The New Journalism Mosaic

Last week’s launch of The Bay Citizen, a San Francisco journalism non-profit that will, among other things, feed The New York Times’ Bay Area report, adds one more piece to a journalism mosaic that’s increasingly experimental, entrepreneurial and, dare I say, hopeful.

It’s pretty amazing, really, to see what’s emerged over the last several years. It’s the antithesis of journalism pre-1995.

Back then, news reporting mostly came in five basic flavors: newspaper, radio, TV, magazine, book. Now, enabled by technology, forced by the economy and in recognition of core declines, journalism’s finding a way forward in smaller, independent ways:

  • Non-profits spinning up to handle investigative or regional journalism. ProPublica, with its recent Pulitzer, is one of the most prominent. But there’s also California Watch (from the Center for Investigative Reporting), Voice of San Diego, The Texas Tribune, Texas Watchdog and many others.
  • Educators breathing life into investigative journalism, such as those at American University’s Investigative Reporting Workshop.
  • For-profit, web-only journalism startups. Washington, D.C., has the soon-to-launch TBD.com from Allbritton Communications. The Faster Times bills itself as “a new type of newspaper for a new type of world.”
  • Data, maps and stories targeted to the block where you live (Adrian Holovaty’s Everyblock).
  • “Community-powered reporting,” where the public suggests and funds stories (Spot.us).
  • Hundreds or thousands of bloggers and citizen journalists who are writing about their town or street — and organizations that  aggregate or network them.

I call it a hopeful sign, even if some of it’s not brand new. While legacy journalism battles to refashion itself, and lays off thousands of skilled journalists in the process, from the wreckage emerges a hint of a rebirth.

Particularly encouraging: They often focus on investigative journalism or local coverage that’s been the victim of cuts at legacy institutions, and they’re making smart use of data and analytic journalism.

Whether these efforts thrive or fizzle will, I believe, be determined largely by the quality of the content they produce. But their emergence is good news, whether you’re a journalist fresh out of college or one who needs to reinvent yourself 20 years into a career. Or a reader.

Update, June 1, 2010: Check out this list of promising local news sites from Michele McLellan. There’s even more to this mosaic than you might realize.

Save Journalism? It’s The Content, Kids

Out of the 9,000 words in James Fallows’ recent Atlantic piece “How to Save The News,” this quote from Google News creator Krishna Bharat resonated most with me:

“Usually, you see essentially the same approach taken by a thousand publications at the same time,” [Bharat] told me. “Once something has been observed, nearly everyone says approximately the same thing.   …  I believe the news industry is finding that it will not be able to sustain producing highly similar articles.”

During my undergrad journalism studies at Marist, then-professor David McCraw assigned us Timothy Crouse’s The Boys on the Bus — a chronicle of the 1972 presidential election from the view of the reporters covering it. Aside from coming away thinking that R.W. Apple was quite the character, the book introduced me to pack journalism — the tendency for news media to follow one another to the point where they all say mostly the same thing.

It’s this tendency that Bharat — in a world where search engines reveal and aggregate everything written on a topic — finds unsustainable. I agree. It seems to me that:

  • Unique content is a journalism organization’s most valuable currency.
  • Width, depth and quality on a topic builds uniqueness.
  • Uniqueness breeds reader loyalty.
  • No one will pay you for something they can get free elsewhere.
  • Trying to match “the pack” on stories that wire services and others already have covered pulls you away from achieving bullets 1 and 2. So, either find something unique to say or don’t bother.

These hold true whether you’re a blogger or a worldwide brand, whether you’re doing stories, photos, news apps, graphics or databases. Why? Because, as Fallows’ story says, the assumption being made by Google (which seems to be smart) is that people actually are willing to pay for news. But not just anything:

… People inside the press still wage bitter, first-principles debates about whether, in theory, customers will ever be willing to pay for online news, and therefore whether “paywalls” for online news can ever succeed. But at Google, I could hardly interest anyone in the question. The reaction was: Of course people will end up paying in some form—why even talk about it? … The deeper differences [between news orgs and Google] involve Google’s assumptions about what the news business will have to do to “engage” readers again—that is, make them willing to spend time with its printed, online, or on-air products, however much they cost.

If this is true, and I suspect it is, news organizations need to answer a basic question:

What do we have that readers can’t get anywhere else?

Sorting Data in Excel: Simple Analysis

Sorting a data set helps answer a basic question journalists like to ask: “Which ____ has the highest (or lowest) ______?”

Excel (and other spreadsheets such as the open source Calc) make sorting data easy. In fact, I often make sorting my first step when “interviewing” data because it quickly reveals high and low values and often highlights some that may seem questionable.

Let’s work through a simple sort in Excel. I’ll be using Excel 2007, but older versions have similar functions. Start by downloading the file “sorting.xls” and saving it to your computer. Open it and follow along:

1. We have a table of Census data from the 2006-2008 American Community Survey. It shows the median age of the population for each of 79 school districts in Virginia plus the state itself.

We want to know which district has the oldest and youngest populations. Let’s sort it!

2. Click once on one cell anywhere in the table. This will help Excel auto-discover your table in the next step.

Continue…

How I Spent My Summer Furcation

Just finished one week cut off, by force, from the office. It was an unpaid furlough — a common plight for journalists and others whose industries have been hammered by the recession. The financial hit will hurt (more so because the AC in my house and car also picked this week to die), but it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable weeks I’ve had in a while.

No office email, no office phones. Just a week to enjoy my family, feed my soul, fix up things around the house, and keep learning new skills.

So, I:

Hiked to a waterfall: Took a five-mile hike with my family through the Shenandoah National Park to the 86-foot White Oak Canyon falls. The trail, which ascends 1,000 feet over about 2 miles, had us breathing hard. The falls was spectacular, and we ended the day spent but inspired by the beauty.

Planted a garden: Our fourth year as amateur farmers, and each year we understand soil and seeds a little more. Given the time I spend in front of a computer screen, digging in dirt is necessary for emotional health. Watching seeds grow into food connects me to bigger things.

Studied Python: Inspired by hacker-journalists at the annual IRE computer-assisted reporting conference, I’ve jumped head-first into the Linux world with the goal of building apps using Django. After getting Ubuntu set up and finishing the Django tutorial, I decided to step back and study Python, the language Django’s built upon. Aaron Bycoffe responded to a Twitter query and recommended the free How to Think Like a Computer Scientist. Made it through 11 chapters this week and now understand Django a lot better.

Upgraded to Lucid Lynx: Speaking of Linux, my week off coincided with the latest update to Ubuntu. Demand was high and getting the download tough, but I eventually got it rolling. You can’t beat free.

Spent time with friends and family: Really the best part. Lots of laughs, intense conversations, great fun.

So now I’m feeling fresh — fresh enough to handle the 252 emails that rolled in when I booted up my work PC this afternoon.