Category Archives: journalism

Design thinking towards a new, more engaged journalism

(Cross-posted at the Stanford d.school web site)

Frogtown1

Twenty journalists stand in a small wooded clearing behind a community day care center in St. Paul. There are no deadlines today. No assignments. No “newshole” to fill. Just questions to ask and people to meet in a historically diverse and challenged neighborhood called Frogtown.

The journalists listen intently as residents step forth to talk affectionately of their neighborhood, Frogtown. Soon, the scribes and producers break up into teams and spread out into the community.  It’s gorgeous, 80 degrees, and we’ve got our walking shoes on.

This day-long experiment is part of a larger initiative to combine old-fashioned beat-the-streets reporting with the latest networked technologies. It’s also the latest effort in a budding campaign, early and imperfect, to apply design thinking to journalism. Both are what I hope will become a widespread, concerted response to the disconnections that have imperiled journalism and distanced journalists from the public they serve.
The reality of the modern journalist is, in practice, not that far off from any other cube-farm denizen: Work the phones, stare at your computer, crank out the copy. It’s not a stretch to blame the feed-the-beast, factory model of production for the commodifying of news, rising distrust among the public, a distancing of journalist from community, not to mention thin business models based on cheap traffic instead of rich engagement.

But take a moment and empathize with the modern journalist: She is under extreme pressure to ask questions she knows someone will answer succinctly and by deadline. There’s little time to wonder why, or ask why not, or to ponder the broader question: so what’s really going on. There are shows to produce, stories to write, newsholes to fill. And surely we media consumers’ appetite for the new and novel is voracious. But yet, I suspect that (though they’d have a hard time articulating it if asked) extreme users among us (news junkies, constant listeners and the uninterested and disengaged) suffer from a certain information malnourishment.

So, here’s the design thinking challenge: how might we combine on-the-ground reporting with networked technologies to create awesome, revelatory journalism?

Seems a tall order. But we have the raw materials at hand. For the past seven years, we at American Public Media have been building a new form of journalistic audience engagement known as the Public Insight Network. The PIN, as we know it, is a way of doing journalism, and a way of thinking about journalism. Sources in the Network receive queries from journalists and Public Insight analysts targeted to them based on demographics, past responses, interests, etc. All responses flow into a database, enabling better query targeting down the line. Even seven years old (eons in Internet years), and with 85,000 sources around the world, the PIN is in its infancy. Twelve newsrooms are Public Insight partners, and we expect to have implemented the Network in 30 by the end of the year—with prospects for substantial growth and technical development on the horizon.

With solid, adventurous work here, we can rapidly prototype and iterate new approaches to engagement and news coverage that make the best use ofresources like the Public Insight Network, Hacks/Hackers, and the leadership of newsroom visionaries around the country, to purposefully meander (the design thinker’s drunken walk) towards a new age of engaged journalism.

And then there are news leaders—like design thinking aficionado John Keefe, senior executive producer at WNYC in New York, or Anders Gyllenhaal, editor of the Miami Herald, or Jonathan Weber at the new Bay Citizen, and principals the Knight Foundation, which funds our work as well as hundreds of journalism innovation initiatives around the country—who recognize that engagement is the key to the future of journalism, and who are doing the spadework so that a new/old kind of hyper-engaged journalism can take root. And there are fascinating new ventures like Hacks/Hackers (led by former Stanford Knight Fellow and d.school alumni Burt Herman) and an abundance of barcamps that are bringing journalists and programmers together to dream up new techno-social ventures to create more relevant, enticing forms of journalism.

But the success or failure of this work turns on how we answer a single question: How are we meeting the information needs of people, of citizens, and of our democracy? To adequately and rigorously explore this question, we need to deploy armies of design thinking ninjas to conduct in-depth interviews, to patiently observe people in their native habitats, so we can understand what it is we’re missing from our information diets. What’s the gap between what we say we get from the news, and what we demonstrate that we get from the news by what we do? What deeper set of needs does news serve, and how might we reinvent how we produce journalism to serve those needs? On a societal level, where is the evidence of information gaps, and how might we fill those?

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Harnessing the power of networks for journalism

Cross-posted at The Future of News.

The BBC recently announced it’s telling its reporters to embrace social media, or leave, the latest sign social media are becoming primary means for journalists to gather information.

BBC World Service Director Peter Horrocks explains how social media (read: all new forms of communication, including texting) can lead to strong reportage:

“Classic examples are situations where it is hard to report from. In northern Nigeria, for example, we are using mobile phones which we provided to villages. In each village there is one person who is known as ‘the keeper of the mobile’. This was a way we learnt about a government confrontation with a village about land rights. We looked into that story, and used BBC journalistic rigours to covered that story. Here we simply use social media applying what always has made the BBC World Service strong: holding governments accountable using this news technique. The ‘how’ is changing, and not so much the ‘what’.”

That’s an inspiring example, but doesn’t necessarily point to a wholesale change in journalistic practice (social media was mentioned only once in BBC’s 2009 editorial guidelines, according to The Guardian).

For smart networked journalism to spread, journalists need to completely rethink their default use of novel communications tools and social networks as either a new distribution channels or as a more efficient way to find sources and get quotes.

This is like using Niagara Falls to fill a jug of water. In a recent Harvard Business Review blog post, John Hagel III and John Seely Brown suggest we reconsider traditional networking practices–advice that’s relevant for journalists struggling to come to terms with the explosion in networking and information-sharing technology.

“In the classical networking approach, the game is about presenting yourself in the most favorable light possible while flattering the other person into giving you their contact information. This approach quickly degenerates into a manipulative exchange where the real identities of both parties rapidly recede into the background, replaced by carefully staged presentations of an artificial self. These staged interactions rarely build trust. In fact, they usually have the opposite effect, putting both parties on guard and reinforcing wariness and very selective disclosure.”

Put another way, stop schmoozing and start listening. The corollary for journalists: Stop source-hunting and start discovering.
To this point, here are a few recent examples of Facebook posts by news organization seeking sources for stories:

“Looking to interview people in the greater DC/MD/VA area who have switched from a national bank to a local community bank. If this applies to you and you’d like to share your story, please tell us about it in the comments. Thanks!”
“Looking to interview a married couple in which the wife has more education and a higher income than her husband. If you are both willing to talk about how it affects the dynamics of your marriage, please tell us a bit about yourself. Ideally, we are seeking couples ages 30-44.”

These are the sort of garden variety journalistic queries that, prior to social media, were often passed around newsrooms (including ours) with a solicitation that usually begins: “Do you know someone who …?”

The subtext: We already know what the story is and only need help fleshing it out.

The pressure to produce forces journalists to quickly narrow their objectives. But if we can resist for a moment the drumbeat of looming deadlines and admit that we don’t know what the story is, then we’re closer to harnessing the true potential of networks and social media: to answer questions and satisfy curiosity.

If you approach social media to explore and discover, you will naturally seek out experiences that enable substantive, quality exchanges and active listening. You will likely find that your initial question missed a more salient point, or that there was a more interesting story that you didn’t even think to consider.

Much as I use and value Twitter and Facebook for journalism, there’s a great deal of room for more and better tools and experiences that enable knowledge-sharing. As Hagel and Seely Brown put it, “In this world, it is not who you know, but what you learn from, and with, who you know.” New tools and a shift in our approach to networking will open up vast and largely untapped reservoirs of tacit knowledge and information–helping us understand how things really work.

Here’s a recent example that might help highlight the difference. To mark the return of thousands of National Guard soldiers, the MPR newsroom planned a series on the challenges of reintegration, and assigned reporters to formulate story pitches. The idea generation and pitch process tends to be a solitary exercise: lone reporter hunts for leads and info, sketches out a story idea, pitches it to the editor and seeks approval. The reporter gathers enough information to gauge the viability and feasibility of the story — but the bulk of the reporting begins after the editor accepts the pitch.

The hitch is that, once the pitch has been accepted, the reporting process can easily become an exercise in source-finding and quote harvesting. This can and often does yield good journalism. But it might not get at underlying and possibly critical issues, or build lasting trust with sources.

In this particular case, our Public Insight team was activated from the outset to seek insights from sources in the Public Insight Network and beyond to address the question: What happens when our troops come home?

Within a few days, we heard from several people who work with veterans in rural areas. They told our Public Insight analyst that the VA had stopped contracting with rural service providers, opting instead to centralize care at their facilities, forcing rural veterans to drive further to get care they might be reluctant to seek out in the first place. That led to this story from MPR News reporter Tom Robertson about the challenge vets face getting care in rural areas.

We could have uncovered that story by a more traditional approach to networking and reporting. But we may not have. What’s clear is that, because we were genuinely open, networking online became an act of exploration and learning, not of searching and finding. It’s a subtle but profound difference.

Rebecca, overload & the future of journalism online

Ame Otoko, Akihabara "My Brain is Full," July 9, 2009, Creative Commons Attribution

Ame Otoko, Akihabara "My Brain is Full," July 9, 2009, Creative Commons Attribution

I had the privilege of spending last year at Stanford as a John S. Knight Fellow, focusing on innovation and change in journalism. I spent a great deal of time at Stanford’s d.school, where I helped create a class called Redesigning Journalism. We brought together students from across the university to break down our assumptions about what journalism is, and build prototypes to express what it might become.

My team (consisting of myself, a Stanford MBA student and undergrad, and another Knight Fellow) designed for the millennials — digital natives who have access to more information than any generation in history, but also feel like they have little control over their information intake. (Read the Associated Press’ fascinating and important study of younger news consumers.)

We interviewed/observed many Stanford students and other millennials, and quickly learned that, while being a serious news consumer was a shared value for many, there was a strong tendency to feel that news on the internet was by turns boring, violent and depressing.

Instead, they gravitated towards content that “caught their eye” and gave them a feeling of empathy and connection to the rest of the world (sites like The Sartorialist). Building from that insight, we designed a prototype for a new way of consuming the news we dubbed “NewsZen.”  We envisioned a new cadre of “News DJ’s” who would take raw evidence of news events (video, artifacts, photos, etc.) and remix them into an immersive experience of world news that day/week/month.

The core idea behind NewsZen is this: To deliver journalism to audiences online, you need to connect emotionally first in order to create a pathway to the intellect. In other words: Help people feel something, and they’ll stick around to think.

That’s an insight I think is helpful to keep in mind as we attempt to design an enticing and informative online journalism experience, not just for younger audiences, but for all of us feeling enervated, thinned out, and overloaded by the sheer volume of information we are bombarded with online.

For more, see Economist correspondent Andreas Kluth’s chronicle of our project  and San Jose Mercury News’ Columnist Chris O’Brien’s.

Engagement is the key

Every day I’m more convinced that the key to the future of journalism online is engagement. The latest evidence is a piece by Columbia J-School’s Bill Grueskin taking issue with the “HuffPo’s stealing our lunch money!” case put forward by aggregator haters. Grueskin concludes:

“The value of advertising online ought to be measured more by engagement than by sheer numbers, that is, more by metrics like time spent or page views per user than by the sheer number of people coming to the site, many of whom may not assign any value to the journalists who generated the content.”

There’s a strong case to be made that the real problem facing online journalism is a lack of unique content, and a lack of focus about the content being served up. A surfeit of essentially commodified content leads to thinner, more ephemeral engagement, and thus lower CPM’s. Rich, distinctive content leads to deeper engagement, and higher CPM’s.

So stop bitching about aggregators, and focus on using the unbelievably powerful tools at at our disposal (public insight networks, search, visualization, etc.) to create journalism that surprises, delights and informs people so powerfully that they’ll spend an hour on your site with you.

Overload revisited

What is it about the news online that is so depressing? So much stuff. So few opportunities for deep engagement. Artless video, a river of tweets, maddening pre-roll ads before videos, slapped together photo essays. Well crafted thoughtful journalism is out there, to be sure. But I’m afraid it’s become as rare as a good tomato in December.

I’m reminded of a fine article from the Columbia Journalism Review by Bree Nordenson, and this passage in particular:

The tragedy of the news media in the information age is that in their struggle to find a financial foothold, they have neglected to look hard enough at the larger implications of the new information landscape—and more generally, of modern life. How do people process information? How has media saturation affected news consumption? What must the news media do in order to fulfill their critical role of informing the public, as well as survive? If they were to address these questions head on, many news outlets would discover that their actions thus far—to increase the volume and frequency of production, sometimes frantically and mindlessly—have only made things more difficult for the consumer.

And so, as I head back to work at American Public Media next week, I’ll return with missionary zeal to put the customer first. If we can’t give a strong answer to the question “Why do people need this?” then we shouldn’t do it. More information isn’t always better. Sometimes it’s worse. If information lacks context, and we don’t craft it in a way that it can lock in to people’s minds, then we’re doing our audience a disservice.

Let’s collectively snap from our industrial, assembly-line, feed-the-beast mindset, get back to our workbenches and hammer out journalism that matters to people. Stories that raise hackles, turn heads, spur a response. We owe it to the people we serve. And, hell, we owe it to ourselves. It’s a lot more fun to create really excellent journalism than it is to shovel more commodified content into the maw of the all-consuming news beast.

From search to discovery

We are in the middle of a shift, from an age where Google and others enabled us to quickly search online for things we wanted to know more about, to an age where we are increasingly able to discover the most relevant, delightful and useful information–even when we aren’t sure how to search for it. This shift is in large part a shift in costs: from the sender to the consumer. Senders used to pay to reach us. Now they can do so instantaneously and virtually for free, so the costs have shifted to us, the receivers, creating more demand for tools that help us find signal in the noise of the Internet.

So says Andreas Weigend, former Chief Scientist at Amazon and currently a lecturer at Stanford and UC Berkeley in this video.

It may seem like a subtle shift, but it involves a different set of rules; a new physics, if you will.

The age of search required new and sophisticated ways to tell computers what it was we were looking for, and to be served up a huge range of possibly relevant, possibly irrelevant, content. Now search is ubiquitous.

But we are now overwhelmed with choices of content, and are left to sift and filter through the many possibilities to find the information that serves our needs. This process of sifting and filtering is the search for relevance; and we don’t always know what it is we’re looking for when we’re searching. We are looking to discover something–about the world, about ourselves.

Whereas algorithms ruled in the age of search, Weigend says the new age of discovery requires a different set of rules. Those rules, he argues, can be formulated when the system (be that Google, content providers, or our friends on Facebook) knows more about us. The age of discovery, he says requires that those hoping to facilitate the search for relevance find powerful ways to convince people to share personal data that then allows us to serve up more relevant content.

So we must now understand what compels people to share personal data. Weigend says it’s the desire to spread memes and genes.

I believe that, whereas algorithms ruled in the age of search, human values such as trust, empathy and credibility will rule in this new age of discovery.

We must build trust so people feel comfortable sharing personal data with us; be credible so that when we use that personal data people see that we’re doing so towards a valuable end; and show empathy by serving people’s deeply held needs, creating deeper engagement that leads to deep focus and attention.

And it’s in that last measure, the degree to which people reward us with their attention, that we’ll understand whether or not we’ve succeeded.

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A ray of hope

There’s good news for journalism this morning: An exciting new project out of the Center for Investigative Reporting to “to produce in-depth multimedia journalism specific to California and to engage the public on issues of critical importance to the state.”

I like the sounds of it, not just because it will give journalists jobs, but also because the project sounds like exactly the sort of innovation that we need: in-depth, connect-the-dots, multimedia journalism that uses the best tools available to engage citizens and hold the government accountable.

When everything else is being chopped up for feeds and tweets, we need now more than ever projects that strive for context and depth over immediacy and ubiquity.

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The future of journalism: Shoots and ashes

New shoots from the ashes

I had the great privilege of being one of about 40 leaders from journalism, foundations and academia in attendance at a two-day nonprofit media conference hosted by Duke University’s Sanford Institute of Public Policy. Several stalwarts of old and new  journalism were there (Len Downie and Phil Bennett formerly of the Washington Post both now heading to academia; ProPublica Managing Editor Stephen Engleberg; Peter Osnos, now with Public Affairs formerly with the Washington Post; Penelope Muse Abernathy, formerly of the New York Times; Chuck Lewis, founder of the Center for Public Integrity now at American University; Joel Kramer of MinnPost; Margie Freivogel from the St. Louis Beacon, etc.), along with folks from the Knight Foundation, Surdna, McCormick Tribune and a few community foundations.

Journalism crisis as natural process
Journalists are fond of metaphors to make the complex simple. One metaphor pervaded the sessions at Duke: the crisis in journalism as forest fire. It seemed a colorful and appropriate metaphor. But it quickly acquired meme-like potency. It occurred to me that the forest fire may be the perfect metaphor for what’s happening in journalism, and may also contain the directions for how we should think about the future of the business.

If we think of journalism as an industry whose existence is foreordained and everlasting, then the appropriate metaphor for what’s happening might be the apocalypse. We would do everything in our power to save it as we know it. But if you think of journalism as an ecosystem, produced by organisms for the general welfare of our species and our planet, then you immediately accept a natural cycle of life, decay, death and rebirth. To think otherwise would be to defy the natural order of things.

Once you think of journalism as an ecosystem (a word used again and again during the sessions at Duke) then you quickly understand that there’s built into it a food chain, a system of symbiosis and competition, of demise and regeneration. Forest fires burn down the big old trees, but the ashes provide rich nutrients for new growth. So it is in journalism. There are new shoots already emerging (ProPublica, MinnPost, St. Louis Beacon, Voice of San Diego) and there are many that have yet to emerge or are just being conceived.

There are some initiatives to send in fleets of cargo planes full of water and fire retardant by creating a National Endowment for Journalism (more on that later this month), or to otherwise get the government involved in preserving the industry, because it seems that the market will fail to do so. There was a fair amount of discussion about whether America could ever support a system like Britain’s or Canada’s that would levy some sort of tax or fee to create a fund for government-sponsored journalism. That, of course, is anathema to the “Don’t Tread on Me” teabag crowd and maybe many others still, and one could only imagine that any such effort would meet ferocious opposition. Not to say that there’s not merit in the idea, only that it probably ain’t going to fly in this country like it did in the UK or Canada.

And if, like me, you believe that this country possesses a limitless reservoir of innovative energy, then government sponsorship of media doesn’t seem like the most productive way to unleash that energy. What we need are many people trying many things. To do that, we need adventurous funders who aren’t afraid to give a little water and light to a seedling that might not make it, knowing that if you cultivate enough of them, the forest will return–and probably healthier and more diverse than it was before.

The driver’s seat, cont.

Eric, the car service driver mentioned in my earlier post, sent me an email in response to one I sent him. I quote it here verbatim:

“In thinking about your work it occurred to me that when  people are involved in news they become more empowered and engaged. This new level of engagement is one of the prerequisites for us to be a player in a globalized world. It seems this new level of involvement might be helpful in addressing societal issues such as gang violence, teen “coming of age” challenges. As your program expands there maybe some data management issues. I think the days of a wad of pulp landing on or near one’s property (90% headed for recycle bin or used to train the puppy) are numbered. Good journalists certainly deserve our admiration and respect. However, great ideas and helpful suggestions can come from anyone.
Hope your meeting was productive. (It’s not easy for doctor to examine himself!)  The fact that your having this meeting gives me hope”

The future of news: In the driver’s seat

The fall of many once stalwart news organizations like the Boston Globe has sparked a panicky sense of urgency around finding models to sustain journalism into the future. But we don’t think clearly when we’re panicking. If we did, we’d be talking less to other journalists and more to people like Eric.

I’m attending a small conclave at Duke University this week put together to explore new models for nonprofit media. I may be the least seasoned of all the luminaries invited (Len Downie from the Washington Post; Chuck Lewis, founder of Center for Public Integrity; MinnPost founder Joel Kramer, and more). I was reflecting on what I could contribute in the car service ride from the airport to the hotel when Eric, the driver, asked me about the state of journalism.

Eric is probably 64 or 65 and possesses a nimble, curious mind. He seems perfectly content in a job that allows him to learn, 15 minutes at a time, from academics, students and the odd journalist riding in the back of his minivan. I shared my boilerplate on the future of news (we have to try lots of things, who knows what the industry’s going to look like, etc.) and then asked him for his take. I know when to shut up and listen. And I wasn’t disappointed.

Eric is an avid news consumer. He reads the Christian Science Monitor and listens to the BBC and NPR (which means he likes what he hears on his local radio station WUNC, and thinks of it all as NPR). He thought for a moment and said, “I like NPR, and if anything I want more of it.” More of what? I asked. Well, you know, he said, “What I find exciting is I guess what you’d call interactivity.” He found it amazing that people like himself, average people who know things, are now able to share with a wider audience.

In this environment, if the media don’t open up, he said (and I paraphrase), there’s a tendency to feel like you’re the smartest one in the room, and that nobody else has anything to offer. Right on.

In simple, homespun logic Eric captured what I’ve seeking to express in five years of building the Public Insight Network, and a year at Stanford thinking about the next generation of that project. “What you’re doing,” he said, “is the only answer I’ve heard that could work.”

I’ve been to a dozen or more journalism conferences, each trying in its own way to address the changes rocking journalism. But not a single one of them has welcomed in the very people we are meant to be serving. People like Eric. So this week it’s my job to make sure Eric has a seat at the table.

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