Lessons From ONA ‘10: What It Takes, Part 2

Written by Ryan Thornburg November 3, 2010 8:50 am EDT No comments

Aggregation continued to be one of the online news community’s big buzzwords at the 2010 Online News Association conference last week. The idea behind aggregation is that individual news organizations can achieve comparative advantages and that the entire information economy can function more efficiently if the news organization links to reliable information from bloggers, sources and other news organizations rather than replicating the information with its own take.

But aggregation isn’t free. You can either automate it, which might cost a newsroom $25,000 to $100,000 in up-front costs, plus constant tweaking of the algorithms and processes that gather, organize and automatically publish news stories from external sources. Or, you can put humans and their infinitely superior cognitive flexibility on the task.

But what does that cost? Based on some estimates I’ve put together based on conversations at ONA:

* It takes an average of 8 minutes for a news producer to read a blog post or news story, write a summary and categorize it by location and subject.
* Based on a VERY limited sample that desperately needs further research, you can estimate pulling in one blog post per week for every 4,500 people in your market. (Please send me any data you have that would help me solidify this number.)

In my home market of Raleigh-Durham, which has about 1.5 million people, aggregating local content might take about one full-time position and cost a news organization maybe $35,000 a year plus benefits.

How does that match your experience with aggregation? What am I missing?

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The List: Quotes and Notes From TBD.com at ONA ‘10

Written by Ryan Thornburg October 30, 2010 2:55 am EDT 1 comment

Having a pithy quote or an insightful stat is key to being a good panelist at a conference. TBD.com’s Jim Brady and Erik Wemple have both in spades, so it was good to open on the Online News Association conference with a session on their new Web site. Here in List form, are the best insights from the panel.

1. Jim Brady, on the need for diverse revenue streams for digital news media: “There’s no silver bullet, there’s shrapnel.”

2. Erik Wemple, on the importance of linking to other news sources: “With 12 reporters and 5.3 million people in our market, our editorial vision is smoke and mirrors.” (Note to self: I haven’t seen anyone ask TBDers about how much risk they see in incumbent media orgs putting their news behind pay walls. They must have calculated that either the odds of that happening are pretty low or that the impact on revenue wouldn’t be a company killer.)

3. Wemple, expanding on the editorial vision of the site: “We want to be a place where, if you hear a siren, you go to #tbd and you find out what’s wrong.” (That news sensibility speaks to TBD’s legacy partner, the local news channel formerly known as Newschannel 8. It does, at least at first blush, seem to ignore anything that’s not event-based news.)

3. Brady, on selling local ads: The biggest challenge in local advertising is getting business online. TBD is developing service models, network models and Paper G to help bridge that gap. A quarter to a third of the blogs that TBD aggregates participate in its ad network.

4. TBD aggregates 196 blogs from the Washington area. This includes professional media, amateur media, and corporate, government and non-profit organizations. That one blog for every 27,000 people in TBD’s market. I wonder what is the smallest market size that could sustain an operation like TBD? It seems to me that this indicates a roll for news organizations in medium-sized markets to cultivate local bloggers to reach some minimal threshold that would make aggregation useful. I also wonder what the typical blog-to-person ratio is a typical media market? (Calling all grad students. There’s a good research question for you.)

5. The panel of TBDers recounted the news organization’s coverage of its first big breaking news story. Bloggers in TBD’s network as well as the site’s general audience provided important eyewitness accounts of the scene. This anecdote illustrated two important elements of crowd sourcing: First, that crowds are best at stenographic journalism — they are good at supplying answers to the who, what, when and where question when those answers come from immediate observation of events or documents. That means that crowds are relatively efficient at feeding editors information during breaking news, especially stories that develop across a broad geographic all at once. Second, that if you want to use crowd sourcing when news breaks you have to develop relationships with your audience BEFORE news breaks. Anyone whose ever cultivated a source knows that means a lot of chit-chat that appears to have nothing to do with the news value of the source. Same on social media.

6. Wemple, on the power of fertile failure: “If you have a Web site that doesn’t have something terrible on it, you’re not trying hard enough.”

7. TBD social media producer Mandy Jenkins, on ignoring your critics: “”In the age of social media, that’s something we can’t do anymore.” (More of her thoughts here.)

8. Steve Buttry re-counted his tale of interviewing Jenkins for the job. It was a good reminder that journalism job candidates who display curiosity always move their resumes to the top of the pile. In online media, this means your ability to show that you try to hack devices and services just to see how they might be able to solve a problem other than the one their developers intended them to solve.

9. Jenkins, raising suspicion that she may be the Mike Allen of TBD, said she has 22 Tweetdeck columns, follows about 200 feeds and that “We follow anyone who’s ever given us a tip.” (Note to journalism grad students looking for a academic research question: It would be very interesting to see whether news Twitter accounts with high follow/follower ratios yield significantly different levels of trust or relevance among the audience.)

10. TBD.com’s corporate parent anticipates the site to take about as long as its sibling, Politico, to become profitable. That took about three years. So, a note to the laid-off reporters and editors who’ve called me with dreams of starting your own news site to compete with your former employer — Step 1: Gather up three years of operating costs…

11. Writing brief, smart, newsy lists without an editor… is hard. Perhaps something we could be teaching our students.

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Sex With Me and Porn on YouTube

Written by Ryan Thornburg October 29, 2010 9:17 am EDT No comments

I met yesterday with two old friends who work at two news organizations in Washington, D.C., where the Online News Association annual conference is being held. I asked both about what had been their big online stories and what was driving traffic to their sites. One said that the biggest story of their year was about porn on YouTube. The other said his site’s most trafficked story was about “sex with me”.

So what?

To me, it highlights two trends — the audience is control and is much more difficult to force feeds its civic vegetables. And that having a well-designed homepage, while important, isn’t as important as writing water cooler stories.

One of the news organizations said that they had noticed a lot of traffic on stories about pot. And that definitely played in to their conversations about what to cover.

As the news environment gets more and more competitive and news organizations get more sophisticated, the pressure to cover sex, drugs and rock and roll is only going to increase.

How is your organization balancing that with journalistic ethics? How are you teaching the ethics of these situations?

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Triangle’s Media Ecosystem Needs Tributaries and Mainstream

Written by Ryan Thornburg October 14, 2010 9:16 am EDT No comments

Sitting next to News & Observer editor John Drescher last Friday during a forum about the Triangle’s media landscape, I had to feel a bit sorry for him. Of the nearly 20 representatives of news media in the region, he was the most prominent representative of the mainstream media and drew all the fire from the bloggers, entrepreneurs, do-gooders and pontificators who had him easily outnumbered and whose smaller organizations had often beaten his Goliath newsroom on important stories.

But I also envied Drescher. He was also the only one at the table who had ever dropped $200,000 of his company’s money on an investigation of a state agency. And the only one who knew what it was like to spend four years pinging the government for public records before he had a story solid enough to sell to his subscribers and advertisers.

One other thing made Drescher an enviable character in the Triangle’s media ecosystem. Despite their valid criticisms of increasing gaps in The News & Observer’s coverage of our communities many noted without irony in their voices, the small, independent and non-profit news operations had the most impact on public policy when they got the attention of Drescher’s paper or one of the local television stations.

And that made me realize that if our state is going to retain its generation-long reputation as a home for journalism that gives voice to the voiceless and holds powerful people accountable, then we must find a way to foster dozens of new and diverse tributaries of news and information that flow into the big, slow-moving mainstream media. Without the tributaries, the MSM seems likely to evaporate entirely. Without a larger channel into which they can empty, the tributaries seem likely to overwhelm us with a flood of disconnected datapoints.

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Twitter Fundraising: Lessons I Learned

Written by Ryan Thornburg October 4, 2010 9:30 pm EDT 1 comment

One of the reasons I remain bullish on social media and the read/write web is my continued hope is that it will lead to an increasing diversity of voices as well as a renewed sense of personal ownership of the First Amendment. So when UNC’s celebration of First Amendment Day rolled around last week, it was a good opportunity for me to play around with Twitter’s capacity to raise money for fun and/or profit.

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Welcome to JOMC 491: Public Affairs Reporting for New Media

Written by Ryan Thornburg August 6, 2010 12:53 pm EDT No comments

With only a few weeks left before the start of the fall semester, I wanted to quickly give registered and prospective students a little bit of an idea about what we’ll be doing in Public Affairs Reporting for New Media this semester. Seats are still available, so act now!

The goal of the class will be to develop a new online editorial product for the newspapers in Whiteville and Washington, N.C., that will help them provide be a comprehensive and highly engaging source of news and information for their communities. (Perhaps something like Everyblock.com)

So, the first thing to know about the class is that you will be expected to go to those cities — both about 2.5 hours from Chapel Hill — at least once and probably more during the semester. I’ll pick up the tab for your trips, but you will need to arrange your own transportation and schedule.

The reason we’ll be working with these two towns is that they are part of a larger effort being led by Knight journalism professor Penny Abernathy and funded by The McCormick Foundation (founding family of The Chicago Tribune) aimed at helping small newspapers make a financially sound transition to a digital economy.

So do you need to know anything about computer programming, or media economics or news reporting and editing? Not really, but you’ll probably be much better off if you’ve had exposure to at least one of those topics. If you haven’t then you’ll need to rely on your own curiosity, self-motivation and time commitment to ensure your success and happiness in the course.

The class is going to be structure probably unlike any other class you’ve taken at Carolina. First, it has the experiential service-learning component. That means less reading and note-taking from lectures. It means more class discussion and hands-on group projects. My goal is for this class to teach you — as much as anything else — how to clearly articulate and creatively solve messy, complex real-world problems. To do that, we’ll be using the context of improving public affairs reporting for the people of North Carolina by using new digital news tools and concepts.

What will you do in the class?
The first half of the class will be an introduction to the problem with the second half focused on trying out different solutions. In class, we’ll be discussing articles, brainstorming and prototyping (making models that can give us a better idea of how people might use our website). Outside of class, you’ll be keeping a 2x/week blog of reflections, reading articles, and working in groups to figure out what barriers stand in our way of building a great site and then figuring out for yourself how you will overcome those barriers. I promise to be your guide.

How will you be graded?
30% – You’ll launch your own blog and update it twice a week. Some weeks I will give you specific assignments (write a descriptive report about Whiteville, discuss the readings, etc.) but most of the time you’ll simply write about your experiences.

30% – Prototyping. In many classes, you may have been asked to write or create one big final project that demonstrates your knowledge of what you learned. But in this class, you’ll practice the art of “fertile failure” — trying a lot of ideas, making a lot of mistakes and learning from them. You will be rewarded for failing fast and failing smart. We will use everything from toothpicks to MySQL to build our prototypes. You’ll start by using the materials with which you’re comfortable and end the semester by using tools that terrified you just three months earlier. These will be different tools for each student.

30% – Participation. Come to every class with a lot of questions, fulfill your service obligation, participate in online discussions outside of class.

10% – Data management and public records assignments. A big part of our prototyping and brainstorming will be around how to obtain public records and make them useable in an online database. You’ll have a few projects to get you familiar with the basics of the technology and issues surrounding this topic.

I hope that gives you a rough idea of the class. I’ll be posting a full syllabus and calendar soon. But in the meanwhile, enjoy the rest of your summer and let me know if you have any questions.

Best,
Ryan

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What’s the Demand for Downballot News?

Written by Ryan Thornburg May 5, 2010 1:33 pm EDT No comments

One of the partners for my Public Affairs Reporting for New Media class this semester was the N.C. Center for Voter Education, long known for its efforts to change the way judges are elected in North Carolina as well as the voting guide it creates in partnership with UNC-TV. That voting guide was the first place I turned for information on candidates in yesterday’s statewide primary for seats on the Court of Appeals. I just presumed that no newspaper had covered the race.

But you know what happens to you and me when you assume things, so I checked it out. Turns out I was mostly right. I’m going to put together a summary of information that got reported about this race, but it got me wondering about this question: How much information – and what kind – of information do North Carolinians need about downballot statewide primary races? Are they getting? From where? Or why not?

After all, if journalism’s worth saving it’s only because of the impact it has on public life. I’ve long been curious about the connection between information and citizen participation. The presumption – not always right, as Samuel Popkin and Michael Schudson might tell you – is that the more information voters have the “better decisions” they will make.

A little more than 700,000 people voted in those races. Some of them might have wanted more information than others? How many had enough? How many would have changed their votes if they had had different information?

And, if we can figure out who needs this information – and what information they need – is there any business model that gets it to them? Do we need independent reporting on downballot races like this or is informing voters the job of the State Board of Elections and the candidates themselves?

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Future Journalists’ Take on the Future of News

Written by Ryan Thornburg May 3, 2010 2:54 pm EDT No comments

Students in my Public Affairs Reporting for New Media class this spring worked with four community partners — WUNC radio, N.C. Center for Voter Educaiton, OrangePolitics.org and N.C. Data — to see what the future of news might look like in a world outlined by Leonard Downie and Michael Schudson in their “Reconstruction of American Journalism” post.

Among several good final memos from students, was this one by Ashley Lopez, who astutely notes that solutions that may work for the preservation of public affairs reporting at the national level might not scale down to the state and local levels where relevant and reliable reporting on government and public life is most needed.

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The Credit Economy?

Written by Ryan Thornburg January 26, 2010 4:53 pm EST 4 comments

I just gave the students in my Public Affairs Reporting for New Media class their first quiz. Overall, not bad. But I have to report this piece of breaking news:

Only 1 out of 16 students said that it was UNethical to “download a photo from the Web server of a blogger, upload it to your server, using it on your site along with credit to the original creator.”

I’m dying to talk with them about this on Thursday to hear more about their rationale. Maybe it says something about how they see bloggers. Maybe it says something about the way they see ownership of content.

What do you think?

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Fertile Failure: Live Blogging Class Discussion

Written by Ryan Thornburg January 14, 2010 9:47 am EST No comments

Updated: 2:51 p.m. ET

Fail fast, fail cheap. Isn’t that what they say? Well, today I did it. My first attempt to live blog a class discussion didn’t work out. But neither did my first attempt to … well, do just about anything…

No matter. Here’s what I learned…

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