor Gene Roberts famously observed, ooze. The story of a New York City police officer’s kindness to a homeless man broke last week, went viral on social media and attracted widespread coverage from the established media. It began oozing on Friday.</h2> <p>Storified by Bill Mitchell · Sun, Dec 02 2012 03:37:38</p> <div>I was prompted to check back in on this story by <a href=”″ class=””>a skeptical comment</a> attached early this morning to my <a href=”” class=””>tracking of the first 24 hours in the tale</a> of Arizona tourist Jennifer Foster’s cell phone photo of officer Lawrence DePrimo providing new boots to a barefoot man near Times Square. The comment underlines the importance of an important stage in the process I refer to as <a href=”” class=””>Next Step Journalism</a>: verification. The comment links to the first report I’ve seen attaching a name to the boots’ recipient. In a story published Friday, the New York Daily News identified him as 54 year-old Jeffery Hillman.</div> <div>NYPD Officer Larry DePrimo, who gave homeless man a pair of boots, shares ‘once in lifetime’ momentNBC NewsWire/Peter Kramer/NBC Pictured: (l-r) Jennifer Foster, Larry Deprimo and Savannah Guthrie appear on NBC News’ "Today" show The ki…</div> <div>But it wasn’t until Sunday that the New York Post shifted the focus from the officer to Hillman. The Post’s headline is a bit of a stretch (“Shoe tale comes as a sock”), but its lead is a classic: “They were clueless he was shoeless.”</div> <div>Shoe tale comes as a sockThey were clueless he was shoeless. The family of the homeless man aided by a selfless cop in Times Square was shocked to find out yester…</div> <div>It wasn’t the tabs but <a href=”″ class=””>the police department’s Facebook page</a> that gave the story its initial traction. The New York Times appeared to be the first established media outlet to <a href=”” class=””>break the story on Thursday</a>. In a <a href=”″ class=””>story published Friday</a> in its New York edition, the Times described encounters that others reporting having with the man, including at least one woman who said she also bought him a pair of shoes. But I could find nothing in the Times in my driveway Sunday morning nor in the paper’s online edition — at least as of 6 a.m. — indicating that the paper had caught up with this next chapter. To be continued, I’m sure. </div> Read more

How a photo spread of NYPD officer helping homeless man

During a visit to New York’s Times Square this week, tourist Jennifer Foster snapped a cell phone photo of a police officer helping a homeless man. That photo became a story that unfolded for me like this. Read more


New York Times creates new story form for ‘Watching Syria’s War’

Watching the video is almost unbearable.

But grasping the horror of what’s happening in Syria without watching it is almost unthinkable.

A Father’s Farewell,” posted Oct. 12 to a curation site maintained by The New York Times, appears to tell the story of a father clinging to – and praying for – a child killed during shelling in the city of Hammuria.

The post is among about 85 published by the Times on its “Watching Syria’s War” site, which the paper launched four months ago.

Videos shot by non-journalists have become an important source of information about fighting waged mostly beyond the reach of an international press corps barred from entering the country by Syrian officials.

The problem with the videos, of course, is the difficulty in verifying exactly what they show.

I’ve been researching the verification issue for a seminar in Cairo and consider myself a pretty close reader of The Times. So I was surprised when assistant managing editor Jim Roberts began describing “Watching Syria’s War” to a group of students I accompanied to the Times last month.

I’d never heard of it.

J. David Goodman, New York Times

I followed up a few days later with J. David Goodman, a Times reporter who has produced many of the posts. “Dramatic video can show what war is like to a certain degree,” Goodman told me in a telephone interview, “but we also want to underscore what is uncertain about the videos.”

Talking with the students, Roberts described the blog’s task as “half finding the material and half verifying it.”

A mix of what’s known and what’s not has formed the foundation for a new story form, a framework especially useful for facilitating the collaboration between journalists and non-journalists about important and often complex developments.

Instead of reporting about the video with a narrative account that includes description of what’s shown, along with discussion of such often uncertain details as time, place and identity of those filmed, the Times has created a format (see above) that includes:

  • A video hosted on YouTube or another third-party platform.
  • A 75-80 word summary of what the video appears to show, often including a brief description of the person, if known, who uploaded it.
  • A text box labeled “What We Know” that reports about 50 words worth of exactly that.
  • A text box labeled “What We Don’t Know” that provides another 50 words or so of unanswered questions.
  • A text box labeled “Other Videos” that describes and links to videos that appear related to the video under discussion.
  • Tweets related to the video
  • Links to related Times articles

The paper does not host the videos on its own servers, reflecting what Roberts described as the paper’s policy of posting only “those that we create or otherwise have the rights to, either through a news agency or a specific contract with the video-producer.”

Most of the videos embedded on the site have remained accessible on YouTube, Bambuser or other sites, but occasionally users can encounter a dead link when an account has been closed or the video has been removed.

The Times is clearly still tweaking the form. Earlier posts included invitations to follow up with the reporter via Twitter and email, but more recent posts do not. Earlier posts carried no byline; the most recent ones do.

The interactivity of the feature is limited by its lack of a comments app. Said Roberts: “I think it would be good to have comments; I’m always in favor of giving readers the opportunity to comment on our journalism. But many of our interactive templates were not built to accept comments. I’m sure they could be, with the devotion of additional resources.”

The site supplements longer-form verification work that Robert Mackey has been doing with the Times’ breaking news blog, The Lede, since 2008.

From earlier this month: a detailed assessment and deconstruction of video of an American journalist held in Syria.

Both initiatives exclude especially gruesome videos unless they have a journalistic purpose, and use graphic and text warnings when such footage is judged appropriate.

Robert Mackey, New York Times

In an email exchange, Mackey told me: “The issue with gruesome images is considered on a case by case basis, but we have both linked to and embedded clips that are very graphic and deeply disturbing. One of the advantages of presenting video like this in posts on a blog, as opposed to in the fixed format of an interactive graphic like ‘Watching Syria’s War,’ is that we can feature several clips, some less graphic than others, with clear warnings in text intros, to let readers decide for themselves how much of the horror they want to confront.”

He said his previous experience as a TV news producer provided a glimpse of “how much brutal but powerful video is routinely left out of broadcast TV reports.” He characterized the Times’ approach of “curated presentation of raw footage of violent news events” as “extremely valuable as a way of documenting these catastrophic events for our readers, and for history.”

Videos highlighted on “Watching Syria’s War” range from a soldier recording his thoughts just before heading into battle, pleas for help from a city under siege, and even a battlefield satire mocking the Syrian regime. The blog’s discussion of the satiric video includes credit – and a link – to reporting on the topic by journalist Jess Hill in the Australian news site, The Global Mail.

Sometimes, a video tips a staffer to something that, with further reporting, becomes a story in print as well as online.

Goodman spent time with the graphics desk to learn about reporting for images as opposed to words alone.

He said he tries to present the videos not as “what happened,” but rather as “a version of what happened.”

The paper’s transparency about what remains unknown, he said, “helps the reader have faith in you.”

He likes the tight format: “I’ve found it very liberating not having a lot of space. This design does not allow for long-winded stuff.”

Social media has been critical to the project, with Goodman and others scanning the Twitter feeds of activists, videographers and others alerting them to interesting new video.

“One of our major concerns is not becoming a conduit for propaganda,” he said, noting that videos are often posted to the site for quite different reasons than their creators intended.

In an interview with Lisa Goldman of TechPresident, Goodman offered some context: “Think of how the New York Times covered World War Two. We know more visually about this conflict than we did in real time during World War Two. But as we’ve seen, just seeing something doesn’t necessarily tell you what’s going on.”

The process of verifying the videos often includes:

  • Backtracking of the video, which may have been re-posted several times, to discover its initial online home.
  • Examination of the Twitter traffic about the video, conversation that sometimes yields contacts closer to the scene of what’s portrayed.
  • Inspection of the video for geographic landmarks that might support or challenge the location provided by the source of the video.
  • Checking with Times staffers and stringers in the region.
  • Staying in touch with services like that specialize in tracking and verifying user-generated content, and double-checking with the Twitter feeds and posts of bloggers like @Brown_Moses with specific interest in Syria and the Arab Spring.

Said The Times’s Mackey, who has posted more than 100 Syria-related videos to The Lede Blog: “Events that take place in front of recognizable landmarks are easier to verify through cross-referencing with archival photographs and video posted online before the uprising.”

Goodman had two suggestions for videographers interested in enhancing the credibility of their work before sharing it with a news organization:

  • Pan up and around occasionally to give a fuller sense of the location, which can yield details to be checked in Google Maps and Google Earth.
  • Include audio with the video that specifies such details as date and place.

Asked what lessons he’s taking from the blog to his next assignment (New York City cops), Goodman said he’s now more focused not just on what people say they know but how they know it.

He pointed to a story last month about a recently revived cold case involving the bones of a previously unidentified child. Interviewing police officers for the story, Goodman said, it was clear that a fundamental unknown in the case – how the child died – has prevented police from making a homicide charge.

Among the blog’s most significant contributions is its capacity to advance the story via social media, sometimes by surfacing witnesses closer to the action, more frequently simply by extending the impact of the video and Times reporting about it.

The post highlighting the video of the grieving father, reported by Christine Hauser, was tweeted by the Washington Post’s Liz Sly to her nearly 10,000 followers, by Jess Hill to more than 13,000 followers and by NPR’s Andy Carvin to a Twitter audience that exceeds 77,000.

“Just devastating,” Carvin tweeted. “No parent should ever have to experience this. #syriaRead more


Arab Spring journalism advances with Morsi Meter

There’s no doubt that social media played a big role in the Arab Spring’s toppling of oppressive regimes. But now that Twitter and Facebook have helped ordinary citizens get rid of leaders they despise, how might they put social media to work shaping the sort of leadership they want? A new site created by a couple of twenty-something Egyptians is about to shed early light on the question.

Morsi Meter, a watchdog service modeled on Politifact’s Obameter, is tracking 64 promises by the new Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi. “This was a very unplanned project,” one of the founders, Amr Sobhy, told me in a Skype interview last week.

“When I saw Morsi being declared the president of Egypt I was really excited because, finally, we have a civil president. It was an historic moment. From that moment, I was all over this project!”

A friend had suggested the meter to Sobhy, 24, and his co-founder, Abbas Adel, 28, a couple of days earlier.

But Sobhy said it was the actual declaration of a democratically-elected president that elevated the idea to a must-do. And it was social media that elevated it from a personal passion to a viral phenomenon.

All it took was a nod to his half-million Twitter followers from Wael Ghonim, the 29 year-old Google marketing executive who had become a major catalyst in the Egyptian uprising.

The onslaught of traffic shut down the Morsi Meter, but it’s since been restored. The site has not evaluated any of the president’s campaign promises yet, but will begin doing so as soon as his government is in place, Sobhy said.

In the meantime, Egyptians have begun using the meter’s Facebook comments system to assess their president on promises including: “Increasing the productivity and nutritional value of the flour (used in Egyptian bakeries).”

And: “Appointing a PR officer in every (police) station to deal with citizens and direct them and make sure their problems are dealt with.”

And: “Re-plan the city’s main squares and provide it with modern traffic lights to guarantee a fluent traffic.”

As Sobhy points out, “These are the kinds of promises that would attract the average citizen and not the intellectual. These are the main things that people suffer from on a daily basis … Traffic is horrible, especially in Cairo.”

Amr Sobhy

Politicians “sometimes use a lot of abstract language,” he noted. “Some of their promises are really broad, sometimes like a fairy tale, not really achievable or attainable.” But, he said, the Morsi Meter focuses on the sorts of promises that can be evaluated in specific terms by the people they were aimed at during the campaign.

Unlike the Obameter, which assigns specific ratings (“promise kept,” “promise broken,” “compromise,” “stalled,” “in the works”) to the American president’s more than 500 promises, Sobhy anticipates a less formal assessment system for the Morsi Meter.

“My bet is that information will be pushed to us rather than us searching for information,” he said in the interview.

He said he’s been contacted by Morsi’s staffers and expects they will try to make the case whenever they believe a promise has been fulfilled. He said he’ll publish the evidence provided and invite the site’s users to vote on whether the promise should be regarded as fulfilled or not.

“We’ll ask them, ‘Are you satisfied? Do you feel progress has been made?’ ” said Sobhy.

Some skeptics have challenged the capacity of the meter’s founders to deliver on their own promise to keep the site maintained and updated.

“Morsi Meter requires some degree of crowdsourcing, and crowdsourcing requires significant staff time if it is to work,” analyst Susannah Vila wrote in a June 25 blog post.

She said she was disappointed by an earlier crowdsourced service created by the meter’s founders that was aimed at enabling Egyptians to plot various civic problems on a map.

Sobhy acknowledged that the earlier service “was not really successful” and described it as part of “a learning experience in creating Egyptian community, trying to find out how to empower citizens through information.”

He also acknowledged that the Morsi Meter is just a start on a “long-term process” aimed at involving Egyptian citizens more personally in the evaluation of their leaders.

He traced its roots to popular disaffection with the country’s media, followed by the discovery that real power could found by individuals and communities sharing information.

“We wanted to replicate that model,” he said. “Instead of people talking on their phones, how about putting in on an [online] platform … and exploring what’s involved in turning knowledge into action?”

“The change is happening,” he insisted. “You can see it.”

He cited the Egyptian armed forces as an example.

“The military is usually perceived as rigid, traditional and a little bit arrogant without any feeling of the need to compromise,” he said.

But the military’s decision to create a Facebook page, he argued, reflects “significant change.”

Sobhy said he believes it will take a while for Egyptians to get comfortable with the Morsi Meter. Some users, he said, have mistakenly assumed it represents “a channel to the president.”

Sobhy stressed independence as a core value he brings to the project. He told’s Josh Levs that he voted for Morsi, but that he is not a political activist.

“We are not for criticizing the president or advocating for him,” he told me this week. “We are an information tool.”

As for some of PolitiFact’s more creatively-worded evaluations of politicians’ claims (e.g. its “pants-on-fire” rating for especially outrageous untruths), Sobhy said he would leave it to his users to come up with such assessments.

“We’re just presenting information,” he insisted. “We’ll let people use it in whatever way they want.”

Disclosure: The Poynter Institute is working on a training project involving social media in Egypt, sponsored by the International Press Institute and funded by Google.The Institute owns the Tamba Bay Times, which operates PolitiFact and the Obameter. Read more

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New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan signs on for 4 years

The new public editor of the New York Times pitched the paper on two main roles in her application for the job: “smart aggregator” and “forum organizer.”

Margaret M. Sullivan, editor of the Buffalo News since 1999, credits “Blur,” the 2010 book by Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach, for highlighting those roles as essential to journalism in the digital era.

“The criticism and commentary is already going on,” Sullivan said in a telephone interview Monday afternoon. “I want to centralize it in the [public editor’s] blog.” She said she’ll play the role of “forum organizer” by “inviting commentary and letting people use the [public editor’s online] space as a place to come and discuss. And we’ll use multimedia tools to make that happen.”

Unlike the paper’s previous public editors, who worked under variations of two-year contracts, Sullivan has signed on for four years.

“There’s a possible out after two years for both parties,” she said, but added that there’s also the possibility of extending for a total run of six years if things go well.

“There was some discussion of fine-tuning the role of public editor, sticking around a little longer, digging in a bit more.” Read more

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It’s time: 5 reasons to put up a metered paywall

For media executives awaiting reassuring evidence before experimenting with digital subscriptions, the time has arrived.

Simply put, their more adventurous colleagues at other companies have discovered multiple paths around the biggest risk attached to the pursuit of subscription revenue: diminished audience reach.

Here’s how they’ve navigating that tricky challenge:

  • They’ve adjusted their paywall meters to permit whatever number of monthly free visits makes the most sense in their balance of reach and revenue. The trend, by the way, is definitely toward leaky walls rather than hard ones.
  • They’ve recognized that, financially, their sites could afford to lose substantial traffic because their “sell-through” of online ads rarely approached their inventory anyway.
  • They’ve made smart decisions, journalistically, about what content should remain outside the wall.

Companies big and small are discovering that their pre-wall fears of precipitous drops in traffic just haven’t materialized. Metered walls are not the only paths into paid content, of course. Today, the Boston Globe will begin charging a flat fee of $3.99 a week for access to, a new site spotlighting content from the printed newspaper. The company’s existing site will remain free but will include much less content from the newspaper.

Editors Dirk Nolde, Jim Roberts and Matúš Kostolný say their paywall fears have faded (Wan-Ifra)

The comforting news about the limited downside of paid says nothing about the potential upside of the subscriptions themselves. But one thing at a time.

For now, the reduced risk of losing audience — coupled with modestly encouraging early subscription results — should be enough to provoke some serious strategy sessions among the late adopters.

Given the long-term vulnerability of their online advertising prospects, news organizations owe it to themselves — and more importantly, to the future of independent journalism in the public interest — to explore the possibilities for online subscriptions.

Two caveats: Even the most promising streams of digital subscription revenue can’t compensate for the declining print revenues for advertising and circulation. But as news organizations begin assembling hybrid collections of revenue to make up as much of that ground as possible, digital subscriptions will surely have a role.

Based on recent conversations with builders of paywalls of various sorts in various circumstances, I see at least four more reasons — in addition to the reduced risk to reach — to experiment with digital subscriptions:

  1. The evidence indicates that some portion of online audiences — the percentages vary widely — are willing to pay for online content. Some money is on the table, in other words, and news organizations should have pretty good reasons if they’re just going to leave it there.
  2. As news organizations continue in their unpredictable transition from analog to digital delivery, they need to establish a paying relationship with their digital customers – and not just their advertisers — sooner rather than later.
  3. Putting a price on their digital wares is encouraging newsrooms to step up the quality — in economic terms, the new value — of the online experience they expect people to pay for.
  4. As social media plays a larger role in the distribution of and traffic to digital news, media companies need to develop strategies that generate revenue without impeding the social networking of their content.

These and other reasons were confirmed for me over the weekend in Vienna, where I moderated a paywall panel at the World Editors Forum that included representatives from The New York Times; SME, one of the leading daily papers in the tiny country of Slovakia; and Berliner Morgenpost, one of several local and national papers covering news in the German capital.

Dirk Nolde, digital managing editor at Berliner Morgenpost, told me in an email before our session that he and his newsroom colleagues were “terrified” when the business department at the 123,000 copy-a-day paper proposed the paywall. Their fears were intensified, he said, by the lack of paid content in any of the competitors’ sites.

“We are doomed,” he recalled thinking. “But we were not.”

As Rachel McAthy recounts in her good coverage of the session, monthly visits have grown more than 100 percent since the wall was erected in December 2009. That’s partly because of the substantial content residing outside the wall, of course.

Nolde said the paper wants to pursue even more audience growth, though, and intends to tweak its meter after the first of the year. “We’re going to get leakier,” he said.

Interestingly, all three of the participants in the Saturday panel agreed that paid content has improved digital attitudes in the newsroom. Said Jim Roberts of The New York Times: “There is more of an investment I feel in the newsroom among our journalists since the introduction of the paywall. They feel a greater stake in the product. People seem a little more willing to work on a piece of video, file early for the Web, etc.”

Roberts, who said he originally opposed the idea of the wall but has become a believer, added: “There is an overall feeling we’re creating a digital product that has value. We’re feeling that sensibility very strongly.”

Roberts, Nolde and Matúš Kostolný, editor of, all offered lessons learned for news organizations considering a move to print, beginning, as Nolde put it, with “communication, communication, communication” with readers about why you’re doing what you’re doing. Read more


How the Romenesko Years have changed journalism and Poynter

It was the summer of 1999, still early days on the Web, and former Poynter president Jim Naughton and I were scheming ways of creating a site that journalists would find useful to the point of habit-forming.

Just how we would do that, we weren’t quite sure.

We did know that, in addition to faculty tips about reporting, ethics and the various journalism crafts, we needed news about news.

Even though the business was still enjoying relative calm before the storm that would disrupt the next decade, it was clear that big change was afoot in journalism. We wanted to chronicle it on a daily basis.

But how to round it all up? How to serve it up? How to stand out amid the growing clutter of the Web?

We found our answer in a New York Times story headlined “Cutting Through the On-Line Clutter.” The story by Andy Wang began like this:

While most of his readers are still asleep, James Romenesko is up at 5 a.m. each weekday, furiously surfing the Web… For, Mr. Romenesko seeks news and criticism about the media and those who work in it.

Tossing the paper aside for my keyboard on that Monday morning a dozen years ago, I discovered that this Mr. Romenesko had pretty well solved the problem that Naughton and I were wrestling with.

By the time we finished a quick review of, it was clear that Poynter needed to make a run at acquiring the site and its early-rising creator.

“Have you thought about doing this full-time?” I asked Jim when I tracked him down at his day job covering the Internet for the Pioneer Press in St. Paul.

He said he hadn’t. I suggested he fly to Florida to talk about it, but he said he didn’t think he could do that.

“I don’t have any vacation days left,” he explained.  (This from the man who, in the subsequent 10 years I worked with him, took fewer days off than most of us took in a single year.)

We settled on a weekend visit and, by the time he boarded his flight back to the Twin Cities on Sunday, he had agreed to come to work for Poynter.

Hiring Jim resolved a big chunk of the classic “build or acquire” question that Poynter faced in creating its new website. But Romenesko would turn out to be an “acquisition” unlike any hire I’d been associated with before or since.

To begin with, he had no interest in moving to Florida and actually showing up for work in Poynter’s fancy building on the water.

That was fine by us. Poynter had not yet doubled its space, and there was barely room for the faculty and staff we already had. Jim could produce his page from anywhere, and he took the occasion of the new job to move somewhere he’d wanted to live for some time: Evanston, Ill., just outside Chicago.

Jim returned to Florida the next January to be introduced to the Institute’s National Advisory Board, an encounter later recounted by an editor who described himself as a Romenesko-skeptic on the board, Howell Raines of The New York Times.

“As ink-stained traditionalists, we were aflutter about Poynter president Jim Naughton’s nervy decision to hire an obscure gossip blogger to increase traffic on Poynter’s dignified website,” Raines wrote in a 2008 column in the now-departed Portfolio magazine. “Little did we suspect that in the person of Romenesko, a shy journalism nerd from Wisconsin, we were looking at the future – or at least the next decade.”

As Raines noted in that piece, it was just a few years later that he and the late Gerald Boyd, “then the top two editors at the Times, were among the first to get Romenesko’d out of our jobs.”

I’d never hired someone so influential in his work that his name became a verb.

Over the years, Jim’s growing influence created a range of interesting challenges and opportunities for Poynter.

As competitors began sniffing around Evanston with designs on wooing him away from Poynter, Naughton’s expertise in, uh, unconventional employee retention practices saved the day more than once.

I was usually the middle man for these capers, which at one point included placing an order for the heaviest flat screen television I’d ever heard of. Hanging onto Romenesko also involved paying him one of the highest salaries at Poynter, a move not cheered in all quarters.

Romenesko had become the key ingredient in making a habit for journalists. But especially after the September 11 attacks, Poynter faculty embraced the site as an essential way to reach working journalists with resources they needed in increasingly challenging times.

Periodic redesigns helped drive more traffic from Romenesko to the rest of the site, but not without incurring the wrath of readers who always seemed to prefer the page just the way it used to be.

We did our best to avoid “Poynterizing” Jim – a constant fear among many of his fans but something Romenesko was constitutionally incapable of letting happen.

He clearly didn’t serve Poynter’s every interest. In the early years, as the Institute struggled to grow beyond its roots in print to embrace broadcast news, it didn’t help that Romenesko was such a newspaper guy.

He also made Poynter few friends in the corner suites of the nation’s news organizations, print or otherwise.

Naughton and his successor, Karen Dunlap, regularly took heat from bosses upset that their executive decisions – and especially their memos – were getting such scrutiny on Romenesko’s page. Some took particular offense at links to alt weeklies with an axe to grind about mainstream media in general and their newsrooms in particular. (Naughton recounts some of this history in his memoir, “46 Frogs: Tales of a Serial Prankster.”)

But Naughton and Dunlap – along with their bosses, St. Pete Times editors and chairmen Andy Barnes and Paul Tash – got what Romenesko was all about: even-handed, easy to find links to news about news. That so little of that news has been good for the past decade was no reason to mute the messenger, so they didn’t.

Along the way, Romenesko has sustained the most reliable – and readable — daily chronicle of one of journalism’s most important eras.

He also helped transform aggregation and curation from the pre-dawn avocation of a guy in his jammies to a craft with significant consequence for journalism.

Jim’s blog brought transparency to newsrooms, equipping readers and staffers alike to hold those organizations accountable in the way that they scrutinize the operations of others. He also flattened the journalism landscape so interesting things that happened in small newsrooms — whether painful examples of plagiarism or award-winning work — were as likely to be Romenesko’d as developments in the nation’s media centers.

In the process, his chronicle of disrupted, transforming newsrooms nudged this non-profit school on Florida’s west coast ever closer to the real world of journalism.

I particularly enjoyed a link Jim posted earlier this week to a blog post by Tim McGuire, a former top editor who, a decade ago, had been one of Jim’s harshest critics. These days, McGuire is a journalism professor who has become a quite effective and outspoken blogger in his own right.

By the time Julie Moos took over from me as boss a couple of years ago, Romenesko’s influence was coming full circle. As Moos pointed out in introducing the site’s most recent overhaul, many of the changes were designed to make the rest of the site more like Romenesko, who announced his semi-retirement Wednesday.

Poynter, it turns out, had been Romenesko’d. Read more


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