2012 Civic Media Conference takeaways, open questions, reactions, notes

It’s been three years since I last made the trek to Cambridge for what we once called KNCMIT, and although the cast of characters has changed (with little-to-no representation of 2007-8-9 Knight News Challenge winners, different faces at the MIT Media Lab, and a rebooted Knight Foundation posse) the outcome was similar.

All unhappy airport terminals are alike, so the sense of deja vu carries over from the hotel to the cab to the fluorescent carpeted discomfort of Logan, and the foreboding sense of dread that comes with a United flight. (Prove me wrong, airline. Prove me wrong.)

On to the obligatory, but hopefully not exclusively duplicative and obvious notes:

  • Homicide Watch is excellent, and repeatable. Whether or not you use the code powering the DC site, the model of reporting on every homicide in a city — and not just reporting it, but reporting on it, while maintaining pages for every victim and suspect — this is something that doesn’t depend exclusively on technology, although the platform is perfectly tailored to the job. But it does depend on being obsessed with telling the stories that we often hide behind numbers, or a map. (Previously.) Also, it helps to be as driven and passionate about it as Laura, and to care about people.
  • Sometimes, there’s just no story in the data. Jonathan Stray hoisted this banner of editorial force, and Daniel X. O’Neill waved it high, the sort of basic news value that journalism school drills into us if we listen: Check the facts, check the data, then double-check it and account for the fragile chain of human actions that produced the data. Because a spreadsheet packed with invalid data and intervening variables is not a story. It’s a mess, and a risk, and it might be the start of the reporting process, not the end of it. (Session video here, worth watching.)
  • The contraction of the Knight News Challenge grant cycle into themed 90-day periods is a right and good thing, as is the new prototype fund. You should apply to one or both, right now. This minute.

Not pictured in this list: An improved opinion of the food and beverage options in Cambridge, Mass.

Knight Foundation expands into investment with an Enterprise Fund

Knight Foundation expands into investment with an Enterprise Fund: I missed this while on vacation last week, but as a sort of expansion of the Knight News Challenge, there’s now a 10 million dollar Knight Foundation fund to invest in for-profit companies. I continue to think this is a good idea.

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.


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?


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.)

So long, ReportingOn

In 2008, I was awarded a Knight News Challenge grant to build ReportingOn, a backchannel for beat reporters to share ideas, information, and sources. The goal of the project was to provide journalists of all stripes with a place to talk about content, not craft, or process, or skillset.

I taught myself enough Django — and sought out advice from friends and coworkers with little regard for their interest or priorities — to launch the first iteration of the site in October 2008. In July 2009, with fresh design and development from the team at Lion Burger, ReportingOn 2.0 launched.

And almost immediately, I stepped away from it, buried in the responsibilities of my day job, family, and other projects. To grow and evolve, and really, to race ahead of the internal and external communication tools already available to reporters, ReportingOn needed far more time, attention, and dedication than I could give it.

Yesterday, I shut down ReportingOn.

In its last state, it only cost a few bucks a month to maintain, but it has more value at this point as a story, or a lesson, or a piece of software than it has as a working site.

To head off a couple questions at the pass:

  1. No, you can’t export your questions or answers or profile data. None of you have touched the site in about a year, so I don’t think you’re that interested in exporting anything. But if you’re some sort of webpackrat that insists, I have the database, and I can certainly provide you with your content.
  2. Yes, the source code for the application is still available, and you’re more than welcome to take a stab at building something interesting with it. If you do, please feel free to let me know.

And a few recommendations for developers of software “for journalists:”

  • Reporters don’t want to talk about unpublished stories in public.
  • Unless they’re looking for sources.
  • There are some great places on the Internet to find sources.
  • When they do talk about unpublished stories among themselves, they do it in familiar, well-lit places, like e-mail or the telephone. Not in your application.
  • Actually, keep this in mind: Unless what you’re building meets a very journalism-specific need, you’re probably grinding your gears to build something “for journalists” when they just need a great communication tool, independent of any particular niche or category of users.

As for the problem ReportingOn set out to solve, it’s still out there.

Connecting the dots among far-flung newsrooms working on stories about the same issue is something that might happen internally in a large media company, or organically in the wilds of Twitter, but rarely in any structured way that makes it easy to discover new colleagues, peers, and mentors. Sure, there are e-mail lists, especially for professional associations (think: SEJ) that act as backchannels for a beat, but not enough, and not focused on content.

(Prove me wrong, kids. Prove me wrong.)

As for me, I’m working on another (even) small(er) Knight-funded side project a few minutes at a time these days. Watch for news about that one in the coming weeks.

Here’s what a “beat” page looked like. Note the PR/spam in need of a “flag as PR/spam” button.

Here’s a single question page. (Thanks Joey, Chris, etc.)

Here’s a profile page. (Thanks, Greg.)

What I would fund: An imaginary challenge for news business models

Last night, I was browsing this year’s public Knight News Challenge entries ahead of the midnight deadline to enter, and I caught myself thinking about what the project doesn’t fund when it comes to supporting journalism.

And the answer appears to be business models.

My friends at the Foundation might dispute this, or maybe not, but rather than make this into a post about what they’re doing right or wrong (after all, I won a News Challenge grant in 2008, and thus, am friendly with a wide swath of the winners thanks to some fun conferences the Knight Foundation was kind enough to fly me out to) I’m far more interested in just playing a bit of Fantasy League Foundation here, making a short list of the things I would support if I had 5 million dollars or so to give away. (Full disclosure: I do not have 5 million dollars to give away.)

Two specific projects I would fund:

1. Technically Philly’s News Inkubator

The team at this Philadelphia tech blog includes Sean Blanda, who you might remember as the organizer of BCNI Philly, along with his other varied credits as a student and professional. Their KNC10 proposal, News Inkubator, would serve as a source for news startups looking for help with the legal, financial, and administrative issues that come with running a real live business. In short, they would have allowed hyperlocal journalism impresarios to focus on content and outsource a modicum of worry on the business side of things to the Inkubator project. At the very least, they’d learn something and put it into action, rather than casting about for friends and neighbors to provide legal support, accounting, and a sales force.

From a post at Wired Journalists by Sean about the News Inkubator project:

“With the administrative burdens outsourced, the barrier for creating a sustainable news organization in the city is lowered dramatically.”

2. CoPress

(Full disclosure: I’m pretty sure I’m still an adviser to CoPress, which became a for-profit company earlier this year after their KNC09 proposal was rejected.)

CoPress is a disruptive innovator in student media, providing student news organizations of all shapes and sizes with hosting, support, and a network of interested developers and journalists to lean on as they move away from legacy content management systems with little flexibility and no room for learning about the actual management of content and systems.

Here’s an excellent short presentation from CoPress on innovation, especially in student news organizations, but with a stylish overview of the challenges facing everyone in the newspaper business:


And a few ideas for projects I’d like to fund:

  • Match up local businesses with mobile news consumers. Foursquare and Gowalla get this. Google certainly gets it. Show me a model that involves delivering deals to mobile news consumers based on their current physical location, and I’ll throw money at it.
  • Connect local nonprofits with local journalists and technologists to provide job training for underprivileged neighborhoods. I’ve written a bit about how I think a coworking space could fit into this sort of model.
  • Replace low-value remnant ad networks and AdSense with forms of advertising that don’t embarrass readers, journalists, and publishers. (Hint: I come to your news site for content and information, not to whiten my teeth.)

Here’s what I wouldn’t fund:

Anyone claiming that their hyperlocal news model is going to scale up to become a cross-country overnight success. Hyperlocal is made of people. You can build something awesome once, in one town, but neighborhood news and advertising is about shoe leather, guts, and determination — not about software. No two neighborhoods are the same, and no two hyperlocal mavens are the same.

What about you? What’s on your news business wishlist this year?

Notes on managing technology decisions

Over at the Knight News Challenge blog, I’ve contributed a short list of tips on dealing with developers and choosing a platform for your project:

3. Hire human beings, not a programming language or Web framework. Unless you’re doing the programming yourself, stay focused on your end goal and steer clear of mandating how the humans you hire do the job. Don’t look over the designer’s shoulder and worry about which shade of eggshell white to paint the walls until you have something really great to hang on them. Like content, for instance.”

You are getting your Knight News Challenge application ready, right? The deadline is October 15. Get on it.

Catch up or get left behind

I’ve been a nomad for a few days in the middle of a short-by-my-standards 300+ mile move from the suburbs of Rochester, NY to the suburbs of Washington D.C. and boy are my legs tired.

But I’m catching up on my reading, and found a few things to share with you on the theme of catching up…

VIDEO: Investing in Your Staff
CoPress on Vimeo | September 2, 2009
The latest excellent video presentation from CoPress, making a case for innovation in your news organization.

2010 Knight News Challenge is now open for business
“Got a great idea for transforming the future of news? The 2010 Knight News Challenge is now accepting applications, through October 15th!”

The future of news in 4 dimensions: Charting new kinds of news orgs
Nieman Journalism Lab | September 1, 2009
C.W. Anderson builds the sort of continuum/quadrant chart that makes the mass communications scholar in me go all smiley.

brianboyer: If you’re a Tribune reader, this’ll make it nicer. RT @ryanmark: Update to ChicagoTribune.com userstyle http://userstyles.org/styles/20347
Twitter | September 2, 2009
If you understand what these two Chicago Tribune developers are up to here (providing savvy online readers with an incrementally improved stylesheet for the recent redesign long before the changes get built into the live site’s code), then you’ll understand why I think it’s pretty cool of them.

Five concrete steps to improving the news
Newsless.org | September 1, 2009
Matt Thompson follows up his post about what goes missing from most news stories with a few suggestions for how to roll out a contextual approach to a news story. I like #4, which includes this idea: “Keep a public list of the most important things you don’t know about your topic.”

New report: How to build a user community online
Mark Briggs of Journalism 2.0 and his team at Serra Media put together this great report on community management.

Young Families are the Real Early Adopters
Mash this market research up with the right Pew report, and you’ll have a good idea of how to deliver the news to an audience that is the most likely to want it.

mattwaite: Today, we launched Home Team, a local high school sports site: http://hometeam.tampabay.com/ And I now I need to sleep for a month.
Twitter | September 2, 2009
Matt and company at the St. Petersburg Times demonstrating what a solid Web framework and some experience can help you get done in a short span of time. More details in the tweets that followed this one.

Lifestreaming: Newspaper Uses Posterous to Solicit and Publish Reader Photos
The Steve Rubel Lifestream | August 30, 2009
Did you spot the Austin American-Statesman using Posterous to collect reader photos last week?

So, are you caught up?

If Posterous, Django, market research, community management, contextual news, CSS, the Knight News Challenge, and CoPress are all alien objects to you, pick any one and get up to speed.

Catch up or get left behind.