Local News Needs Local Conversations — Nieman Lab

My contribution to the annual Nieman Lab predictions roundup focused on the what the expansion of reader revenue models means (and doesn’t) for local news outlets:

“As 2019 approaches, anxiety about the future of the local press continues unabated. In most conversations about the fate of metro and local news media, the platforms’ near-total takeover of digital advertising comes in for the largest share of the blame. The recent push towards subscription and donation revenues at news organizations has given new hope to many local and niche news producers.

But will subscriptions alone be enough to save local news? I suspect they won’t.

One of the big reasons people subscribe to media is to participate in the conversation that others are having. Newspapers of yore tapped into FOMO well before we had such a handy name for it. Most people don’t consume news because they want to be more informed about the news; they want to be informed about the news that they’re likely to talk about.”

Read the full piece.

After Electionland

For the past several months, I’ve been working on Electionland, a collaborative journalism project spearheaded by our team at ProPublica, Google News Lab, WNYC, Univision, and USA Today Network papers. Our project aimed to covering ballot access and barriers to voting in the U.S. during the 2016 election.

I helped coordinate the participation of more than 400 reporters in about 250 newsrooms around the country — part of an 1,100 person operation on Election Day.

Last week, my colleague Kate Brown recorded a conversation with me, Scott Klein, and Jessica Huseman about the project. I think it’s a great summary of the work we did and how we’re thinking about large-scale collaboration going forward.

Journalism Innovation On The Business Side — Nieman Lab

Thank god for ad blocking.

Thank god for the handwringing and number-crunching over its impact on digital revenues. Sure, the jury is still out on what exactly that impact will be; but no matter what the future holds, it’s likely the kerfuffle will have one incredibly positive effect on the media landscape in 2016: It will change the conversation about revenue models for media companies.

There has been an enormous amount of creativity in the digital newsroom, with an explosion of new ways of telling stories and presenting information, much of it chronicled here at Nieman Lab. Consumers are spending more time with digital media than ever before, and storytellers are finding myriad new ways to bring news and reporting to life.

Newsrooms now regularly produce interactive and data-driven stories, launch podcasts, and experiment with new, structured formats (like, say, Vox’s card stacks). Longform storytelling is in a serious golden age, email newsletters are better than ever, and short- and long-form video is booming. Distributed content has encouraged new ways of telling stories, too, with journalists crafting content for Snapchat Discover, building Twitter bots, Instagramming photo essays, and chatting with users about elections and disasters on WhatsApp. Given this flurry of creativity, it’s hard to see why these are hard times for journalism.

But as we’ve poured resources and heart into editorial innovations like these, we haven’t yet seen similarly ambitious innovations in how we earn revenue from these things. All too often, we’ve been asking: What kinds of ads would work well in this new format?

In 2016, the ad blocking conversation could finally drive the industry to grapple with the need for new revenue opportunities.

Read more

This was my contribution to Nieman Lab’s 2016 predictions series. Some related predictions that I liked:

The year we start to talk about the business side,” by Amanda Hale

Without a business plan, there is no freedom of the press. That’s a line I keep on my Twitter bio, and pinned under a magnet on my kitchen fridge. It’s attributable to an Arab Spring-era Egyptian publisher, whose truth-to-power newspaper was shuttered not because of totalitarian repression, but simply because it ran out of cash. As an industry, we know far too well by now that news needs a business plan. But who will make it? Who will strike the deals, construct the financial models, and sell the ads that will keep the lights on in foreign bureaus across the world? I think it’s time for us to have that conversation. So let me toss my little penny into this fountain, and make the hopeful prediction that 2016 is the year that we start.

Nationals wake up to the opportunity in local media,” by Ted Williams

Money matters. Local media innovation is as much about the business model as it is about the journalism.

Javier Jaén for Nieman Reports

What Publishers Are Doing About Ad Blocking — Nieman Reports

The first time I installed an ad blocker on my browser was in 2006. I don’t remember how I heard about Adblock Plus, but I do remember feeling a rush of satisfaction as the ads disappeared.

I clicked around the Internet, smugly appreciating the commercial-free space I’d created for myself. But it wasn’t long before I landed on the website for my own employer, the tiny independent magazine Sustainable Industries. When I did, I felt a guilty, sinking feeling. I wasn’t seeing ads there, either, and I knew quite well those ads helped pay my salary.

I uninstalled the plug-in.

For years, publishers argued the same message that convinced me to turn off my ad blocker: Free content isn’t free; it’s subsidized by advertisers, who want to get their messages in front of users. But increasingly, users say, they’re the ones paying for the ads: with their privacy, their patience, and their mobile bandwidth. What they’re not paying with is the currency advertisers would most like them to spend: their attention. Instead, they’re tuning out ads or turning them off entirely.

In June 2015, an estimated 198 million Internet users around the world were blocking ads, up from 39 million in January 2012. Those data points come from the most recent annual trend report produced by anti-ad blocking software maker PageFair. The report estimates that 6 percent of global Internet users, and 16 percent of those in the U.S., were actively using ad blocking by June 2015.

These aren’t big numbers—yet. But PageFair estimates that global ad blocking grew 41 percent in the past year, and even faster in the U.S. and U.K. Apple’s recent approval of the sale of ad blockers for Safari on iOS 9 opened the door for mobile ad blocking and boosted the visibility of ad blockers, generally. It’s likely to accelerate the trend.

The growth of ad blocking is a risk for digital media, because it threatens to slash revenues publishers can ill afford to lose. Shrinking revenues and tighter margins are pervasive across the industry, pinched in part by the failure of growth in digital income to offset loses among traditional channels. “This is not the time to take money away from a publisher, not a single dollar,” says Adam Singolda, founder of content-marketing ad network Taboola. “This is not a good time to say, ‘Oh, it’s just 5 percent of your revenue.’”

Publishers’ response to ad-blocking users has been almost entirely punitive. Some try to block ad-blocking users from seeing the content on their sites, while others encourage ad-blocking users to whitelist their sites with ad-blocking tools, or to contribute funds directly, through subscriptions, donations, or one-time payments. However, some publishers are saying “mea culpa.”

Read the full article

Illustration by Joe Magee

Automation in the Newsroom — Nieman Reports

Philana Patterson, assistant business editor for the Associated Press, has been covering business since the mid-1990s. Before joining the AP, she worked as a business reporter for both local newspapers and Dow Jones Newswires and as a producer at Bloomberg. “I’ve written thousands of earnings stories, and I’ve edited even more,” she says. “I’m very familiar with earnings.” Patterson manages more than a dozen staffers on the business news desk, and her expertise landed her on an AP stylebook committee that sets the guidelines for AP’s earnings stories. So last year, when the AP needed someone to train its newest newsroom member on how to write an earnings story, Patterson was an obvious choice.

The trainee wasn’t a fresh-faced j-school graduate, responsible for covering a dozen companies a quarter, however. It was a piece of software called Wordsmith, and by the end of its first year on the job, it would write more stories than Patterson had in her entire career. Patterson’s job was to get it up to speed.

Patterson’s task is becoming increasingly common in newsrooms. Journalists at ProPublica, Forbes, The New York Times, Oregon Public Broadcasting, Yahoo, and others are using algorithms to help them tell stories about business and sports as well as education, inequality, public safety, and more. For most organizations, automating parts of reporting and publishing efforts is a way to both reduce reporters’ workloads and to take advantage of new data resources. In the process, automation is raising new questions about what it means to encode news judgment in algorithms, how to customize stories to target specific audiences without making ethical missteps, and how to communicate these new efforts to audiences.

Automation is also opening up new opportunities for journalists to do what they do best: tell stories that matter. With new tools for discovering and understanding massive amounts of information, journalists and publishers alike are finding new ways to identify and report important, very human tales embedded in big data.

Read the full article at Nieman Reports

Who Cares About Magazine Beach?

Magazine Beach is a 15-acre park in Cambridge, Mass. Sandwiched between the Charles River and Memorial Drive, in the shadow of the Boston University bridge, the park is home to a public pool, a nationally renowned boat club, pick-up soccer fields, a fitness area, the historic Powder Magazine building, and more. It was also once a popular public beach, where locals swam in the Charles.

When locals noticed that the historic Powder Magazine building was falling into dangerous disrepair a few years ago, they began a campaign to revitalize the park — fixing up existing buildings, improving the public pool, repairing broken benches, and improving the landscape plan.

As part of a course I’m taking at MIT during my fellowship year, I went to a community meeting to see how the plan is taking shape: if public meetings like these will shape the new plan, who shows up at them, and what do they want? Implicit in this question for me was also the reverse: who’s not there, and whose voices aren’t being heard in the planning process?

Meet the people who attended the meeting, hear what they had to say, and see what you think.

Read the full piece on Medium

The Putah Creek Legacy — Climate Confidential

The 1989 drought put Putah Creek on the map, when its stream ran dry and the neighboring counties went to court.  Today, after $12 million in restoration efforts, there’s water for farmers and for fish — even amid another drought. As more communities face drought conditions, could the Putah Creek success story be repeated?

I worked with Elizabeth Case, a local staff reporter for The Davis Enterprise in Davis, Calif., to take a closer look at the 25-year history of Putah Creek’s transformation and what it means for California. The project was part of Climate Confidential’s Local Edition initiative, which supports in-depth environmental reporting at community media outlets.

Her research took her from the mucky banks of Putah Creek to the musty courthouse archives and even up into the air for some aerial surveying of the creek’s surroundings. After conducting nearly 50 interviews and reviewing hundreds of documents, she found that the restoration efforts have paid off for both Putah Creek and the surrounding communities.

Native fish have made a remarkable comeback, and the surrounding farms and communities continue to support the project. Scientist and lawyers now see the possibility that Putah Creek could help change the way rivers are managed across the state.

The project was one of the first examples of the “natural regime” approach to river restoration. Rather than managing water for the creek according to a regular schedule, the dam that controls Putah Creek’s fate now mimics the natural boom-and-bust cycle of California’s rainy seasons. Using less water overall — but with some well-timed surges that encourage fish to migrate, breed, and ultimately thrive — the project has encouraged a wholesale recovery of the creek’s native fish populations over most of its meandering length.

The remarkable success of the project has scientists looking at whether the success could be repeated around the state. They’ve identified 181 other dams in California where a little water could go a long way for native fish.

Partners, Not Protests — Climate Confidential

How do you get the Chinese government to give you access to its classified environmental data?  Trust, relationships, and a non-confrontational approach to problem solving, according to Charles Bedford, managing director of The Nature Conservancy’s Asia Pacific region. For Climate Confidential’s “War and Peace” issue, I sat down with Bedford to talk about the organization’s peaceful, high-tech approach to conservation and climate change advocacy.  Read it here