Just over 15 years ago the first big news story I worked on also turned out to be the first big news story of the digital news era. The Clinton-Lewinsky scandal broke online, with the first and biggest stories of the 13-month saga posted online before they went into print. And it wasn’t just news stories — as Monica Lewinsky pointed out in her fascinating TED Talk last week, it was hundreds of pages of raw documents, photos, audio and video.
It wasn’t the first time the talk of presidential impeachment wafted through the streets of Washington, but it is the first scandal that is nearly impossible to re-create using the first rough draft of history. Those digital-first stories — the time and manner in which they packaged and presented online, the live online discussions, the changes big and small to the wording — are almost totally lost down a digital memory hole.
Don’t believe me? Go to http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/special/clinton/clinton.htm and click on the “Poll Taker.” It’s lost to a technology that’s long been made obsolete.
When I want to add this digital innovation to my list of “clips” for my resume, I often can’t. When I want to illustrate for my UNC journalism students a first-hand account of media innovation, they have to rely on their imaginations. And when historians and The Washington Post company look back on it not just 15 years from now but 150 years from now, they won’t have the benefit of some of the most ground-breaking features that drove public opinion.
But what’s more amazing is that if you work in a newsroom today, the legacy of your born-digital content is probably at risk just as much as mine was at the dawn of the digital news era. If you run a digital news business, one of your greatest competitive advantages is going 404 every day. And if you live in one of the communities served by a newspaper with a website, the story of your generation is being written in digital sand.
To help fix that, the National Endowment for the Humanities is sponsoring a survey of North Carolina news organizations to collect information about how they use and preserve born-digital news. It is part of the “Dodging the Memory Hole” work led by the Educopia Institute and the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri. They are hoping to launch other state-wide surveys in five more states later this year.
If you work at a news organization in North Carolina, please fill out the survey at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/chronicles_NEWS, or ask one of your colleagues to do so.
The results of this online interview will be used to by librarians, technologists and journalists to establish industry standards for preserving born-digital news and to propose future projects that help news organizations and communities preserve and protect their legacies.
The initial findings are going to be presented at a gathering of North Carolina’s journalists, librarians, scholars, technologists, publishers, vendors, and other interested stakeholders on May 11-12 in Charlotte. You can also register for this event at http://educopia.org/events/dmh
The Educopia Institute, a nonprofit that works with educational and cultural institutions to increase their impact, will keep the responses completely anonymous in all research results, so that you and your organization cannot be identified. The research results will focus only on aggregated findings.
Preserving born-digital news is just as important as finding a viable business model for the creation of it. This generation’s digital native must tell the stories of our time and making them available to future generations so they know how and why we made this environment they will inherit.
One byproduct of all the recent articles about the growth of email newsletter that aim to “cut through the daily clutter” is an amazing amount of clutter about email newsletters. Here’s what you need to know today.
- The Skimm was started by two NBC News producers in their 20s. It’s been around for two years. It goes out at 6 a.m. They have $1.1 million and 7 employees. They don’t talk about their subscriber numbers. Their blog is a fantastic read on media entrepreneurship, and we should hand it out to incoming freshmen at Chapel Hill. (http://blog.theskimm.com/)
- Quartz’s Daily Brief also goes out at 6 a.m. There are three global versions, and users “click a lot on the links to opinion pieces and ‘random discoveries’ that we include in the second half of the email.” (https://blog.mailchimp.com/quartzs-email-centric-news-coverage/)
- The Quartz email in June had 77,000 subscribers (62 percent of its Twitter followers). It has a 50-percent open rate. It “makes money.” (http://www.themediabriefing.com/article/quartz-newsletters-advice-simon-davies-daily-brief)
- Time’s email newsletter has 650,000 subscribers. The curated daily list of 12 stories every morning has a 40 percent open rate, that it says is twice the industry average. That’s up from a 17 percent open rate when it was auto-generated headlines. (http://www.poynter.org/news/media-innovation/277009/how-times-email-newsletter-achieves-a-40-percent-open-rate/)
- The daily newsletter about data — called Up, Down, All Around — from Lindsey Rogers Cook of U.S. News has subscribers “in the low hundreds” and open rates around 40 percent. (https://twitter.com/Lindzcook/status/553225591168966656)
- Alexis Mardrigal’s email newsletter has a 60 percent open rate. (http://www.fastcompany.com/3033338/most-creative-people/tips-on-crafting-a-popular-newsletter-from-top-newsletter-authors)
- Nieman Labs email newsletter (in March 2013) had 10,000 subscribers and drove 3 percent of monthly pageviews. If what I’ve seen elsewhere holds true, each visit from an email newsletter is worth about 3x as many page views as from social media. (http://www.niemanlab.org/2013/03/texas-tribune-expands-its-niche-email-business-with-in-the-flow/)
- At Buzzfeed, email ranks behind Pinterest in the amount of traffic it generates for the site. (http://www.poynter.org/news/mediawire/280943/how-newsletters-became-one-of-buzzfeeds-top-sources-of-traffic/)
- The number of subscribers to Nieman Lab’s email newsletter is 10 percent of the number of Twitter followers it has. (http://www.niemanlab.org/2014/06/convert-your-twitter-followers-to-email-subscribers-with-a-twitter-lead-generation-card/)
- Alexis Madrigal’s email newsletter had 8,800 subscribers in July. That’s about 5 percent of his Twitter followers. (http://www.fastcompany.com/3033338/most-creative-people/tips-on-crafting-a-popular-newsletter-from-top-newsletter-authors)
- 75% of Digg’s users say they use email to share links in April 2013. It was more popular than any other service they used to share links. (http://blog.digg.com/post/49264812779/were-still-learning)
- Today in Tabs grew from 1,000 subscribers in January 2014 to 10,000 in January 2015. (http://www.niemanlab.org/2014/01/how-a-free-email-newsletter-turned-a-computer-programmer-into-a-newsweek-columnist/ and https://twitter.com/rustyk5/status/553224153978142720)
- In June, Nieman Lab used a Twitter card to solicit subscriptions to the newsletter. It went out to 157,000 followers and yielded 370 new subscribers. (http://www.niemanlab.org/2014/06/convert-your-twitter-followers-to-email-subscribers-with-a-twitter-lead-generation-card/)
- “The Arizona Daily Star’s site saw a 30 percent increase in email newsletter signups January through February. (http://www.poynter.org/news/media-innovation/138054/5-ways-to-turn-traffic-spikes-from-major-news-stories-into-return-visits/)
- The Slurve is a daily newsletter about baseball. It costs $4 a month or $36 a year. It goes out about 10 a.m., and has about 150 links and 2,700 words. (http://www.niemanlab.org/2013/09/a-solo-home-run-the-slurve-is-trying-to-build-an-authentic-profitable-business-around-email/)
I was lucky enough to be working at The Washington Post in 2005 when the identity of Deep Throat was revealed. I remembered at the time thinking what a relief it was for The Post to finally have it out there — now we could focus on the future.
But 10 years later I find myself doing something I once criticized journalism students for doing — being nostalgic for something I never really knew. If given the choice between working at Facebook in 2015 and The Washington Post in 1975, I’d choose the later.
At the same time, if the choice were between Facebook 2015 and The Washington Post 2015, I’d probably go for Facebook.
The future of journalism is forcing us to think about technology and economics, which is not just healthy but exciting. But those topics can dull our sense for holding powerful people accountable, shining light in dark places and explaining an increasingly complex and interconnected world.
Here’s my interview with Ben Bradlee from 2005.
One of the most important attributes of data driven journalism is that it scales, and the primary goal of my OpenRural, Open N.C. and data dashboard projects has been to democratize data so that we start seeing the same types of reporting and presentation in small community papers that we see in the big national news sites. So when I saw Thursday’s New York Times graphic on the race gap in America’s police departments, I immediately thought that something similar could be done pretty quickly that would look at North Carolina towns.
Being a words guy rather than a picture guy, I used data visualization software Tableau to put together a prototype of something similar to what The Times had done. It is absolutely no where near as good as what they did, but I copied their concept, color scheme and fonts. And about two hours later I had something that told the same story.
The graphic alone doesn’t tell the whole story. Tippett pointed out when I showed her the chart that most of the Latinos in Siler City aren’t even eligible to join the city’s police force — 40% are not adults, and 80% of adult Hispanics there are not citizens.
And many of these police forces are very small, which makes it easy for them to end up with huge percentage disparities in the racial breakdowns of their police and residents. Tiny Biscoe, for example, only has nine police officers. Wagram has two police officers — half of which are white and half of which are “other.”
The other potential problem with the data is that it’s seven years old. But so is the data used by The Times.
This is just an example of how we might continue to democratize data. This graphic could be emailed to an editor of each news outlet in North Carolina, along with a list of suggested questions that local reporters could ask to quickly make the data more relevant.
Suggested Questions to Localize This Data Driven Story
- “This data is seven years old. Does it still look accurate to you? Can you provide me with some more recent data of the racial and ethnic breakdown of the police department?”
- “Why do you think your department has a higher percentage of white officers than the residents?”
- “How does the racial disparity between the police department and local residents effect the way your department works?”
- “Walk me through the hiring process for new officers. How does a candidate’s race factor in to hiring decisions, if at all?”
- “How do you publicize vacancies in the department? Do you do anything to recruit minority applicants?”
- “What percentage of your officers live in the city? How important is it that officers come from within the city? Why?”
- Also, seek opinions of others — both insiders such as city council members and community leaders as well as people on the street. Consider using social media such as Facebook or Twitter to ask people what they think about the data and these questions. This is the start of a conversation, not the end. Be sure to get a diversity of perspectives — age, gender, geography and certainly race and ethnicity.
The Challenge: News Deserts
But even if we acquire, clean and produce data along with some simple story guides, data driven journalism may still not find its way into smaller newspapers if nobody is there to receive our help. At many papers, this would still be seen as enterprise reporting. As an editor with a staff you can count on one hand, do you send a reporter out prospecting for answers to these somewhat uncomfortable questions? Or do you have them write up the day’s arrests? Or preview this weekend’s chamber of commerce golf tournament?
North Carolina also has broad news deserts — whole counties that have no reporters shining light in dark places, holding powerful people accountable and explaining an increasingly complex and interconnected world. Siler City, for example, is in a county of 65,000 people with a single newspaper that reaches only 12 percent of them. The News & Observer — provides scant coverage of the county.
What other story templates would you like to see? What would make them easier to use?
First of all, let’s not let allow the alluring alliteration to distract from we’re really talking about — not robot reporters, but robot writers.
Mashable’s Lance Ulanoff asked me what I thought about the news that Durham’s Automated Insights would be writing automated business stories for the Associated Press.
This trend excites me about the future of journalism. I’ve been talking with folks about it for about five years, since I first saw similar work that was being incubated by Northwestern’s journalism school. That effort grew into the company Narrative Science, which has been writing earnings preview stories for Forbes.com. The Los Angeles Times uses an algorithm to write earthquake stories. The Washington Post has looked into using Narrative Science for high school sports stories.
The Guardian learned how hard it is to build a robot writer, but the automated stories I’ve seen written by both Automated Insights and Narrative Science are pretty good. And 46 media and communications undergrads couldn’t distinguish a computer written story from one written by a human.
The trend in automation should free up the best writers and best reporters to add the how and why context that still needs to be done by humans. If I were a beat reporter at a newspaper I’d be working as fast I could to convince by editor to let a computer write the scut stories I have to write and free me up to do more explanatory and accountability reporting, or to craft beautifully written narratives.
One significant risk is that for the last decade we’ve seen “good enough” journalism growing in popularity. News organizations that continue to have a strategy of harvesting profits rather than investing in growth will no doubt cut reporters if machines can write commodity news at a lower cost.
If I were a young journalist looking for my first job, I’d be looking for news organizations that are sustaining a small margin and growing both expenses and revenues — the ones that are using both bots and humans.
The trend toward automation will result in an emphasis on the news value of impact. Mass customization is going to change the nouns in the leads of stories from the third person to the second — “investors” will become “you.”
The trick is how to make money off this. News organizations that continue to see themselves as manufacturers of goods will probably increase the volume of digital commodity content they publish and continue to drive down ad rates.
But smart content companies are evolving from a manufacturing industry to a service industry, and trying to create, explain and capture the value they provide to each client by getting the right information to the right people at the right time.
What we see now as data is as unsophisticated as what many of us thought of data when Google first made its mission organizing all of it. We think of data now as numbers in tables — scores, money, temperatures, but we’ll soon see data as behavior and content metadata. And we will see automated stories that incorporate the user’s data and the data of her social network as well.
That level of concierge news service, though, is going to come at a price for users. If we’ve seen the democratization of media this automation trend has the potential to create a world of media haves and have nots — the haves will pay premium subscription fees to get highly personalized news from bots. The have-nots will get generic news (maybe written by bots as well).
The one thing from which I think everyone will benefit is an increase in the quality and frequency of narrative writing, and of explanatory and accountability reporting.
To aid that transition I’m working on the idea that we can use digital public records to build a newsroom dashboard system that will alert beat reporters to possible story ideas. Automated Insights and Narrative Science are scaling commodity news stories. I want to see if we can lower the human reporters’ opportunity cost of pursuing enterprise stories that land with much bigger and much longer lasting impact.
If you want a pithy quote from a journalism prof. on the effect that robot writers are going to have on the job market for journalism students, here it is: “My C students are probably screwed. My A students are going to do better than ever.”