Jeff Jarvis on the Future of Journalism

Technology journalists Jeff Jarvis and Michael Arrington discuss the future of news reporting.

Jarvis makes an interesting point about the how journalism outlets must evolve. Jarvis predicts a widespread shift from large, mainstream multimedia outlets to small, “hyper-local” communities of news gatherers. Interestingly, someone needs to come up with a new model, and it won’t be the old traditional media gurus. The future of the journalism business has transformed into something entrepreneurial, not so much institutional. The journalism industry’s traditional outlets have had 15 years since the start of the commercial Web and we’ve seen how far they can come, which is not very far at all. They have done little to adapt to the ever-growing world of internet journalism. What the industry needs now are innovators, such as entrepreneurial journalism students. These youngsters will the ones invent new forms, structures, efficiencies and business models for news. They are the future — we are the future.

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Wiki what? WikiLeaks.

According to Time Magazine, websites like WikiLeaks and WikiNews “could become as important a journalistic tool as the Freedom of Information Act.”

The beauty of wikis in general is that multiple editors and contributors can collaborate on a web page. The most famous  wiki, of course, is Wikipedia. In 2004, Wikipedia decided to apply the concept of Wikipedia to news, and created what was called WikiNews. The goal was to promote the idea of the citizen journalist – the idea that anyone, anywhere, can be a journalist.

Of course, just because someone posts something on a wiki, does not make it true. Mutual trust and cooperation are the key ‘checks and balances’ that help make WikiNews legitimate. WikiNews has a policy that must be followed by users when referring to points of fact. The policy states, all sources used for information must be cited, and they must be verifiable by someone else. In the case of original reporting, field notes must be presented on the article’s discussion. By having these checks in balances in place, WikiNews can remain accurate.

Although WikiNews seems like a good idea, there are cases where other wikis have gotten out of hand.

Photo Credit - WikiLeaks.org

A website called WikiLeaks started off as an organization that publishes anonymous submissions and “leaks” of otherwise unavailable documents while preserving the anonymity of sources. At first, WikiLeaks was promising to the journalism industry. Being able to access otherwise confidential documents instantaneously rather than going through the long process of an FOI request (Freedom of Information) seemed like an amazing thing. But it’s true that too much of a good thing, is not good.

In late July, WikiLeaks was thrown into the spotlight when it posted a huge trove of secret U.S. military documents about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. According to ABC News, the U.S. Defense Department has warned “it could have blood on its hands for publishing documents that name Afghan sources.” This brings us to the question – has journalism gone too far?

Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales said he supported tools like WikiLeaks that expose wrongdoing, but he also noted that journalists must practice integrity and responsibility to censor unrelated information that could put people in danger.

As technology and information evolve, it becomes easier to access information. However, a journalist needs to be careful when dealing with new tools like WikiLeaks. Although technology is evolving, the ethical codes of journalism must still apply.

There’s An App For That

There seems to be an app for everything these days. In light of a recent survey, perhaps news organizations should start thinking about mobile apps.

The survey, conducted by the Pew Internet and Nielson, studied cellphone users’ app habits. They found that about 43 percent of cellphone users have an app on their device, but only about 29 percent actually use them. However, this may change. The ever-growing market for smart phones is sure to increase app usage. So, journalists…jump on the bandwagon!

Photo Credit - thefrisky.com

It’s simply a fact..young people like apps. According to the survey, about 47 percent of 18 to 29 year old said they’ve downloaded an app, compared to 39 percent of 30 to 49 years. The 50-plus group brings in a measly 14 percent. For news organizations looking to reach out to young customers, apps are perfect. The survey also found something very interesting – young people have taken to giving mobile donations. For nonprofit news organizations like ProPublica, this is the perfect combination. Young people plus apps equals money!
Another interesting fact about apps is people who use them tend to get their news online. According to the survey, 90 percent of app users consume news online, compared to 75 percent of non-app users. That is a HUGE percentage! Apps will not only draw in money, but will draw in an audience. By having a mobile application, a news organization can keep constant contact with their audience.
Some news organizations already have apps. For instance, CNN and USA Today both have applications. Unfortunately, news apps aren’t nearly as popular as game apps, but they are managing to make it onto the scene. The most popular apps, such as Facebook take a whopping 42 percent of users. If you look a little further down on the popularity scale, news apps start appearing – nine percent of users said they used the CNN app in the past month, 8 percent USA Today and 7 percent New York Times. For being fairly new to the app scene, these number aren’t too bad!
Apps need to be quick and concise. The survey found that people who use their apps daily only do so for less than 30 minutes. This is where journalists’ skills to catch an audience’s attention will come in very hand. With people only spending so little time on an app, a good headline or lead is extremely important to draw them in.

They Can Run, But They Can’t Hide

Government agencies beware. A new open source tool is allowing journalists and citizens to see what’s happening in Washington around the clock.

The new tool, called ChangeTracker, lets users monitor changes made to government websites, such as the WhiteHouse.gov, Recovery.gov and the FinancialStability.gov. ChangeTracker is extremely accurate, showing users exactly what was removed, edited or updated on the sites. It also shows side-by-side comparisons of the website before and after the changes were made.

Scary, huh? Well, maybe for people like the President. Let’s say, for instance, the Obama administration decides to alter the language on a proposal or backtrack on a claim. As soon as this happens, the users of ChangeTracker will immediately see what changed. Cellphones and computers will immediately light up with notifications since users can receive updates a variety of ways – via RSS, Twitter (by following @changetracker), daily email or directly on the ChangeTracker Web page.

It’s almost like having a twenty-four seven security watch on the White House. For ProPublica, this is a great asset for their investigative reporting,

According to Scott Klein, ProPublica’s director of online development, “ChangeTracker will help us keep an eye on the administration’s transparency pledges, and will help reporters, bloggers, government watchdogs and everyday citizens keep watch over the Web sites of their elected officials.”

That being said, ChangeTracker can truly help ProPublica fulfill their mission – to hold officials in prominent positions accountable. But, ProPublica is not the only one taking advantage of this tool. ChangeTracker’s open source software allows anyone to use it on any website they choose.

According to Stephen Engelberg, ProPublica’s managing editor, ProPublica is proud to share this tool with other media organizations. “This is a tool that local news organizations can use to follow the government officials they report on,” Engelberg said. “Any city, state or federal reporter can adapt ChangeTracker to their needs.”

ChangeTracker is just one example of an open source tool. Open source tools are increasingly becoming great sidekicks for journalist. There are countless open source tools out there, journalists just need to learn know how to use them to their advantage.

Words from the Big Man

Paul Steiger, ProPublica’s editor-in-chief, has some interesting ideas when it comes to the transformation of investigative journalism. According to Steiger’s article, investigative reporting is “on the cusp of major transformation—in the way it reaches its audiences, how news and information is gathered and distributed, and the topics on which it is focused.”

Let’s explore a few of his main points:

Reaching Audiences: The first thing Steiger mentions about the transformation of investigative reporting is how they will reach audiences. The old traditional newspaper format no longer works for the majority of readers. Not many people will sit down and read a five-part series or long story that continues on for pages. Instead, audiences have a much shorter attention span and want more creative communication techniques. According to Steiger, reporters can use humor, irony, photography, video, animation are all great ways to reach readers. But, Steiger stresses that there is a right and wrong way to do this. Merely adding a couple of pictures and a graph or two to a newspaper story and putting the same story on the Web is not effective. Instead, reporters must completely rethink how the story is told. They must piece video clips and graphics together to create a seamless story. Then after the visual element is complete, reporters can then back up their stories with narratives, interview transcripts, supporting statistics and data sources from the Internet. Steiger has noticed that some audiences will read the writing and statistics first, and others will skip them entirely and go straight for the video. Either way, it’s important that they supporting facts are present.

Reporting Tools for Gathering: Steiger’s second point discusses how reporters can use technology to their advantage. Today’s investigative reporters have the opportunity to master computer-aided devices and use them to their advantage. Steiger mentioned his experience at a seminar he attended for Wall Street Journal reporters and editors. Interestingly, the seminar was led by the youngest person present, Vauhini Vara, a San Francisco-based reporter just a few years out of college. The topic? How to use Facebook in combination with other databases to find sources inside major companies. Steiger explained the reaction of the seminar attendees upon hearing this concept:

“I watched jaws drop all around the table as she demonstrated in two or three minutes that she could identify a dozen present or former employees of a given company who were all within two degrees of separation of a reporter in the room. She convinced many veteran reporters that these people could be reached through friend-of-a-friend contact instead of being cold-called.”

This was a huge breakthrough for the journalists at the meeting. Who would have thought that the notorious Facebook would prove to be such an asset to reporting? Steiger noticed that Vara’s approach is similar to old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting, and greatly reduces the time and effort required to gather sources. As more and more information becomes digitized on the Internet, reporters will have more information at their fingertips.

Topic Choices: Steiger mentions how most investigative reporting focuses on where the most power resides – government or big business. Although it is important to exposing abuses by these institutions, there are many other areas to investigate as well. Institutions such as unions, school systems and universities, doctors and hospitals, lawyers and courts, nonprofits and the media, should not be overlooked. People such as the elderly and immigrants are increasingly becoming targets of abuse or fraud by such institutions.

Unfortunately, there are many crucial topics to be investigated and a small number of well-trained investigative reporters. That’s where bloggers come in. Obviously, blogs can be extremely opinionated and should not be trusted as credible news sources. However, some bloggers have actually uncovered errors in traditional news organizations published stories. According to Steiger, “bloggers also have the ability to add information and insight to build on what reporters have unearthed.” As long as the bloggers are accurate, they have the power to enrich public knowledge on a topic.

On a side note, Steiger mentions that ProPublica launched a blog of its own, which will be aimed at “aggregating any noteworthy investigative reporting that we can find that day.”

Overall, Steiger gives some good advice on investigative journalism and how to utilize the Internet during all steps of the reporting process. This is more of an overview, and I plan on going more into depth on specific techniques such as database mining in later posts.

And the Award Goes to…

It seems like congratulations are in order for ProPublica. Back in April 2010, ProPublica won the Pultizer Prize for Investigative Journalism.

Photo Credit - dailypostal.com

ProPublica’s winning story chronicled the crucial decisions of an overwhelmed, overexhausted staff at a New Orleans hospital during Hurricane Katrina. The story was produced by Sheri Fink and co-published by the New York Times.

According to the BBC News, ProPublica’s win marks the first time that the award has been given to an online news agency. The win also marks another first for its collaboration between such an agency and a traditional news outlet like the New York Times. Sig Gissler, the Pulitzer Prize administrator, mentioned that the journalism industry should “expect to see more of these collaborations in the years ahead as organizations face tougher financial situations.”

The majority of the Pulitzers went to mainstream newspapers, such as the Washington Post and the New York Times. However, ProPublica definitely stood out as the most notable winner despite being dominated by traditional news outlets.

ProPublica’s success marks the rise of future online news outlets. ProPublica’s win is a positive indicator that a non-profit online business model can sustain the cost of investigative journalism. This gives hope to other organizations such as the Texas Tribune who also use a non-profit model to support investigative reporting. Although these organizations have yet to win a Pulitzer, their entrance into the spotlight may be sooner than we think.

According to the Guardian, the Pulitzer Prizes represent the”gold standard for American journalism.” However, they also point us toward the future, giving readers an idea of what types of journalism they should expect to see more of. Recently, the Pulitzer Prize updated its criteria to allow entries from non-print newsrooms as long as they were “primarily dedicated to original news reporting and coverage of ongoing events.”  They also accept entries form any Internet-only publication as long as it is published at least weekly.

It looks as if online journalism is becoming a more professional, more credible and more respected form of journalism. With Pulitzer Prizes going to places like ProPublica, the legitimacy of digital journalism is increasing. Well, if it’s good enough for Pulitzer, it’s good enough for me.

ProPublica Gets Down and Dirty

ProPublica does not produce your average news stories. Instead, they focus exclusively on investigative journalism.

ProPublica’s mission reads: “To expose abuses of power and betrayals of the public trust by government, business, and other institutions, using the moral force of investigative journalism to spur reform through the sustained spotlighting of wrongdoing.”

ProPublica strives to focus only on truly important stories – stories with “moral force.” As their mission says, they try to “shine a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong and on the failures of those with power to vindicate the trust placed in them.”

Unfortunately, ProPublica believes that investigative journalism is at risk. Many news organizations take investigative journalism for granted. Today’s investigative reporters lack resources and time to do such reports. Time and budget constraints from news outlets make it nearly impossible for journalists to do investigative reporting in addition to their regular beats. Because of the business crisis, the creation of original journalism in the public interest, is being squeezed down, and in some cases out.

More than any other journalistic form, investigative journalism can require a great deal of time and labor. Also, results are not always positive. Sometimes stories that seem promising at first, ultimately fail.

According to ProPublica, given these realities, many news organizations have come to see investigative journalism as a luxury that can be put aside in tough economic times. In a 2005 survey by Arizona State University revealed that out of the 100 largest U.S. daily newspapers, “37 percent had no full-time investigative reporters, a majority had two or fewer such reporters, and only 10 percent had four or more. Television networks and national magazines have similarly been shedding or shrinking investigative units.”

These are just a few examples of how investigative journalism is in danger. But, ProPublica is making moves to revive investigative journalism.

ProPublica says it seeks to stimulate positive change by uncovering unsavory practices in order to stimulate reform. They strive to do this in an entirely non-partisan and non-ideological manner. ProPublica follows the strictest standards of journalistic impartiality and ethics. They refuse to lobby and never sides with politicians or advocacy groups.

ProPublica tries to focus on the two biggest centers of power – business and government. They report on topics such as product safety, securities fraud, flaws in the criminal justice system, and practices that undermine fair elections. ProPublica also focuses on other institutions such as unions, universities, hospitals, foundations and even on the media. They attempt reveal injustices within such institutions, especially when they exploit or oppress the weak or when they abuse public trust.

ProPublica accomplishes this by being persistent. They subject corrupt institutions to public criticism and continue to do so until change comes about. ProPublica says they stay with issues as long as there is more to be told, or there are more people to reach.

But ProPublica does not just destroy an institution’s reputation; they strive to be fair. After writing a report, ProPublica gives the people and institutions that are cast in an unfavorable light the opportunity to respond before the report is published. They claim to listen to the response and adjust their reporting when appropriate. By editing each story multiple times, ProPublica assures that it is accurate and fair. Under the rare case that errors occur, they correct them quickly and clearly.

By doing all these things and more, ProPublica is giving a new life to investigative journalism and journalism practices in general.