Carnival of Journalism: An open email to Michael Maness, because no one writes letters anymore

This post is but one burning twig in the roaring campfire that is the rekindled Carnival of Journalism. This month’s two options both provide the carnibloggers an opportunity to give advice to organizations with a mandate to give away money and other resources for the sake of improving journalism. I’ve chosen the option that involves telling the Knight Foundation what to do as the five-year Knight News Challenge program winds down (or renews itself), and as Michael Maness steps up as the new VP for Journalism and Media Innovation.

Quick disclosures: Hey, I was a Knight News Challenge winner in 2008, and Michael and I worked for the same company for a few months, quite recently.

Hi Michael —

Ryan Sholin here. We’ve crossed paths once or twice at your previous gig, and had a good conversation or two about what you were up to back there.

Anyway, I wanted to write you to give you a bit of unsolicited advice about what to do about funding innovation in journalism and media at the Knight Foundation. (Well, OK, Dave Cohn solicited me, but he didn’t have to twist my arm or anything.)

A few ideas:

  1. Fund some for-profit companies. Startups. Take some equity. Focus on companies providing tools supporting new revenue streams and business models that support journalism. Alternatively, fund some disruptively innovative companies (Flipboard comes to mind) and point them in the direction of business models that support original, local journalism.
  2. When you do give out grants to journalists and not-for-profit innovators, include mandatory business sustainability training. Instead of asking grantees “How are you going to turn this into a sustainable project when your grant runs out,” make figuring that out part of your job from the beginning.
  3. It seems like the Knight News Challenge team has been working hard over the last two or three cycles to find grantees from outside the journalism world. Good idea, but make sure you don’t end up with a crop of edge case grantees building tools for edge cases. There are plenty of would-be innovators at small, unglamorous news organizations across the world. Do they know about the Knight News Challenge? They don’t read Nieman Lab or Romenesko or the Carnival of Journalism (not that there’s anything wrong with that). They just bust their tails 24/7 to put out a range of local news products, and when you look a little closer, you’ll often find they’re innovating their way around resource, technology, and even language issues to reach their community.
  4. Bring your IDEO-style innovation chops to Knight in full force. Send teams into underserved-by-journalism communities and find out what they need and want from local news sources. Then push grants, grantees, and programs in those directions.

That’s all for now. Eager to see what you do, and talk about it in person when we cross paths next.

Thanks,
Ryan

How to turn every reader’s mobile phone into a newsroom of one

On the occasion of the second stop on the Carnival of Journalism revival tour, we’re provided with a wide open question:

Considering your unique circumstances what steps can be taken to increase the number of news sources?

So without much further ado, we’re going to have a little “NOW IT CAN BE TOLD” moment here at Invisible Inkling. I promise it’s not (too) salacious, just an outdated, stale sort of secret project that never came to fruition.

To be specific, it was a Knight News Challenge entry submitted late in 2009 in the “remarkably private considering how many people must have screened and discussed the idea” category. It made the final 50 entries that year, and was my backup plan for what to do for a job in 2010-11 if I needed a backup plan.

Interesting story, eh? Well, to maybe four or five of you, so let’s move on to the actual idea, shall we?

LOOK LOUDOUN

The short version:

Using a smartphone app, “readers” take photos with location-aware mobile phones, and the phone provides them with a list of nearby news organizations to send them to.

Here’s the pitch, in full, as it stood abandoned in early 2010:

Look Loudoun will be a resource for local news organizations of all shapes and sizes to connect with the community in Loudoun County, Virginia, largely via photos taken with mobile phones.

The first product from Look Loudoun will be an iPhone application, using the geolocation feature set to suggest local news organizations to send a photo to, giving the user the opportunity to route photos of news in their community directly to a wider audience via local newspapers, hyperlocal news sites, and their own social media profiles.

Additionally, the project will begin to generate revenue by charging local businesses to list themselves on the screen using the same geolocation feature set. If the Look Loudoun user takes a photo near their business, they’ll have the option to send it their way, as well, supplying the business with content for their own efforts to engage the local community.

The revenue generated by Look Loudoun will go toward building a sustainable business — the long-term goal will be to share any profits with the participating local news organizations.

Loudoun County, a suburban, exurban and rural area in Northern Virginia (yet a short drive from Washington D.C.) is fiercely local and at the same time, highly connected, as a radically diverse base of families speed from work to school to activities to community service.

The county is covered by dozens of news organizations, some as large as the Washington Post, but many on the smaller end of the continuum, hyperlocal blogs run by passionate community members in their spare time. Local blogs Dulles District and Viva Loudoun are among the best sources for neighborhood news online, complementing a range of print newspapers that include Leesburg Today, the Loudoun Times-Mirror, and the LoudounIndependent.

You’ll notice a couple key things there:

  1. Yes, it was a KNC pitch in 2009, so it starts in one local community — the always popular for hyperlocal experiments Loudoun County, where I happen to live.
  2. Loudoun’s always popular for hyperlocal experiments because it shows up often at or near the top of the list of “wealthiest” or “richest” or “most full of money to be taken from consumers” counties in the country. Keeping that in mind, there’s a revenue component to this pitch: Users of the app can send their photos to local businesses, too. The business pays for the content, and/or the service of being included in the app, and the news organizations get a cut. Maybe the users get a deal?

Mobile! Location! Revenue! Hyperlocal!

What could go wrong, right?

So to answer the Carnival question directly:

A smartphone app like the proposed Look Loudoun, but on a larger scale with local, regional, and national news organizations taking part, would connect individual news “sources” — call them “citizen journalists” if you must — with traditional one-to-many channel news organizations in an unprecedented way.

Sure, 100 news organizations might have 100 of their own vendors/platforms/apps for collecting mobile photos from readers, but what I’m proposing here is 100 news organizations in one app, instead. Make it simple for the user to send their photo to the relevant news organization based on their location, no pre-existing relationship necessary.

Oh, by the way, here’s a Posterous blog I used as a brief scrapbook of inspiration at the time. Keep in mind this was pre-Instagram, pre-Facebook Places, and pre-Foursquare adds photos to checkins.

Now, it would be pretty easy to imagine Foursquare adding some features along these lines. I wouldn’t be surprised.

I’ll add some more bits of the old KNC proposal to that Posterous. If you were a screener back then, I’d love to hear what you thought of the idea. Like I said, it made the top 50, and having learned from my experience with ReportingOn, I was asking for enough money to make Look Loudoun my day job for two years.

(And yes, of course, I’m extremely pleased at the moment with the way things have worked out since the KNC entry was rejected, but it seemed like the right time to share the idea.)

Town, gown, beach, mountain, newspaper: An imaginary partnership between UCSC and the Santa Cruz Sentinel

What happens when thousands of undergraduates looking for a good time seasonally invade a small California town with its ethos firmly planted in 1968 and its economy floating unabated in the real estate bubble of 2004-2007? Find out on the next episode of “Keep Santa Cruz Weird.”

I kid. I kid because I (still) love Santa Cruz from afar, having lived there for six years or so, and having worked in the news business full time for the first time at the Santa Cruz Sentinel.

But we’re not here to reminisce about my days on the Central Coast of California — except for the part where we’ll do just that — we’re here for the…

Carnival of Journalism

Let’s get the housekeeping out of the way, shall we?

David Cohn recently re-animated the Carnival of Journalism from its long slumber, and the first topic of conversation is the following:

The changing role of Universities for the information needs of a community: One of the Knight Commission‘s recommendations is to “Increase the role of higher education…..as hubs of journalistic activity.” Another is to “integrate digital and media literacy as critical elements for education at all levels through collaboration among federal, state, and local education officials.”

Okay – great recommendations. But how do we actually make it happen? What does this look like? What University programs are doing it right? What can be improved and what would be your ideal scenario? Or is this recommendation wrong to begin with?

Conveniently for me, that’s open-ended enough that I feel free to use my imagination. I’m genuinely interested in how a university’s journalism department (if applicable) and/or student news organization (sometimes more likely, independent or not) and a local news organization (I’ll stick to a newspaper in this exercise, since that’s what I know best) can build a successful collaborative news product/process around important local issues.

(Was that enough parentheticals? If you’re new around here, just wait until I get going with the emdashes.)

If you’ve been paying remarkably close attention to this blog, you might be waving this post at me, where I said I would use San Jose State — where I went to graduate school, worked on the student newspaper, and learned more about the intimate inner workings of a university journalism department than most students should — and the Mercury News in this exploration.

Well, yeah, I said that, but thinking about it for a few more minutes, decided that it might be easier — and less offensive to some friends of mine — to imagine, speculate, and generalize about UC Santa Cruz’s journalism program rather than the Merc, while writing with a minuscule but somewhat more authoritative voice about the Sentinel, where I will no doubt offend a few people if I do this right at all.

Enough with the housekeeping. Let’s get to the content.

Town

To set the stage, as I did a bit more snarkily in the intro at the top of this post, Santa Cruz is weird.

In a very traditional, Californian sense.

Let me give you a few examples of real issues that were heavily debated while I lived there (some of these lively discussions rage on today.) I’m not trying to demean these issues — they are real, and in most cases, I have a point of view on them myself.

  • A ballot measure to officially make police enforcement of marijuana possession laws their lowest priority.
  • The university’s long-term growth plans, as they related to the amazing redwood forest it was plunked down in back in the 1960s when it opened with a much smaller student body.
  • Panhandling, dogwalking, unchecked coffee shop reproduction, and other plagues of the main street of downtown Santa Cruz, Pacific Avenue, which any local over the age of 40 will tell you used to be closed to car traffic within 30 seconds of its mention.

Plus, aside from the actual City of Santa Cruz (pop. 56,124), there’s the much larger Santa Cruz County (pop. 253,157), which includes a multitude of towns as diverse as Watsonville (with its large Mexican-American population) and tiny Felton (with its many trees).

Gown

Like most college towns (generalization alert), for better or worse, Santa Cruz is overrun with thousands of undergraduates from September through June.

And believe it or not, none of them are journalism majors or minors, because at the moment there is no such thing at UCSC. Nevertheless, when I first encountered newsstands around campus, I found them to be stocked with a few different student publications, including a somewhat straightforward independent weekly and a less regularly appearing comedy paper.

By the way, UCSC, like the rest of Santa Cruz has plenty of its own divisive issues. I imagine this has only been exacerbated by budget cuts.

And, oh, it also has a really interesting graduate-level Science Writing program that has produced some pretty fantastic journalists who, indeed, continue to write about science. More on that in a moment.

Beach

Did I mention the tourists? The Boardwalk? (If you’ve seen Lost Boys, you’ve seen the Boardwalk.) Did I mention that the Boardwalk and thus, the beach most popular with the tourists is directly adjacent to the only truly “bad” neighborhood within the city limits (depending on how you feel about Pacific Avenue)? Not sure the tourists know that. Or that they need to, depending on where their GPS takes them when they leave the Boardwalk parking lot.

Anyway, there’s tourism, and it’s a big deal. Surfing, too. Next heading…

Mountain

Alright, so this is something I didn’t really learn until we launched a commenting system on the Sentinel’s website, but the population of the towns in the mountains (well, call them foothills if you have high standards) between Santa Cruz and San Jose is substantially more conservative than the population of the city. Or at least the vocal commenters were. Anyway, it’s something to be dealt with if you’re reporting in the county.

Newspaper

Have I made this town seem complicated enough?

Enter the Santa Cruz Sentinel, circa 2007.

Without getting too deep into the sordid details of the Sentinel’s ownership, or layoffs, or how its editorial bent (I’d call it center-right) diverged from the town’s politics (left of left), let’s just say the Sentinel was exactly as complicated as most newspapers of similar vintage, circulation, and situation.

My friends at the Sentinel were great at reporting on crime, local personalities, local sports, and a few other things, which is what you’d expect in a town of Santa Cruz’s size.

Unfortunately, that was never really enough for its readers — or its potential readers.

Let’s get to the proposal, shall we?

Finally, now that we’ve introduced all the players, let’s use our imaginations.

But first, one more bit of context, viewed once again through the lens of “stuff I remember but wasn’t personally involved in, really.”

How did the Sentinel and the UC Santa Cruz Science Writing program work together?

Well, there were interns. Grad student science writing interns. And here’s where I think we slipped up: They were assigned (or helped out with) regular newspaper beats. They wrote obits, they covered events, they learned how a daily newspaper functioned, and the news organization got an extra body or two to throw at a wide range of places and people.

I suppose that went alright, but what if:

The Sentinel and UC Santa Cruz had put the science writing skills of those students to use, directly, and produced a weekly science page, probably running it instead of stale wire copy on a weekly “technology” page which was almost insultingly redundant in a highly connected Silicon Valley-adjacent community.

OK, let’s see if I can present that idea again without a clause that trails off into some bitter memory of wasted efforts…

The Sentinel and UC Santa Cruz should have been producing science content with their science writing resources, not squeezing science writers into the mold of a daily newspaper intern.

A Short List of the Possibilities:

  • A weekly Science page with local content, stories about local researchers, local companies, local innovation.
  • Local technology companies as advertisers. Plantronics or Seagate, for example. Or a Science and Technology jobs page sponsored by local companies, and even startups.
  • Do the same with a niche website — we built these in WordPress and Joomla for local entertainment and surfing — and give UCSC science writing students access to blog there — to use the joint Science site as a group blog for ideas, inspiration, and insights into the science community around the university and the town.
  • How about an e-mail newsletter version with a subscription model: a dollar a month, or five bucks per year, and you get the best of the science section, plus other
  • Use the revenue from these new products to pay the interns, perhaps in some sort of interesting combination of an hourly, per-story, and page view model. (I honestly don’t remember if they were paid, or just received credit, or a combination of both.)

What do you think?

Actually, I’ll pose that question to some folks at the Sentinel, and to some friends who went through the Science Writing program, and invite them to respond here.

We’ll see who shows up.

UPDATE:

Here’s who showed up: Former Sentinel Executive Editor Tom Honig. See Tom’s comment, below, for confirmation that not only am I on the right track, but I’m proposing things that have been tried before. No surprise, I guess. I do specialize in overstating the obvious.

From Tom’s comment:

“It might surprise you to know that shortly thereafter, the Sentinel did launch a science section. Peggy Townsend was its lead editor, and we actually used the science students a great deal for that section. It had an open cover and a couple of pages inside. We mixed up the content between staff-written, student-written and wire stories. My recollection is that it was a fascinating section.”

The Carnival of Journalism Revival Traveling Medicine Show

A couple years back, a sprawling cadre of journalism bloggers (myself included) participated — at least, for a few months — in a blog carnival.

Now without getting into the sordid details of what makes a blog carnival, and [INSERT CRACK ABOUT HOW NOBODY BLOGS ANYMORE BECAUSE YOU ALL HAVE THE TWITTERS AND WHATNOTS], it was a relatively pleasurable experience. A topic, a deadline, and the shared experience of a bunch of people writing about the same thing at the same time.

Superfluous Creative Commons stock photo of the 2009 Alameda County Fair, by WHardcastle.

And it’s back, thanks to Digidave’s revival:

One of the Knight Commission‘s recommendations is to “Increase the role of higher education…..as hubs of journalistic activity.” Another is to “integrate digital and media literacy as critical elements for education at all levels through collaboration among federal, state, and local education officials.”

Okay – great recommendations. But how do we actually make it happen? What does this look like? What University programs are doing it right? What can be improved and what would be your ideal scenario? Or is this recommendation wrong to begin with?

Big question!

I’m planning to attack it from a completely hypothetical angle, outlining what a proposal for a San Jose State University School of Journalism & Mass Communications partnership with the Mercury News might look like, although my knowledge of both institutions tails off violently after 2007 or so.

We’ll see. The deadline is in 10 days, so I have a few minutes to gather some thoughts, or even (shocking as it may be) new information.

Carnival of Journalism: Are we asking the right questions about online revenue models?

As is my habit, I’m running behind on my Carnival of Journalism post this month, set to the timely and tuneful whistles and bangs of talk about whether a newspaper’s online revenue could support the newsroom, how long the newspaper of record will keep the press running, and what a major metro in a failed JOA can do to survive online.

So, the question, posed by Paul Bradshaw (and be sure to check out the Seesmic thread as well) is as follows:

“How do you financially support journalism online?”

Of course, as is my habit, I’m going to have to sharpen that question up a bit, lest I fall prey to the temptation to speculate wildly about the future of major metro newspapers and their finances, as I’m sure I’ve done in the past.

So let’s get specific.

Here’s what I’m not interested in talking about:

Whether the current online revenue of a giant newspaper could support its newsroom staff.  I think that’s an apples/oranges problem.  Shutting down the press is not a hydraulic maneuver — it does not occur in a vacuum — it affects brand and upsell revenue and staffing and all sorts of parts move and grind against each other when you flip that switch on a large scale.  So, looking at two columns in a spreadsheet and saying “oh, they match” is a bit simplistic for my taste.

Great, so, moving on.

Well, wait, not yet.  One more thing to get out of the way:

I’m not (that) interested (today) in trying to figure out what revenue, then, will support major metro newspapers online.  When a major city loses its last print edition, it will be because it has already been replaced, in terms of reporting, advertising, commentary, and yes, journalism, by (mostly) smaller organizations.

And by definition, I expect a newspaper.com in a no-print city to look and feel infinitely different than it does now, to be a distributed news service, the sum of dozens of tiny parts, a portal to a wide variety of platforms where bits of news pushed out and pulled in.

(Right, so again, these are all the things I’m not going to talk about today. Right. Sure.)

My question, then, is how to support a small, agile, online-only news organization.

And that’s a much easier question to answer, isn’t it?

Let’s start with three obvious ways:

  1. Local Advertising. What?  You thought online advertising couldn’t support online journalism?  Well, it all depends on scale.  If you’re building a community news site for a 10-square-mile area, you’re likely to find a set of local businesses that have never had an advertisement online before, and certainly not running on a news source that exclusively covers the area in which their most likely customers live.  A combination of banner ads sold at reasonable rates, business listings, and sponsorships should bring in a portion of your revenue.
  2. Freemium Classifieds. What?  You thought craigslist killed every possible opportunity for local classified ad sales?  No.  Not in hundreds (thousands?) of markets in between major cities, and maybe not at the neighborhood-level.  Either way, you’re going to make money off classifieds without turning away one-time customers who aren’t interesting in paying to sell that old tricycle.  Here’s how:  Offer new customers five free ads.  After that, they pay.  Businesses always pay.  Real estate brokers and car dealerships pay a premium, especially to add video to their ads.  The key to this?  A simple self-service system.  Keep the interface basic and friendly, and tailor it to your community.
  3. Community-Funded Reporting. What? You’re worried that you won’t be able to pay for long-form investigative reporting on a small community site budget? The simple answer is that the community will pay for the stories that would otherwise be missed by a larger, slower, all-encompassing news organization with a broad coverage area. See the Spot.Us project for live examples of enterprise reporting that were funded, a few dollars at a time, by community members and other interested parties (like me) who don’t live in the area anymore, but still take an interest in local issues.

After that, there are less obvious ways to keep a small organization financially afloat, but they’ll vary based on your skills, staffing, and neighborhood.

Does that local business need a Web site to go with their banner ad?  I hear there are these new things called “blogs” that might be easy for them to maintain once you set them up with one, handling the hosting, domain management, and upgrades for a fee.

Other moving parts to keep an eye on:

  • Ethan Zuckerman asks if ad-support journalism is viable, using the example of a 25k print circulation newspaper as a point of reference for his thoughtful analysis of the logic behind CPM ad pricing online.
  • VentureBeat on changes at Federated Media, a display advertising network for technology blogs and news sites.  The changes seem to focus on getting away from straight-ahead banner advertising.
  • No News Is Bad News, a group in Seattle trying to figure out what to do next with the Post-Intelligencer, which is likely to fold as a print newspaper around 50 days from now after not finding a buyer.

Carnival of Journalism: Five positive predictions for new media in 2009

For this month’s Carnival of Journalism, Dave Cohn is asking for positive (if possible) predictions for the new media world of 2009.

How about 5?

  1. Mobile video streaming goes mainstream: Probably tied to disaster/breaking news reporting from non-professionals, a la 9/11 blogs, the YouTube tsunami of 2004, Flickr bombings of 2005, and the livetweeted siege of #Mumbai in 2008.  Whether it’s the expansion of a startup like Qik or Flixwagon or a wildcard like an improved iPhone with a real video camera, something is going to change in 2009 that’s going to put live mobile video at our fingertips.
  2. Fewer newspaper jobs means more local news startups:  As major metro news organizations continue to contract, consolidate, and implode, more journalists will walk away from the press, but not walk away from reporting.  Right now, most of this is happening at the national level (think: Politico) or in local blogs, but as more entrepreneurial journalists leave the “industry,” more of them will start small businesses of their own, reporting on their neighborhoods.
  3. Local news organizations will continue to improve at being “of” the Web and not just “on” it:  Yep, that means more newspapers (and local TV stations) on Twitter, blogging, livechatting, streaming video, participating in comment threads, and generally getting in gear — though still perhaps far behind the pace of Internet time.  This seems obvious enough, although as a media critic, if all you’re looking at is a selection of major metro papers, you’re not going to see the changes as clearly as readers — or participants in the news site’s social web — will see them.
  4. Alternative business models for monetizing journalism will flourish: There are plenty of ideas kicking around already on this front, although few of them are coming from traditional news organizations.  That won’t matter, because people with ideas for solving the riddle of funding quality journalism without the revenue of a standard daily print product are already having success.
  5. Crowdsourcing tools will evolve on the backs on existing platforms: I’m thinking DocumentCloud plus Twitter or Facebook, or some similar combination that lets a large news organization with a large social network power through large documents (think: US Attorney firings data dump analysis at Talking Points Memo, but with a much bigger crowd and structured data instead of a comment thread.)

And of course, a bonus prediction:

  • Major newspapers and huge newspaper companies will continue to consolidate, sputter, fail, and close — but it won’t matter.  The people formerly known as readers will be too busy informing each other about their world to notice.

So, got any predictions of your own for 2009? (Remember, we’re trying to keep it positive…)