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.

Introducing the ProPublica Data Store 2.0

We work with data a lot at ProPublica. We request it. We create it. We analyze it. We use it to tell stories. We design with it. We teach with it. We share it. And, since 2014, we’ve been selling it online in the ProPublica Data Store.

Today, we’re relaunching the Data Store, with a complete redesign and new features that make it easier to find the data you’re looking for. As always, the store features free public data that we’ve used in our reporting as well as data sets that we’ve spent significant time and effort on, for which we charge a fee. It also has APIs that let you pull data into your own website and mobile tools.

When we launched the store, it was already true that newsrooms worked with a lot of data. But over the past nearly three years, data journalism has grown in prominence and sophistication in newsrooms across the country. At conferences and over coffee, our colleagues in other newsrooms have asked us two questions about the Data Store.

First, they ask, “Does it work?”

For us, the answer has been “yes.” It’s helped us share the data behind our stories with the public in a more consistent and understandable way. It’s much easier to find our data sets than it was before the Data Store. Unsurprisingly, making the data easier to use helped more people find and use it: free data sets have been downloaded from the site more than 4,500 times since we launched. It’s helped us earn new, meaningful revenue to support our work.

The second question newsrooms ask is “how can we sell our data?”

Starting today, we have an answer to that. We’re inviting other newsrooms to sell the data behind their reporting in the ProPublica Data Store. ProPublica will manage sales, marketing, and fulfillment of any newsroom’s unique data sets that have been cleaned, analyzed, documented and used in published reporting. (We’ll take a percentage of the sales revenue, but our partners keep most of it.)

We’ve already signed up two partners: The New York Daily News and the NICAR Data Library. The Daily News has been working with us since May, when we partnered on a data-driven story about nuisance abatement actions in New York. Starting today, we’re handling sales of NICAR data sets for people who aren’t members of Investigative Reporters and Editors, starting with five of their most popular products.

If your newsroom has data that you think would be a good fit, let us know about it. We’d love to hear from you.

ProPublica will also offer Data Store customers more custom data services through the NICAR data library. Custom data runs, which were sometimes available upon request for commercial customers, will now be an easier, faster, and more widely available part of the process.

We started the Data Store as a skunkworks project, with borrowed developer time and software put together on the quick. We didn’t know how or even if it would work. The past two years have given us insight on how customers 2014 journalists, researchers and even commercial research firms 2014 can put our data to good use past its life in our stories. We’ve put what we’ve learned into our store’s relaunch.

Let us know how you like the changes by email or in the comments below.

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter.


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

On Metrics

I’ve been thinking about metrics lately. I mean, forever. But especially lately. A couple of items.

1. Nose smudges not numbers.

Airport museum curators face different pitfalls—and different possibilities—from those at conventional museums. Garfield does play to a built-in audience (93,000 people move through the airport on an average day), but he seldom knows how much that audience cares. “One way to tell is by talking with the custodians,” he says. “They tell me how many smudges they have to clean off the glass.”

2. Rethinking metrics in solving the diversity and inclusion problems in tech.

There exists a prevailing attitude that being explicit about the type of person a company wants to hire will lead companies to select people who are underqualified in order to satisfy a metric or tick a checkbox. But, like any other product or problem you’re trying to hack, there should be some cursory idea of what success looks like, and a product oriented, metrics-driven approach dictates the necessary process.

3. Caitlin Petre’s excellent overview research on the impact of metrics on newsrooms. Metrics and culture matter.

Most journalists are too busy with their daily assignments to think extensively or abstractly about the role of metrics in their organization, or which metrics best complement their journalistic goals. As a result, they tend to consult, interpret, and use metrics in an ad hoc way. But this data is simply too powerful to implement on the fly. Newsrooms should create opportunities—whether internally or by partnering with outside researchers—for reflective, deliberate thinking removed from daily production pressures about how best to use analytics.


“Everyone would love to have YouTube-style metrics. But the measurement of podcasting is really not that much worse than any other medium; we just don’t have a single source that everyone endows with some sort of holy status.” — Erik Diehn, Midroll

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

On Art and Journalism

1. “Alabama Media Group’s first artist-in-residence goes beyond text to explore the culture of the South,” Laura Hazard Owen, Nieman Lab.

“By creating a new kind of role in a media company, I hope to open our doors to talented storytellers who feel limited by journalistic convention and want to push deeper into the heart of creating compelling work, period.”

So much to chew on in this simple statement. 

2. Tali Weinberg’s Drought Portraits.

A longtime friend of mine, Tali’s work often addresses challenging social issues and has more than once given me new lenses with which to think about the world. I recently had a chance to see her woven interpretations of data about California’s drought — complete with spreadsheets! — at an open studios event in Berkeley. It’s a relatively young project, and I’m looking to see how the works evolve, given some of the conversations we had. 

2015-06-06 15.55.07

3. Listening to data.

When I was reporting on how makerspace members are tackling sustainability challenges, Bilal Ghalib shared an audio portrait of car bombing data that he’d made and talked about how hearing the data helped him really connect to the issue and get inspired to act. I love that, and I think audializations (cf visualizations?) are a really interesting technique for engaging people with information. Here are three things I’ve seen recently.

Listen to Wikipedia.

Listen to the microbiome.

Listen to Bitcoin.

I think the implications and applications of this are very interesting. How can we use sound to enhance our information environment? 

BONUS: When I was in New York, recently, I went on a walking tour with the City as Living Laboratory. The walks pair an artist with a scientist to explore small neighborhoods and share different ways of seeing. I loved the walk I went on and would highly recommend them to others.

Let us all now lament automation

I’m working on a piece about “robot journalism” this week. As I was driving along California highways, listening to the country station, yesterday, I heard Miranda Lambert’s nostalgia gem, “Automatic” on the radio. So, a quick triptych on the subject:

1. Miranda Lambert, “Automatic”

My favorite part is its bizarre use of the Polaroid as a standard of a bygone era of delayed gratification. It’s on roughly about as solid ground as the next two items.

2. Nicholas Carr, “The Great Forgetting,” which ran in The Atlantic in Novemeber 2013, and foreshadowed his book, “The Glass Cage: Automation and Us.” Both are full of excellent, scary visions of how automation rots our cognitive capabilities.

Whether it’s a pilot on a flight deck, a doctor in an examination room, or an Inuit hunter on an ice floe, knowing demands doing. One of the most remarkable things about us is also one of the easiest to overlook: each time we collide with the real, we deepen our understanding of the world and become more fully a part of it. While we’re wrestling with a difficult task, we may be motivated by an anticipation of the ends of our labor, but it’s the work itself—the means—that makes us who we are. Computer automation severs the ends from the means. It makes getting what we want easier, but it distances us from the work of knowing.

3. Evgeny Morozov’s review of that book, for the Baffler, pokes holes in some of the hand-wringing conclusions of that text. I find it both delightful and infuriatingly blind to its own flaws — despite what seems to be a serious attempt to point them out — in equal measure.

Even if Nicholas Carr’s project succeeds—i.e., even if he does convince users that all that growing alienation is the result of their false beliefs in automation and even if users, in turn, convince technology companies to produce new types of products—it’s not obvious why this should be counted as a success. It’s certainly not going to be a victory for progressive politics (Carr is extremely murky on his own). Information technology has indeed become the primary means for generating the kind of free time that, in the not so distant past, was at the heart of many political battles and was eventually enshrined in laws (think of limits on daily work hours, guaranteed time off, the free weekend). Such political battles are long gone.