Collaborative journalism

SXSW Interactive and Film Festival attendees crowd the Austin Convention Center, Saturday, March 9, 2013 in Austin, Texas.(AP Photo/Jack Plunkett)

Poynter at SXSW: Welcome back to the WED dance

Editor’s Note: Poynter will be at South by Southwest, the annual music, movie and interactive festival, March 7-16, in Austin, Texas. Look for our Poynter faculty members, Roy Peter Clark, Ellyn Angelotti and Kelly McBride, and digital media reporter Sam Kirkland. Here is the first in a series of posts on what we’ll be doing at SXSW.

One of the great libels against newspapers is that they’re averse to change. It’s true that newspapers could have changed more to forestall their decline. But they have changed — the newspaper of 2014 little resembles the newspaper of 1984.

I recall Orwell’s famous year – 1984 – as a tumultuous one in the history of the news business. Old gray papers were suddenly filled with color. Vertical columns gave way to modular boxes. Word processors replaced typewriters, and new forms of news writing challenged the inverted pyramid. Page designers entered the building – some with little experience in journalism – bringing with them a new lingo about white space, grids, and color saturation. Women and minorities began to establish themselves in newsrooms, reforming our sense of mission and purpose.

These innovations challenged old ideas and created friction among the players. One memorable standoff pitted the “word” journalists against the “visual” journalists. The VJs disdained writers who produced endless columns of gray text, while the Wordinistas ridiculed designers who wasted news hole with poster pages that crowded out more important content.

That was the historical context in which I began to work with Mario Garcia, the man who in the last three decades has changed the face of news across the globe, redesigning newspapers, magazines, websites, and now tablets and mobile platforms. I was the first full-time teacher hired at the Poynter Institute. Mario was the second. I taught writing. He taught design. We came to admire each other’s work. What can I say, we fell in love.

And one day, we decided to get married.

That marriage, of course, was metaphorical, a union of the minds and of professional disciplines. Mario gave it the acronym WED, the marriage of Writing, Editing, and Design. The WED concept became the subject of numerous conferences, seminars, essays, and countless newsroom conversations across the globe. We even created avatars for ourselves (though we didn’t call them that back then), manifestations of our more single-minded points of view. My avatar was Raymond Burr, the actor who played Perry Mason, a solid gray eminence so stoic and purposeful he never seemed to smile. Representing Mario was the Brazilian film actress of the 1940s Carmen Miranda, a woman of a thousand colors and textures, often photographed with a headdress that looked like a bowl of fruit.

If Raymond Burr (who in real life was as gay as a day in May) hooked up with Carmen Miranda, Mario and I could have been their love twins.

The WED honeymoon turned into real work, a re-imagining of how creative and effective news organizations could be.

We imagined:

  • that the old assembly-line production model of news could not and should not survive.
  • that collaboration across disciplines would improve journalism and serve the public good.
  • that visual and word workers had more in common than they thought, including elements of craft such as focus, emphasis, shape, color, dimension, detail, information, the power of white space, and, most important, story.
  • that versatility would become an increasingly important virtue. Versatility did not require designers to write stories or writers to design pages – although we tried that in workshops — but it did require the development of a common critical vocabulary that allowed one craftperson to speak to another “without an accent.”

One example will suffice: I learned from designers that white space was a crucial element in the creation, say, of an informational graphic describing the primary causes of an economic downturn. That white space was an antidote to clutter, visual ventilation that let the page breathe and helped relax the reader. I took that concept and began to apply it to text. Turns out there’s white space within a story or report too. Most of it occurs in the margins. But within the text itself there are bars of white space that mark the end of one paragraph and the beginning of another. I teach journalists that the words immediately before that white space get special attention from the reader. Save a key word or phrase to use in that location, I tell them. It will play jazz.

One objection to the WED concept was that it did not include enough of the players or disciplines. Where was leadership? a colleague asked. Where was photography? Why limit the players? If we added leadership, they argued, it could become the LEWD concept. Well, I said, we could add Leadership, Photo, and Ownership and create the PLOWED concept. “Turn your weapons into plowshares,” could have been our motto.

But we never intended for our WED concept remain an exclusive club of three. Writing’s W included all the word workers in the shop. Design’s D included all the visual workers. And Editing’s E included all those in a position of leadership, who needed to build bridges across disciplines. The editor needed the ability to work with words and visuals the same way that the director of a film had to understand the elements of acting, cinematography, editing, music scoring, and all the other tools of filmmaking.

During Mario’s travels around the world as a news designer, it’s become clear to him — and now to me — that the values, virtues, and practices of WED are more important than ever. In the age of the Internet, more disciplines than ever must be integrated into the creative process — including, for example, computer programming, Big Data, stories written from Big Data, data visualization, and multimedia. Journalists of every stripe must work across platforms, including mobile delivery systems. Maybe in the morning, it’s our job to help the reader lean forward with her iPhone; or at night to lean back with his iPad.

So Mario and I would like to welcome you to iWED, the integrated marriage of writing, editing, and design – a collaborative process of planning and execution that gets the very best from all creative workers in the enterprise and produces multiple products designed to build audience and serve the public interest. The two of us know no better framework for balancing the enduring values of journalism with the innovations necessary in an age of tumultuous change.

Please join us at SXSW in Austin, Texas, on Monday, March 10, at 12:30 pm. Who knows? Maybe we will end our session, as we did 30 years ago, with a dance. Read more

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PoynterVision: how journalists can work with coders on projects

Understanding enough code for journalists to communicate with developers still isn’t enough, says Robert Hernandez, digital journalism professor at USC Annenberg and Poynter adjunct faculty. Watch the video to see what Hernandez recommends to help journalists work successfully with developers on data projects.

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Travel Cybertrips iPad

How tablets are changing the way writers work

Journalists have long defined themselves by the medium that carries their work. They say they write for magazines, newspapers or the Web. No one says, “I write for tablets.”

Yet as more tablet-focused startups and spinoffs are developed, more journalists are seeing their bylines as tappable things connected to experiences, instead of articles. And this often changes how — and with whom — they work.

These days, many publishers are thinking “mobile-first” — even though they disagree on what that means. As always, where publishers go, writers follow — and the tablet is where journalists really want to go now, because that’s where the long-form print story has been reborn, and is being transformed through digital experiments.

More words, different experience

Each month dozens of pitches, mostly from magazine writers, pour into The Atavist, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based digital publishing company that produces one original, long-form nonfiction story between 5,000 and 30,000 words monthly.

“We’re going to treat the piece the way it would get treated somewhere like The New Yorker,” said Evan Ratliff, co-founder, CEO and editor. “We’re going to make everything perfect, and then we promise them a very high production value on it.”

Now nearly three years old, The Atavist is notable for the seamless way it integrates audio, maps, video, photography, and even animation into its text narratives. But the story comes first: In a phone interview, Ratliff said multimedia elements aren’t added unless a good argument can be made for why they enhance the storytelling, and the reader can turn them off with a tap.

The Atavist’s artful inclusion of multimedia elements appeals to authors who believe their stories would benefit from that treatment. Take “Finding Shakespeare,” August’s story about a Vietnam veteran’s quest to discover how Shakespeare’s English actually sounded and to reproduce it on a New York stage. In reporting the story, Daniel Fromson said he gathered some six dozen film clips from the subject’s own documentary, as well as several boxes of letters, photographs, journals, screenplay drafts and other potential multimedia material “that ranged from receipts for his handyman business to readings of his horoscope.”

“I really do believe the multimedia in the story enhanced the story,” said Fromson, who has also written for The Atlantic and Harper’s, in a phone interview. “It would have been a good story without it, but the multimedia convey the general air of commitment bordering on obsession and the eccentricity of my subject.”

Fromson wanted to be involved with such efforts, but Ratliff said no commitment beyond production of a story’s audiobook is required of writers. An in-house production staff coordinates everything else.

Ratliff said it’s “pretty rare that we send a reporter out to actually gather multiple types of media. They come from somewhere else.”

Research into how people use tablets is helping shape the work produced on them. Long-form content, for instance, does well because readers read for longer periods of time on tablets than on other devices. They also read in the evenings — and do a great deal of tapping as they read.

“A high expectation comes with the device,” Poynter’s Sara Quinn said in March at a South by Southwest session on how people consume news on tablets. “During our study, we saw readers tap and tap on elements that weren’t tappable.”

Warning: distractions ahead

As with print magazines, tablet publications share certain physical characteristics but don’t resemble one another that much in terms of content. Not everyone thinks more multimedia is better for tablet readers of long-form journalism. Consider the debate after The New York Times published “Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek” to near-deafening applause. The team that created “Snow Fall” had tablet consumers in mind as they integrated video, photography and motion graphics into one seamless story, and the piece won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. Soon, however, dissenting opinions emerged alongside a legion of imitators.

Bobbie Johnson, the co-founder of Matter, which publishes long-form stories on science, technology, medicine and the environment “for consumption on any device,” wrote a post called “Snowfallen” with the subtitle, “Just because you can, it doesn’t mean you should.”

“Snow Fall was a good story, but it felt as if getting you to read it was the story’s secondary ambition,” Johnson wrote. “When I did it, I was constantly interrupted or distracted. And while the multimedia elements provided atmosphere, in all honesty they didn’t mean much. As a reader they drew me away from what I was there for. I came away from it thinking ‘ooh, lovely design’ —  not ‘this story is amazing.’ ”

Matter’s co-founder, Jim Giles, said their publication’s focus remains on the quality of the written stories. He said writers for Matter, which was acquired this spring by San Francisco-based Medium, haven’t told him they’ve changed anything about their process.

“So often I feel multimedia gets in the way,” he said in a telephone interview. “We’re selling an experience of being engulfed by a story — a story that’s meaningful, gripping, and you’re learning something about the world in the process.”

Mixing media

Elsewhere, though, examples of immersive multimedia stories featuring long-form writing are multiplying, and editors value the fusion of thoughtful, in-depth writing and interactivity. With the new capabilities of tablet publishing come new (or at least revised) expectations for writers.

At Quartz, a global business news outlet owned by Atlantic Media and based in New York City, reporters must think about multimedia and other visual elements, such as charts, said editor-in-chief and co-founder Kevin J. Delaney. For instance, when Apple recently released a chart showing cumulative iPhone sales, reporter David Yanofsky superimposed his own chart of quarterly iPhone sales. Although Apple’s chart makes it appear as if the iPhone universe is ever expanding, the quarterly information shows that sales are cyclical and have actually declined in recent quarters.

“[Yanofsky] has deep journalistic training,” Delaney said in a phone interview. “He understands how business works. He knows how to read regulatory filings by companies.”

Quartz reporters use a custom-designed chart-building tool to make such charts, which Delaney said are very popular with readers. (Quartz has open-sourced that software, and other news organizations are now using it.) Reporters also choose, crop and place the photographs accompanying their stories in the publishing system.

More collaboration required

At The Atavist, stories can include a range of multimedia. Alissa Quart’s story about an embattled abortion clinic in Jackson, Miss., began as a documentary film by Maisie Crow. Both women, reached via telephone, raved about the experience of working together — an opportunity made possible because of support from The Atavist as well as the nonprofit Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

“There is big value in pairing writing and short film,” said Crow. “I can get really intimate, but the writing can set the stage for why the story’s important.”

Quart said she wished she could have had a similar collaboration with a photographer on her new book, “Republic of Outsiders.” That didn’t happen, but Quart said she now always thinks about multimedia. In fact, she and Crow are collaborating on another project — a nonprofit-supported one about domestic workers.

So far, writing for the tablet doesn’t seem much different from writing for print: the style depends on the audience and the editor far more than the platform. In the case of The Atavist, the tablet has provided more opportunities to work with multimedia. At Quartz, it’s added a few more responsibilities. And for Matter, it’s not changed the writer’s process at all.

In part, that’s because nearly four years after the debut of the iPad, audiences are still adjusting to narratives that include multimedia — and how to find examples of such storytelling.

“The main problem is the market’s not developed,” Quart said. “People don’t know how to think about it. Is it sold on iTunes? Is it a book?”

In her view, old habits still prevail: “You go to the art house to see the movie. You read the book. There’s still that division.” Read more

Air America Documents

Declassification Engine provides solution to processing declassified documents

At a time when “big data” is in vogue and computational journalism is taking off, reporters need efficient ways to process millions of documents. The Declassification Engine is one way to solve this problem. The project uses the latest methods in computer science to demystify declassified texts and increase transparency in government documents.

The project’s mission is to “create a critical mass of declassified documents by aggregating all the archives that are now just scattered online,” said Matthew Connelly, professor of international and global history at Columbia University and one of the professors directing the project, in a phone interview with Poynter.

Matthew Connelly
Matthew Connelly

The team working on the project, which began in September 2012, is made up of historians, statisticians, legal scholars, journalists and computer scientists.

All the data fed into The Declassification Engine comes from declassified documents, mostly from the National Archives, including more than a million telegrams from the State Department Central Foreign Policy Files. The Declassification Engine database also includes documents released under the Freedom of Information Act.

The Declassification Engine’s website offers some interesting stats on declassification and says “95 percent of historical documents end up being destroyed in secrecy.”

The New York Times reported the federal government spent more than $11 billion in 2011 to protect classified information, excluding costs from the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency.

The National Declassification Center was set up in 2010 to process more than 400 million pages of backlogged documents at the National Archives. Three years later, the backlog has decreased to 357 million pages. Its goal was to process all pages by December 2013, according to a presidential memorandum.

How The Declassification Engine works

With The Declassification Engine database, the team plans to develop Web applications to make sense of the documents. For example, the Redaction Archive finds “another version of the same document where the redaction is removed,” Connelly said.

Government agencies often release the same documents at different times, redacting different sections. With a side-by-side analysis, the engine could “compare different documents on the same subject to guess what might be in the redacted text even if the redaction isn’t declassified,” Connelly said.

A side-by-side view of a document from the Truman Administration dated April 12, 1950 shows how The Declassification Engine compares text from two documents to uncover redactions. (Photo: The Declassification Engine)

Natural Language Processing (computational methods to extract information from written languages) and machine learning (techniques to recognize patterns) power The Declassification Engine and enable it to analyze text and images, filling in missing information.

The team is also building:

  • The Sphere of Influence — a visualization of hundreds of thousands of cables from the State Department dating back to the 1970s
  • The (De)Classifier – a tool displaying cable activity over time comparing declassified documents to documents still withheld
  • The (De)Sanitizer – a tool that uses previously redacted text to suggest which topics are the most sensitive.

Connelly and David Madigan, professor and chair of statistics, led The Declassification Engine team to win one of eight 2013 Magic Grants from the David and Helen Gurley Brown Institute for Media Innovation. Former Cosmopolitan editor and author Helen Gurley Brown gave a $30 million gift to start the Brown Institute to further innovation in journalism. Half of the funding from the Magic Grant comes from the Brown Institute and the other half comes from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia.

“The Declassification Engine was an obvious choice — an impressive, interdisciplinary team and a challenging journalistic ambition to reveal patterns in official secrecy,” Mark Hansen, East Coast director of the Brown Institute and professor of journalism at Columbia University, said via email. He convened the review team at Columbia that picked four East Coast grant recipients.

“From attributing authorship to anonymous documents, to making predictions about the contents of redacted text, to modeling the geographic and temporal patterns in diplomatic communications,” the engine addresses “a very real need to ‘read’ large collections of texts,” Hansen wrote.

Applications for journalists

Although the project is in its early stages, beginning in Sept Connelly said he could imagine several uses for journalists. People can “go trolling through history to find things that were once secret and are now declassified,” he said.

With enough documents, The Declassification Engine can guess the probability that the redaction is the name of a place or a person. “Developing the means to identify topics, like subjects, that are particularly sensitive” could “give people ideas for stories,” Connelly said.

In his early work, Connelly discovered abnormal bursts of diplomatic correspondence surrounding the word “Boulder” that kept reappearing.

After some investigating, Connelly uncovered a covert program that few scholars knew about. He told Poynter:

There’s something called Operation Boulder which was a program in the 1970s to identify people with Arabic last names who were applying for visas to visit the U.S. and subject them to FBI investigation. Thirty years later when officials were trying to decide whether to declassify these documents, almost every document related to this program was withheld completely. For me, that’s proof of concept.

Although most of the references to Operation Boulder remain classified, Connelly could tell the program was very large by counting the number of cables being sent around the world about it.

After Andrea A. Dixon, communications doctoral student at Columbia University, and Vani Natarajan, librarian at Barnard College, learned about Operation Boulder from Connelly, they embarked on a project to collect and analyze diplomatic cables, hoping to uncover stories from people who’d been targeted. They produced a digital exhibit that chronicled discrimination against Arab Americans and Middle Eastern people living in or traveling to the U.S. during the Nixon Administration.

The Declassification Engine allowed them to “query the database of cables for the specific documents,” Dixon wrote in an email to Poynter.

She and Natarajan reconstructed texts based on similar documents and patterns emerging from statistical analyses and historical records. Although the documents lacked a great deal of context and attribution, eventually the two pieced together a narrative with the help of stories from people who were discriminated against and harassed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The Declassification Engine serves as “a digital tool that enables analysis of a deluge of documents,” Dixon wrote. She hopes it will offer the chance to “enrich and revise” history during the periods covered by the database.

Connelly said the digital exhibit is one of many applications for The Declassification Engine. His lofty goal is ultimately to create “a large-scale archive aggregator” that operates virtually so anyone can “find declassified documents on any subjects.”

He said he hopes the team can build a model like DocumentCloud for declassified texts. “You could also contribute your own documents and apply these tools to discover things in the documents that you wouldn’t see otherwise,” he said. Read more

Jose Vadi 3

News organizations step on stage to experiment with new storytelling forms

Inside a cream-colored brick building in downtown Berkeley, Calif., journalists with the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) tap out updates for the Web and gather to discuss their next projects. It looks like a typical small newsroom, except when you walk past the digital team and find spoken-word poet José Vadi sitting at his desk.

Vadi is directing the Off/Page Project, a collaboration between CIR and Youth Speaks, the San Francisco-based organization that gives a voice to young people across the country through spoken-word poetry. He called the organizations’ partnership “sourced storytelling,” in which investigative reporting is paired with stories of young people who have personal experience with the issues being reported, such as gun violence or the loss of a home through foreclosure.

José Vadi/Photo by Xandra Clark

When CIR uncovered data about crime and financial problems in Stockton, Calif., Off/Page presented the information to teenagers who live there. The teens interpreted and commented upon the reporting through a poetry performance last month.

“I knew Stockton was bad, but seeing all the statistics … just shined a light,” said 18-year-old performer Corey Baxter.

Jayda Daniels, 17, another of the performers, added that “it brought me a better outlook of trying to motivate people to go do something.” 

Jayda Daniels/Photo by Xandra Clark

Experimenting with the stage

At a time of uncertainty for their business, news organizations are increasingly experimenting with fresh ways to engage audiences – and for some, that means stepping onto the stage.

Public radio shows such as “This American Life” and “Radiolab” have begun collaborating with musicians, dancers and comedians to produce live stage shows. Writers are participating in storytelling nights such as Pop-Up Magazine in San Francisco and The Moth in New York City. And The Chicago Tribune has established a partnership with The Second City improv troupe.

Off/Page is scheduled to have its official launch in August at Brave New Voices, the national poetry slam festival founded by Youth Speaks in 1998 and held in Chicago this year. (Baxter and Daniels will represent Stockton in the slam competition.)

CIR has also partnered with San Francisco’s Tides Theatre to write and stage plays based on investigative stories. In June, they performed two one-act plays that were written and produced within about five weeks.

“One of the things we’re trying to do here is take really deeply reported, fact-based investigative reporting to audiences the way they want to receive it,” said Robert Rosenthal, the executive director of CIR.

For Rosenthal, such performances are “a great way to engage people” and a way for CIR’s reporters to learn about issues teenagers face and consider “how we can humanize and tell their stories well.” But he added that performances like these also get the young participants, who may not read the newspapers every day, thinking about “the value and the role of journalism in a democracy.”

Such terrain is new for journalists, but familiar ground for performers. Artists have been creating work inspired by real events throughout history, and the established genre of documentary theater presents stories built from verbatim dialogue, interviews and thorough research.

Productions such as “The Laramie Project,” delving into the fatal 1998 beating of Matthew Shepard; “The Deputy,” investigating the actions of Pope Pius XII during the Third Reich; and “8,” exploring the California ballot proposition that banned same-sex marriage, have informed audiences across the globe. Some efforts have even been federally sponsored: in the 1930s, the U.S. government funded a project that performed Living Newspapers to engage citizens. What’s new is that journalists are reaching out to artists to initiate such work, with a variety of goals in mind.

Building audience through live events

Ira Glass, host of public-radio favorite “This American Life,” said that some 20 years ago the producers of radio shows like “Car Talk,” “Fresh Air” and “Prairie Home Companion” advised him to build an audience for his then-new show by holding live events at local radio stations.

Those events gave the stations a reason “to run promos, saying the show’s name over and over again to their own audience,” Glass said. “And hopefully people bring friends who are not super-fans, and they become fans, and you gain more audience that way.”

Since then, “This American Life” events have come a long way from just talking and playing audio clips and have entered the realm of performance. In “The Invisible Made Visible,” last year’s stage show, “This American Life” brought onstage comedians Mike Birbiglia and Tig Notaro, the alternative rock band OK Go, the dance company Monica Bill Barnes & Company, and writers David Sedaris, David Rakoff and Ryan Knighton. Besides the audience in New York City, thousands of people watched the live broadcast in movie theaters across the U.S. and Canada.

Experiencing true stories as a collective is something that “Radiolab” co-host Jad Abumrad is also exploring. Another public-radio favorite, “Radiolab” describes itself as “a show about curiosity” and investigates science and philosophy through storytelling. But the radio show has also tried out the stage.

“Never have I been so in the moment,” Abumrad recalled.

At first, Abumrad said, he thought to imitate Glass and “pretend we’re making radio onstage.” But his perspective changed last year, when “Radiolab” found itself collaborating with dance group Pilobolus for “In the Dark” and building a huge functioning eyeball to demonstrate the evolution of the eye onstage.

“This is actually a new form,” Abumrad remembered thinking.

Glass said he isn’t planning to bring “This American Life” to the stage again unless “it amuses us” or “we need the money.” But Abumrad said, for now, he is committed to further experiments with the form, such as this fall’s “Apocalyptical.”

“It’s become corded to who we are now,” he said.

Newspapers slowly hopping on the bandwagon

Newspapers have rarely pushed the performance boundaries much beyond live discussions with journalists and celebrities, such as the TimesTalks initiative of The New York Times.

Actress, monologist and playwright Anna Deavere Smith said she would “never call that performance,” referring to TimesTalks. Smith is known for creating her own genre within documentary theater: she interviews people about certain events, issues and themes and then performs their words and gestures with painstaking specificity.

After hearing about these types of collaborations happening out of the newsroom, Smith expressed concern that the line between fact and fiction could become blurred. Given the impulse to entertain, she asked, “where will the pot full of facts be?” She added that she would like to know she’s reading facts when she opens a newspaper, and the same is true for viewing a journalistic performance.

“There need to be standards,” she said. “Not having the facts is just sloppiness.”

(Indeed, “This American Life” has encountered the line between fact and fiction – last year it retracted a popular episode about Apple’s manufacturing practices in China when it was revealed that monologist Mike Daisey had falsely represented parts of his experience. But “he is a performer,” said Smith about Daisey, adding that he was operating in the world of the theater, “where we know there are a lot of things going on that aren’t fact, no matter how much fact we try to have it be.”)

At the same time, Smith allowed, creative license is important in art because it’s “giving you a chance to become active.”

The Chicago Tribune is one newspaper that has moved a bit closer to the edge by partnering with The Second City through the program Chicago Live!, whose events sometimes include news-related comedy sketches.

“We wanted to really respect what the newsroom was, but we also wanted to make it lively and engaging,” said Lara Weber, who produces the events for Chicago Live!

Weber said she was wary “about some of the ethical issues that might come up,” but she hasn’t seen the line between fact and fiction blur. Even the most traditional journalists in the Tribune newsroom eventually opened up to the idea. “One of my biggest victories was that it didn’t take long to crack into that circle,” she added.

So far, the events program has proved a worthy experiment — Weber called it a $1 million business this year for the Tribune.

“It’s very much a part of the new newsroom,” she said.

Here’s a video highlighting CIR’s efforts:

Read more

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Computer mouse on the laptop

10 digital tools journalists can use to improve their reporting, storytelling

Digital tools help produce quality content online, but it can be tough figuring out where to start. Here are 10 online tools that can help improve journalists’ reporting and storytelling, and engage readers in multimedia.

Reporting resources: These tools can help with research and sourcing.

FOIA Machine | (@FOIAMachine)

Requesting government documents can be a lengthy process. FOIA Machine, a free service now in testing and run with help from a Knight Foundation grant and the Center on Investigative Reporting, is a website journalists can use to file FOIA requests and other global transparency requests. The organization makes sure requests are filed properly and tracks requests filed through the website.

Public Insight Network | (@publicinsight)

Searching for sources can be easy — or it can bring reporting to a full stop. The Public Insight Network, run by American Public Media, is a database of first-person accounts and a network of people willing to be public sources.

Newsrooms can use PIN to find sources for community-level stories, or for stories that have a very specific audience in mind — such as Marketplace Money’s report on people who have been unemployed longer than six months. Over PIN’s decade-long existence, it has amassed 130,000 registered sources and recently created its own newsroom to report on stories using sources who have joined but haven’t been contacted by other organizations.

Ushahidi | (@ushahidi)

It looks like crowdsourcing for news is here to stay; reporters can turn to crowdsourcing sites such as PIN and Ushahidi for first-person accounts of events. Ushahidi was created in the aftermath of the 2007 Kenyan election; it mapped (via Google maps) reports sent in via text and email from people on the ground during the crisis.

Ushahidi still is used for “crowdmapping,” or putting pedestrian reports on online maps. The site runs Crowdmap, which “allows you to set up your own deployment of the Ushahidi Platform without having to install it on your own Web server” and creates some interesting visuals. Ushahidi was used during bombings in Mumbai in 2011 to determine where help was needed. It’s a tool for managing crises as much as reporting on them.

Data compilation and resources: Datasets and social media backlogs can be intimidating for any reporter; these resources help share, gather and handle large shares of information.

The PANDA Project | (@pandaproject)

The PANDA Project allows journalists to share data within their newsroom or organization. The project serves as a Google Drive-like database by allowing publications to share data online and work with the data within the program, with search and archive functions. While there aren’t tools to publish the data from within the program, it can still be a valuable reporting tool to encourage collaboration.

Census.IRE | (@IRE_NICAR)

Partly funded by a Knight Foundation grant, Census.IRE is a tool to help organize and view data from the 2010 Census. It can help journalists separate data by location and then segment that data further through metrics such as age, race, gender and more. Using census data in stories can add depth to analysis, and the data can sometimes be a story unto itself. Here’s a piece about how journalists can mine census data for stories about their changing communities.

iWitness | (@AdaptivePath)

Created by Adaptive Path through a Knight News Challenge grant, iWitness helps curate relevant social media based on date and geographic parameters. Specify a time and location on the website, and iWitness will pull relevant posts from sites such as Twitter.

The program makes it easier to examine backlogs in social media and lets you set limits by the minute. The tool is especially helpful when reporting on breaking news stories and can be used in concert with Storify, particularly when looking for specific social media elements from a national news story.

Data presentation: These tools can help process and design otherwise-cumbersome data sets in a way that makes them easily accessible for stories.

TileMill | (@TileMill)

Graphics and images can help readers understand concepts and stories better than text alone. Journalists can use TileMill to create interactive maps that show how data are spread over a particular area. It’s an especially useful tool for stories that have a strong geographic component.

Popular apps such as Foursquare use parent company MapBox’s maps to visualize check-ins and collect data. USA Today also used MapBox to chart election returns in the 2012 elections. Quartz used TileMill to graph how local commerce increased in New Orleans during the Super Bowl, and InfoAmazonia uses TileMill to map out deforestation in the Amazon rainforest.

Tableau Public | (@tableau)

Charts and infographics help make data-heavy stories easier to comprehend and analyze. While programs such as TileMill require knowledge of computer coding, Tableau Public uses a drag-and-drop method to help compile graphs, charts and other data visualizations.

Journalists can use Tableau Public to create straightforward graphs, such as Wisconsin Watch’s chart of milk productivity in cows in a story about Wisconsin’s milk industry. It can also be used to create less-traditional data presentations, such as this map of college football recruitment.

Social Media and storytelling: Putting together a final project of text, images and data can be a lengthy task; these sites help with compiling and promoting stories.

Popcorn Maker | (@mozilla)

Designed by Mozilla, Popcorn Maker adds interactive features to videos, such as click-through links, maps, social media and articles from other websites. PBS NewsHour announced a partnership with Popcorn Maker in 2012 to create interactive content. Journalists can use Popcorn Maker in online videos to link to related content on their own websites, or to outside content such as a source’s Twitter feed or website.

Atavist | (@theatavist)

Using Atavist, you can compile various elements, such as text, video, audio and animation, in an in-depth enterprise story. You can also group related stories, photos and resources in a single app, e-book or magazine. TED uses Atavist for its TED Books App, as does the Paris Review. Publications such as The Wall Street Journal use the site for reports, such as this one on prescription painkillers.

Related training: News University will host a digital tools Webinar with Meograph CEO and founder Misha Leybovich this Thursday, May 2. You can sign up here, and see a full list of digital tools here. Read more


‘Medical school model’ brings newspaper, radio station and university together

A newspaper, public radio station and university in Macon, Ga., are moving in together and sharing content, in a unique partnership aimed at strengthening local news reporting, thanks to a grant from the Knight Foundation being announced today.

The news staffs of The (Macon) Telegraph and Georgia Public Broadcasting will move in with the journalism faculty and students at a new Center for Collaborative Journalism at Mercer University.

Each group retains its own editorial products and independence, but they will be working in one newsroom, teaching each other and sharing content.

They’re calling it “the medical school model,” with benefits for all — students train in an environment structured for both learning and doing; professionals improve and benefit from students’ work; and the community gets a better service.

In addition to the day-to-day content sharing, the joint newsroom also will produce a couple of annual community engagement projects, chosen by Macon residents, that involve reporting and problem solving on local issues.

“We want to create a new model of journalism education … but also to benefit the people of Macon so they can be informed and engaged and take the necessary steps to create a vibrant future for this place,” said Beverly Blake, Macon program director for Knight Foundation.

The foundation is giving Mercer University $3.74 million to build the center, and giving another $854,000 to Georgia Public Broadcasting to expand its news staff and create richer local programming for central Georgia. Mercer also will double the size of its journalism program from about 50 students to about 100, Blake said. It’s a five-year grant program, aiming for self-sustainability beyond that.

Neat idea, you might say, but why Macon, Ga., of all places?

“It’s where the idea came from… Just because we’re small, doesn’t mean we don’t have a lot of smart people here,” Blake said. “We have a newspaper publisher who understands that the future of news has to include digital. We have a statewide public broadcasting head who understands that local is critical. And we have a university that already is a strong, strong leader in this community.”

The idea emerged a couple years ago, just as the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy was issuing its report with recommendations including:

  • Increase support for public service media.
  • Increase the role of higher education, community and nonprofit institutions as hubs of journalistic activity.
  • Engage young people in developing the digital information and communication capacities of local communities.

“The timing was absolutely perfect,” Blake said, because Knight’s recommendations aligned with the type of partnership Telegraph Publisher George McCanless and GPB Executive Director Teya Ryan were beginning to ponder with Mercer University.

Knight hopes this “aspirational experiment” will create a model other communities can adapt, Blake said.

“We don’t know if it will work. But the bigger risk is that we do nothing,” Blake said. “We have to do something to create a 21st century ecosystem for news and information in communities.” For more info please visit : Read more

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NBC follows through on promise to have local TV stations collaborate with nonprofits

The New York Times | Los Angeles Times
As part of the merger application for NBC Universal and Comcast, NBC had pledged to establish partnerships in five of its markets, modeled on the existing relationship between KNSD-TV and “Effectively immediately,” Brian Stelter reports, “NBC’s station in Chicago will work with The Chicago Reporter blog and magazine; its station in Philadelphia, with WHYY, a public radio station, and its community site NewsWorks; and its station in Los Angeles, with KPCC, a public radio station. All 10 of NBC’s stations will at times collaborate with ProPublica, the acclaimed investigative journalism nonprofit organization.” KPCC’s Bill Davis tells the LA Times’ James Rainey that the partnership means “we can get to the kind of investigative and enterprise stories we wouldn’t be able to singularly.” || Related: Study shows that nonprofits pull back on fundraising efforts after getting government grants (Nieman Journalism Lab) || Earlier: Nonprofit news orgs see validation, new funding in Comcast-NBC merger ( Read more


Guardian readers shape stories during first week of open budgets
One week after The Guardian began disclosing its upcoming story budgets prior to publication, National Editor Dan Roberts writes that the experiment is going well. “Whatever competitive advantage may have been lost by giving rivals a clue what we were up to was more than made up for by a growing range of ideas and tips from readers,” he writes. Readers’ feedback now shapes the Guardian’s coverage in advance. For example, many said they wanted more coverage of the UK government’s health reforms. “We initially responded by ramping up our live coverage of the two-day NHS debate in the House of Lords – attracting over 1,000 comments. But we also asked our health reporter to do a bit of digging and list today an upcoming story on how cuts have already begun to hit services,” Roberts said. || Earlier: Guardian publishes upcoming story budgets, invites reader feedback Read more

ire image

IRE takes over DocumentCloud as Knight funding expires

DocumentCloud, the startup that works with news organizations to post troves of primary source documents online in a searchable, shareable format, becomes a project of Investigative Reporters and Editors today.

DocumentCloud launched in 2009, funded by a two-year Knight News Challenge grant of $719,500. The service has grown to host more than 100,000 source documents totaling over 1.5 million pages. News outlets have used it to annotate the full text of the Arizona immigration law, explain the records behind a foster home scandal in Chicago, and more.

DocumentCloud can be used to highlight and annotate the source documents.

In short, the service takes analog paper documents and turns them into digital data, enabling reporters and users to read, analyze, highlight and share them online. Advanced features help journalists look for patterns and recurring names, extract dates, and annotate documents with notes to explain sections and help tell a story.

“DocumentCloud as a service for journalists and for the public is vitally important,” Mark Horvit, executive director of IRE, told me. It is a “terrific tool” for supporting some of the key values of IRE, which are to get documents, use them in reporting and make them public.

With a two-year startup grant from Knight, the team at DocumentCloud knew they’d have to find a long-term home. They did not want to sell it to a for-profit company, and they did not want to place it in a low-budget maintenance mode just to keep it going. Scott Klein told me that he and fellow co-founders Aron Pilhofer and Eric Umansky thought IRE would be a great steward of the project.

All three co-founders have kept their day jobs while building DocumentCloud — Klein and Umansky at ProPublica and Pilhofer at The New York Times — and did not want leave those positions. They will stay involved in the project by serving on an advisory board.

Klein and Horvit said the product will continue to improve under IRE’s guidance. “We have two or three big projects ahead of us” that will improve what the product can do and how newsrooms can use it, Klein said.

IRE is hiring a lead developer to oversee and run DocumentCloud, Horvit said. (The current lead developer, Jeremy Ashkenas, has moved to the Times’ interactive news team, but he too will remain involved.) Program Director Amanda Hickman will stay on for the transition.

Everyone involved gave assurances that there would be no immediate change in the service and that the existing document hosting services will remain free. News orgs will be able to use the service regardless of IRE membership.

They did speculate about adding paid services to DocumentCloud in the future to help sustain it. Although DocumentCloud will not be run as a profit-making venture, there are costs of staff and data hosting to consider.

Among the ideas, according to Klein: paid subscriptions for users who want to keep many documents private or have access to extra features, and customized versions of DocumentCloud for certain communities or businesses.

IRE is interested in getting more newsrooms to use DocumentCloud, but there are no plans to open the system to contributions from the general public or other non-news organizations, Horvit said.

Because the Knight News Challenge is designed to be a contest for new ideas, not to sustain projects for the long term, all successful projects eventually have to find a new home. The most notable example is when bought the hyperlocal site EveryBlock in 2009.

The Knight Foundation is happy to see DocumentCloud find a sustainable home, said John Bracken, the foundation’s director of digital media.

“It has been even more successful than we thought,” Bracken said. “The pickup they’ve had by news organizations has demonstrated the promise of the initial idea they had.”

When the trio submitted their News Challenge application in 2008, some people argued that The New York Times could have funded this project itself without consuming grant funds. After they won the grant, the co-founders took pains to explain that although they worked for The New York Times and ProPublica, the money went to them, not the companies.

Klein said the growth of the project shows the benefit of it being funded as an independent nonprofit, instead of a department within the Times. DocumentCloud wouldn’t have gained hundreds of partner newsrooms if those journalists felt they had to trust another news organization with access to their source documents, he said.

“It was vital,” Klein said, “that DocumentCloud be its own entity, its own organization with its own funding.” Read more


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