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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Lessons From ONA ‘10: What It Takes, Part 1

Written by Ryan Thornburg November 1, 2010 12:45 pm EDT 1 comment

At least three national news organizations approached me at last weekend’s Online News Association conference to see whether I could recommend any students with great news judgment and programming skills. That’s what news organizations are desperate to hire today. Why? Well, as former president George W. Bush will tell you some things — like learning how to program — are just hard work.

Lunch with a friend last week helped me put some numbers on just how hard it is. I was meeting with him so that he could show me the server he set up and the computational journalism he had been doing since we last had a chance to catch up. At heart, he is a writer and a reporter, yearning during our conversation for the chance to do more long-form narrative text stories. But in his newsroom, he is the resident programmer/journalist and has asked by his editors to hire more people like him.

Here’s what it took for him to become “tech savvy.”
* In high school, he took one computer programming class. He didn’t study or use computer programming at all in college. He wrote and edited stories at the campus paper. After graduation, he was hired in jobs as a researcher or blogger.
* During the last two years, he taught himself how to code. He set up his own Ubuntu server, with PHP and MySQL. He learned some ActionScript, JavaScript and XML. He uses Excel, Visual Basic and screen-scraper.com to report stories and build interactive editorial Web applications.
* He works 60 to 75 hours per week.
* He spends 90 percent of his time working with and learning about computer coding.
* It took him two years to get to this point of technical proficiency.
* That is a total of 5,500 hours.

He was not born with the IT chromosome. He did not wish himself to state of savvy. He has clearly been blessed with an incredible brain that was nurtured in an environment that valued education and intellectual curiosity. But that didn’t get him his job. He got his job because. He. Worked. Hard.

Let’s point out how difficult it is to get 5,500 hours of computer time under your belt.
* College students spend about 15 hours a week in class. Good ones will spend another 25 hours reading and working outside of class. That’s 480 hours a semester, 560 hours a year. At that rate, taking ONLY coding classes, you’ll get to 5,500 hours in just under 10 years. Which makes you this guy. Nobody wants to be that guy, so it’s time to accept that editorial programmers are committed to life-long learning.

* Let’s say you knock out a few coding classes in school — 500 hours worth — enough to get hired by a big news organization as a developer. That leaves you with just 5,000 hours to go. Working a standard 40-hour week, you’ll burn through those in 125 weeks. That’s about 2.5 years, after various and sundry holidays, illnesses and vacations.

* Or, maybe you were a good liberal arts student and didn’t blow any of your tuition on coding classes. But your smarts and broad-based knowledge land you a job at one of a very few news organizations that commit seriously to career development. Google spurs innovation with its famous “20 percent time,” which allows its developers to spend a day a week working on projects that are not part of their job descriptions. So, your boss lets you play with computers for one day a week. You’ve got 5,500 hours to make up. And by the time you’re celebrating your 35 birthday you’ll probably be at the point where you can start developing your own editorial applications.

What the conversation with my friend made me realize is why it irks me so much when people come to me saying that they can’t perform some computing taks because they are “technically illiterate” or “not a computer person.” My friend isn’t a computer person. I’m not a computer person either. But we try. We hack our ways through incredibly frustrating failures by simply doing this. And so can you. If you want.

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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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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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Convergence in the Classroom, Metamorphosis in the Newsroom

Written by Ryan Thornburg August 5, 2010 11:14 am EDT 1 comment

“Convergence” has always been my least favorite word to use to talk about newsrooms. Yesterday’s AEJMC conference presentation by John Russial and Arthur Santana reminded me why.

Oh, their presentation was very good. Russial’s research about newsroom technology and roles is always enlightening. But a blog post from Alfred Hermida (who, by the way, is the conference’s best tweeter @Hermida) picked up on the presentation’s use of the word “convergence” and made me realize how broad of a definition that word can have. Hermida’s headline was “AEJMC: Newsrooms slow to move toward convergence” and he goes on to report that “Russial concluded that job specialisation remained the dominant organizing principle, with editors prizing depth rather than breadth.”

On Twitter, the unfortunate headline has been in circulation. I say it’s unfortunate because I think it misrepresents Russial’s presentation in a way that the rest of the blog post does not. My impression was that Russial’s research found that convergence IS happening in newsrooms, but that it is happening at the organizational level rather than at the individual level. He didn’t address whether convergence was happening at the story level.

And if you had to read that last paragraph a few times, you know why I don’t like to use the word convergence.

That said, I think Russial is right about the level at which convergence is happening. His findings are supported by the paper that Ying Du and I presented at the same session and they are supported, too, by an earlier unpublished study I did of online journalists in North Carolina.

The North Carolina study found that, on average, online journalists say they have had nine different duties at least once in the last three months. More often than anything else, a respondent said he or she had five different duties. But it also found that not everyone is doing everything. There is specialization of “new media” skills.

And in the paper we presented yesterday, online journalists said that the concept most important to their job was “multitasking”. (Journalism instructors however, ranked multitasking as seventh out of 10 concept. Leading to the challenging question: How do you teach multitasking?)

I didn’t research this, but I suspect that photographers are also shooting video. Reporters are blogging. Designers are animating. Copyeditors are producing story packages in a CMS. It’s not convergence as much as it is metamorphosis. And we aren’t seeing caterpillars becoming ducks. Not surprisingly, we’re seeing caterpillars becoming butterflies.

There are some roles in the newsroom that AREN’T converging. In the North Carolina survey, journalists who write original stories for the Web, edit text for content, and work with databases tend to perform very few other tasks.

I don’t have enough data to support this, but I also suspect that role convergence is much more likely to take place at small news organizations while specialization (and diversity) of roles is more common at the largest news organizations. And because students tend to start at small organizations and later join large organizations, this distinction is important (if indeed true). Understanding it can help journalism educators better frame the choices they have when dealing with curriculum change.

So, what does that mean for journalism education and curriculum change? I think a few things:

  • Every journalism student should have a basic introduction to a broad variety of skills – writing/editing, reporting, photography/design, computer programming/algorithmic thinking and law/ethics.
  • Journalism students should become proficient in a particular set of concepts and skills that we some define as being similar.
  • “New media” skills should be incorporated into core classes. That means squeezing audio-video information gathering into reporting and design classes. It means that every class should talk about using social media for gathering and distributing news. If there is a specific class in “social media” or “animated graphics” or even “magazine design” or “sports writing” they should be advanced courses that students take after getting a basic introduction to them in earlier classes.
  • The purpose of incorporating new skills and concepts into core classes comes at a cost of spending less time on the traditional skills that are still so valuable. That’s why further specialization is so important.
  • Journalism students should also have a broad education that introduces them to economics, art, history, science, politics and all the rest. And students should also specialize in a subject area. (Again, I suspect that as newspaper staffs shrink that the place where we’ll find the most convergence in beat assignments. At the same time, the brand disloyalty of the online news audience is promoting beat specialization and the development of new niche topical expertise.)
  • The purpose of the broad-based core curriculum – and the reason for including “new media” skills and concepts into those course is to give journalism students the vocabulary and news judgment they need to collaborate with specialists.
  • Finally, as Russial pointed out in his presentation, the adoption of newsroom technology has tended to follow a pattern. First, technology leads to automation. Journalists whose careers are built around their expertise in quickly and accurately performing a rote task and not around thinking creatively and critically will lose their jobs. But then, technology leads to specialization. As new tools become available not everyone can be equally skilled at each one.

Dealing with the unresolved debate over convergence or specialization was one of the biggest challenges of writing my textbook. I dealt with it in a way that supports the solution I’ve begun to outline here: we need both. How’s that for convergence?

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A Lab for ‘The Reconstruction of American Journalism’

Written by Ryan Thornburg January 13, 2010 3:07 pm EST No comments

This week is the first of a new semester in my Public Affairs Reporting for New Media class — a journalism class in which the students must work 30 hours with a community partner over the course of the semester. Our goal this semester — expose the students to all of the journalism models that Len Downie and Michael Schudson outline as potential replacements for a decline in public affairs reporting at newspapers.

This semester, the 18 students in the class will be divided among four partners:

  • the North Carolina Center for Voter Education, a non-profit funded largely by foundation money and private donations;
  • OrangePolitics.org, a liberal blog about local politics run part-time by a single “citizen jouranlist”;
  • N.C. DataNet, a newsletter of from UNC-Chapel Hill’s Program on Public Life, edited by a former News & Observer reporter and opinion editor;
  • a public broadcast outlet here in North Carolina.

If any of these sources will be part of the reconstruction of American journalism, the students in the class will help determine how it’s reconstructed. At the very least, the students will be able to report back to the rest of us more details about what they find in these laboratories of post-newspaper news.

Stay tuned… and add your suggested reading for the class via the Delicious bookmark tag JOMC491-examples-s10.

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News Organizations Should Not Be Online

Written by Ryan Thornburg January 12, 2010 8:24 am EST 6 comments

Monday kicked off a new semester, and I started by challenging the students in my online news production class with this statement: News organizations should not have a Web site.

The statement picks up on a session I led at last summer’s N.C. Press Association’s Newspaper Academy. In a time of tight budgets, news organizations must be focused on delivering their core product, service or experience. Everything they do must be justified — including having a Web site. Unless a news organization can clearly state why they have an online presence, they should drop it.

The students’ responses focused on the Web as a platform for competing on breaking news and for reaching audiences — especially young people — where they are. My goal for the semester is to help them see that online journalism is a wonderful tool for telling more memorable and relevant news stories, and not just about 24/7 distribution.

Make your anonymous argument after the jump — can you articulate a clear, rational, viable reason that your news organization should be online? Or make your public comment for attribution here.

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Examples of UNC’s Online Student Journalism

Written by Ryan Thornburg January 8, 2010 2:25 pm EST No comments

With a new semester about to begin on Monday, I wanted to share some of the work done by some of the students in UNC-Chapel Hill’s JOMC 463: Newsdesk (PDF) class last semester. The assignment was this: Do an online profile of a person or organization using interactivity and multiple media. They were limited by producing the story in a somewhat wonky version of a Drupal-based CMS that I had set up for the class.

The bottom line is this: most of this student work was very good, and it’s important to show industry and other journalism students how we’re preparing the next generation to lead change in newsrooms. Students are young and therefore their work is not perfect, but it can be awfully good. Here are three examples, and the reason that each gives me hope for the future of journalism.

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The One Tool Your Newsroom Needs Right Now: A Failure Form

Written by Ryan Thornburg June 10, 2009 9:50 am EDT No comments

The other day I wrote about the need for newsrooms to encourage experimentation rather than innovation. OK, but how? Here’s one tool you can download right now and use in your newsroom — the Failure Form, to be used by reporters and editors who want to pursue a crazy idea.

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Innovation Isn’t Enough

Written by Ryan Thornburg June 9, 2009 9:47 am EDT No comments

The role of innovation in news has come up in several conversations I’ve had with folks over the last few weeks, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the pursuit of innovation may be fun as all get out, but on its own it does not do enough to move the industry forward. What we need instead of innovation is experimentation.

What’s the difference between innovation and experimentation? Innovation only values success. Experimentation also values failure.

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What I'm reading

  • Writing from Video Exercise 1 hour ago
    These video writing and editing exercises are from the 4th Edition of the Broadcast News Handbook by Charlie Tuggle, Forrest Carr and Suzanne Hoffman.
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  • How to Count Items in a Filtered List in Excel 2010/10/25
  • Relational Databases - Example - Martin Baker 2010/10/16
  • MySQL :: MySQL 5.0 Reference Manual :: 10 Data Types 2010/10/16

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