Lego journalism catches an exponential wave


Quite a title eh? It is, in short, my answer to this month’s Carnival of Journalism post, whose prompt is:

“What emerging technology or digital trend do you think will have a significant impact on journalism in the year or two ahead? And how do you see it playing out in terms of application by journalists, and impact?”

For quite some time we have seen data journalism produce interesting stories, that are compelling and engaging. From early tech mashups like the Chicago crime map to really cool data driven projects from the NY Times, unique forms of telling stories and informing the public have gained increasing momentum.

While most traditional media companies haven’t vastly increased the resources to help explore these new technologies, the tech itself has become so prolific and accessible that even if there isn’t an increased staff to tackle new data driven projects there’s an increased capacity to do so. Facilitating this increased pace is a vast array of new free tools that make building new products as simple as assembling Legos. This really dawned on me as I recently embarked on my first programming project in some time. Did it used to be this easy? No.

I could use an off the shelf language parsing technology, combined with my publication’srecently launched API and the increasingly simple to use Rails programming platform to produce something slick in no time.

The journalists are getting more savvy and the tools are getting more simple. Journo-nerds everywhere seem to be experiencing this same eye-opening reaction to technology. Many people I know who have never thought of themselves as coders, are for the first time savvy enough to jump into the fray. It’s this type of anecdotal evidence that leads me to believe we are on the cusp of something exponential.

This year and the next reminds me of the year that the iPhone came out. In the early part of the last decade, cell phones were common, but they weren’t quite ubiquitous, especially not smart phones. Then the iPhone came along and really changed the game in a few short years. Journalism and technology is at that same point now. What’s exciting is the sheer number of interesting journalism related projects that are underway. I doubt there have ever been more concurrent tech/journalism projects than there are now. Each passing day seems to illuminate a new one.

Not too long ago I wrote about how little innovation I saw in our industry, but in a very short time that has turned on a dime and I am excited to see where it goes in the next 1-2 years.

What business are journalists really in?

This month’s Carnival of Journalism prompt asks if journalists can be good capitalists.

Journalists start off with a significant disadvantage. They see the world through journalism colored glasses. Everyone starts with what they know, but what journalists know about how news has worked in the past is not especially relevant to the journalism of the future. Not every problem is resolved by good research, sharp interviews or well written prose.

Journalism basics are important, just not essential to innovation or entrepreneurship.

This is not just a problem with the media industry, or the news industry but any industry. You have to understand what business you are really in in order to think in the appropriate terms. As Mike Masnick points out in an eloquent post and video on the innovator’s dilemma, the horse drawn carriage industry needed to realize that it wasn’t in the carriage business but the transportation business. The benefit it provided its customers was transportation, but just the product of carriages.

Journalists need to think about and understand what value they are actually providing. Many in the news business are indoctrinated with the principle that media is the 4th estate and indispensable to our democracy. While debatably true in principle, principles rarely explain the basic functioning of a business. Netwon’s laws are indispensable to the automotive industry, but they don’t tell you how to build an engine.

What journalism provides people with is useful information to understand the world around them and take action. It can also provide entertainment. Whomever provides a person with information that has the most value to the average consumer is on a good path to be successful in the business of news.

The most read stories on our site are almost always the most useful: articles about new businesses opening, articles about businesses closing and articles about events. Why? Because they provide information that is directly actionable to people, i.e. it’s really damn useful.

What ways are there to disseminate business openings and closures to your community? A journalist sees this as a problem that is solved by making a phone call or perhaps visiting the business. But is that most efficient way to find that out?

So, *can* journalists be good capitalists? Yes, but they need to overcome the disadvantage of not seeing what service they are really providing to their communities.

Why ask why?

When I walk around my neighborhood it’s rare that I come back without several questions. Why are they digging that trench? There are trucks without city marks on them, but some of the gear seems to have an AT&T logo on it, are they making infrastructure upgrades in my neighborhood? All over my city? There’s a new sign that went up claiming an intersection is now “Photo Enforced”, but I don’t see a camera, what’s going on here?

Why do I ask why? I guess it’s just my nature. It’s why I like being involved with journalism and the news business in general. When I was a little kid it took longer to walk with me than the dog.

So my request is for journalists to be far more curious. Isn’t that why you got into this field (I’m sure it wasn’t for the pay.)?

My ideal journalist is the person that never stops asking why. She doesn’t sit at her desk and just make phone calls. She doesn’t clock out and turn off her curiosity. Every walk, every lunch, car ride, or gaze out the window should open the floodgates of curiosity.

A nagging curiosity leads to discovery, to breaking stories, to exposing corruption and inevitably making our communities, whether they are neighborhoods, states or countries, a better place.

Both journalists and developers are on the forefront of what’s new and changing. Curiosity is a key driver in both our fields, it’s why I’m so thrilled to be at the intersection of both. Good journalism leads to change, but that doesn’t happen unless you ask –why?

NOTE: This post is in (very late) reply to this month’s Carnival of Journalism.

Simple Hypothesis: Murdoch’s Delusions Breed Controversies


Media tycoon Rupert Murdoch addresses a session of the World Economic Forum in DavosRupert Murdoch has many ideas that I believe to be wrong-headed about the direction of news publishing. From paywalls to paper products to iPad apps that fail to take advantage of the medium.

Shackled by those constraints he expects his organization to grow readership and revenues at the rates that his organization once did. It seems to me to be a reasonable hypothesis then, that to achieve these ends in a down global economy with backward looking vision you have to resort to nefarious methods.

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) European ciculation scandal is a pretty excellent candidate for this hypthesis’ further examination. Circulation numbers are the key drivers of the price that a publication can charge advertisers. The bigger the circulation the higher the cost of advertising. As a young consumer, using a bevy of forward looking tech products why would you choose a News Corporation product? WSJ can’t make aggressive changes to how they do things and so they must resort to cheating and lying to make things work.

This same logic applies just as well to the phone “hacking” scandal that has recently rocked the Murdoch empire via the News of the World publication. The phone hacking seems to be a symptom of the need to be more sensationalist, to get the newest and most intimate stories about famous people. Few would argue that this is anything but a play for more readers. Many publications have a strong push toward growing their readership, the question is, why do Murdoch publications seem to go further than anyone else?

Undoubtedly there are many reasons for the recent controversies at News Corporation, but I submit that another, and possibly underlying reason, is that Murdoch’s myopic view of media’s future has forced his publications into questionable tactics in order to achieve his view of success.

Photo Credit: World Economic Forum

Used with a Creative Commons Licence

Means or end?

This post is an answer to this month’s Carnival of Journalism.

Video is not and end in and of itself. Video is a means to an end, that end is telling a story.

This has always been true, it’s just never been as easy as it is today to implement that truth. Today’s newsroom, whether it’s in a local TV station, radio station, local newspaper  or local online news site needs to tell stories with all the tools at its disposal. The story is the only complete entity.

Beyond just in theory we are also starting to see the notion that video is only a part of a greater presentation in code and web standards. HTML5 helps video integrate far more seamlessly into a rich media website. HTML5 is an implementation of the thesis of this post, that video is simply a means to an end, at least when it comes to the story telling behind the news.

In practice that means that some types of media will have to produce more video and some will have to produce more of everything else. In the case of online news sites more video is likely necessary to tell a community’s stories.

The difficulty is that small local and hyper-local sites still don’t have the capacity for video and can more efficiently cover their communities without it. The Sacramento Press has gotten by for some time without a significant amount of video. However that has started to change. As the barriers to entry for video lower in terms of both technology and process, video becomes more of an option for those publishers with a smaller budget (both in terms of money and time).

In order to continue to increase both the quality and quantity of video we need to build tools that imagine all types of media as one piece of the storytelling puzzle. By doing so we will significantly diminish the barriers to entry for the creation of video and that has the potential to better inform and engage our various communities.

The Internet IS the newsroom: Why ONA’s focus on tech is a good one

Note: This is response to this month’s Carnival of Journalism prompt, which asks what the criteria should be for this years Online Journalism Awards (OJA).

In math to most students’ annoyance, writing down the correct answer is only good for partial credit, how you got there is really what matters. That principle should be true when it comes to judging criteria for the OJA.

The OJAs should focus on journalism that expands the boundaries of journalism and does so online, the final frontier.

The Pulitzer Prize rewards amazing journalism. Knight-Batten, News Challenge and other events award and grant funds for amazing technological advances in the field of journalism. OJA should award people doing brilliant journalism with the most amazing technology.

Twitter doesn’t win for creating it’s product which helps journalists so much. Nor does Twitter win for creating Twitter for newsrooms. Those are great things, but they are just tech that enables good journalism. At the same time The Los Angeles Times wouldn’t win for the same story that the they won their pulitzer, simply because they used some new tech along the way.

Both technology and journalism have to be at work here. In this way I am defining journalism as informing citizenry in order to affect change.

I think Carrie Brown-Smith and Lisa Williams both already did an excellent job answering this post and their sentiments closely match my own so I try and add another concept; the Internet is the newsroom.

The connections, research and filtering potential of the Internet provides an even more rich experience for an enterprising reporter. I’ve always found that the reporters I most respected were barely in the newsroom at all. If the Internet is your newsroom then you can simultaneously be in the newsroom and the field at the same time. It is this capability that will enable some really impressive journalism.

Steve Fox points out two people that are at the forefront of this idea, Andy Carvin and Nick Kristoff, specifically their coverage of the Arab Spring. I agree, but what I also see is two people just starting to see the potential that lies ahead.

Recently, on the way to the Knight Civic Media Conference I had the pleasure of passing through Chicago’s infamous O’Hare airport. As is common for that airport we encountered horrific weather and had our flight cancelled. Looking at the massive line of people trying to rebook with United, a line that was in the many hundreds, Ben Ilfeld and I decided to grab food and a beer.

We enjoyed the crazy weather, the tornado warnings, mediocre sushi, and some pretty excellent beer and did so quite peacefully. Soon afterwards we plopped down next to the giant line for United customer service, which had grown even longer, and opened our laptops. We tethered them to our phones and in five minutes we had booked ourselves on the 6am flight to Boston on Southwest. We also booked ourself a super cheap motel. We did this in about 5 minutes. While waiting on the cab line to our motel we heard of all the horror stories of the United passengers who had been through the line. Most of them got rebooked, but rebooked 1-2 days later, the earliest United could re-route them. For us that would have meant missing nearly the entire conference.

I see the same thing with journalism now. Innovative technology used at the right time in the right way can enable fantastic things. For us, we got to Boston to see some amazing people win Challenge grants, for journalism it is making the world a better place.

Where the hell is the innovation in journalism?



Where the hell is the innovation in journalism?

(And I will give the Center for Civic media some credit here, you + Knight are on fire this year)

Start by blaming me. I’m a technologist working on technology for journalism. I have not changed nearly enough.

But lots of people talk a lot in our budding new media space; not a lot of people are creating really innovative stuff.

One of the big problems is not taking a big enough step back from the daily grind of reporting, writing and interacting with communities. What is it all about? The nice thing about tumultuous periods in an industry and no standard definitions is that you can create them.


Stop worrying about the past and what you “should” worry about, and think about what would be amazing for humanity and for journalism in particular.

Here is what I see.

No understanding about our own publications. Who reads them? Why do people read them? What do they expect to get out of reading the news? What do you want people to get out of your publication? And please no canned J-School BS answers, think about this seriously.

It is not essential that everyone read the news all the time. Nope, sorry, it just isn’t. What each American, let alone what each human should know is not obvious. Let’s stop pretending that if we all just read The New York Times the world would operate fluidly. But when an issue really effects you and you don’t know about it, that’s a problem. Which means it is a problem that we should be focused on solving.

We need more complex interaction than comments. Using the same tools we have been using for a decade is not going to move us forward quickly. Much as Jeff Jarvis and my co-founder have written recently about the anachronistic nature of the article in the modern media landscape it can be said that our current tools for interaction are starting to feel just as out of place. None of this interaction is revolutionary. We tell stories and have conversations in real life. What can the internet and modern telecommunication technology do to evolve this, or revolutionize it?

Online to offline is more than just for coupons. People read the news at work, that’s just how people behave currently. Does this mean that news is inherently tied to a desk in an office? That could be the case, but I doubt it. What online innovations will make consuming news outside the office more useful and prevalent. And more than that what will news sites offer that pushes people to interact and offline with their communities more. Informing your audience is just not enough.

There are lots of great innovations finally starting to emerge, but I want to stoke the flames of the fire. I know the Knight foundation does, with its continued refocusing on innovation.

So think big and keep changing, because it will be a long time before we figure it all out.

Image Credit: Chris Murpy (via Flickr)


Hacking Our Rights Away

LulzSec called it quits today. I’m not sure that this was good for humanity. Owning a business myself I understand that someone hijacking your website, even with the best of intentions can cost you money, but catching security issues sooner rather than later will likely save you even more than an outage costs you.

One of my favorite nerdy movies of all-time has this same basic premise. It’s better to have nice people hack you then malicious people.

What I do know is that these for-the-good-of-humanity type hackers are a tiny fraction of the hacking community and one that should probably be left alone. Depending on who you ask Anonymous probably falls into this category of noble hackers as well.

You might say that the definition of hacking for all these folks is, “curiosity with a purpose.”

In that vein I am curious what would happen if Anonymous hacked Twitter and left the very ominous ICE domain seizure logo featured below on Twitter’s homepage.


It would demonstrate a not too hyperbolic example of what the content industry backedProtect IP Act might do if enacted.

I say not too hyperbolic because of recent attempts by ICE to remove websites who only link to copyrighted content. The whole process then gets even more Kafkaesque when companies have tried to fight these seizures.

The real point here is that there is little to no exposure of the current government abuse when it comes to trampling constitutional rights. And as our rights erode the Protect IP Act is looking to grow that control and abuse by leaps and bounds. All in the name of piracy; take my first amendment, but make sure no one pirates the new Pirates movie.

The Moneybags Hinderance OR There *is* an I in FAIL

Being a scrappy bootstrapped startup has its advantages. That’s where we started, a scrappy no money operation. Unfortunately we were a little too lean, we couldn’t get off the ground with our site.

Then we decided to put a fair amount of our money where our collective mouths were.


Photo Credit: Dina Aranguri

Unfortunately this led to an unexpected series of failures and here’s why.

When you have the cash to just sign checks you can fail in some exceptional ways. You can hire an advertising manager and employ that person for many months even when they don’t make a single sale. You can have a marketing budget that balloons up with no accoutability for its efficacy. You can spend an enormous amount on a media kit before you have the sales team to use it, then find out that they hate using it and don’t (we still have boxes of them). We used to joke that our company motto was, “Put the cart before the horse.” And we really did, time and time again.

We of course learned valuable lessons from these experiences, but the real lesson we started to learn is that you can learn a lesson for a lot less money!

We started to embrace failing faster. By accelerating our pace, if and when we fail, it’s not a long drawn out process. Obviously having a large budget is not inherently bad but once we combined our good financial position with efficient experimentation things started to work a lot better.

We landed a salesperson that grew our sales for 0$ a month to nearly $20,000 a month in a little over a year. We used media kits that were simply printed out by the sales team and we put a strict budget on our marketing department. We started by eliminating the  marketing department and incorporating it into sales (what kind of small online publisher has a marketing department anyway?).

When you are short of funds you have to fail fast because you can’t afford to keep a failing project going. Much like Twitter’s artificial limitiation on characters, we learned that an artificially limited budget (also known as having a budget) can be a big advantage. Imagine that you didn’t have a lot of money at your disposal, would you do what you are doing the same way?

Sometimes I look back and cry over spilt milk. Big chunks of money went out the door and little but a life lesson came back in return. It felt a little like we were ripped off by Bernie Madoff, but even worse since we were both Madoff and his poor victims all in one.

But when you fail fast there’s a lot less of this, because overall, there’s just less failure.

EDIT: How about this for a #FAIL, no link to the damn prompt I was answering, whoops!

Knight, I know you can do it right, part deux

The Background

Recently I wrote a very short blog post in response to the 3rd Carnival of journalism prompt. The prompt was asking basically what should Knight do differently to drive innovation (if anything at all). In my short post I mentioned that the MoJo (Knight Mozilla Journalism Partnership) was not a good example of how Knight should spend its money.

And it should have been more obvious to me at the time, but this quite rightly piqued the interest of one Philip Smith, one of two people heading up MoJo. He asked for more details. I wrote more details in an email. Then I thought, in the interest of sharing our debate with the world (a.k.a. the 10-20 who read my blog), that I should adjust it and blog-i-fication-ize it. So below is that email in blog form (basically unchanged + more links).

The Point

Technology companies are very innovative. This is because they are in an industry that is fiercely competitive and innovation is considered a necessary element of survival. Media organizations are part of a well-established industry. Mature industries in practice are more interested in stability than innovation, such is the premise of the innovator’s dilemma (continued below).

Large media organizations have long known that they might need to adapt to compete in the future. Several of the larger media organizations including and especially Knight-Ridder built impressive technology which they just as impressively abandoned when they felt it didn’t threaten their current business models. An amazing, albeit academically dry, book that gives an account of this is a book called Digitizing the News. Digitizing the News can almost be looked at as empirical evidence of the innovator’s dilemma in action.


So that is my basic concern, on a theoretical level, with giving money and technological help to long established media organizations. It basically fits under the category of how can we save newspapers, which is a terrible framing of the problem. The problem is really how can we proliferate accurate, engrossing and interactive news/reporting to keep the world better informed.

As for a more practical example of this I’ve seen this happen time and again. A newspaper pays lip service to innovation by including 3rd party applications such as comment systems, or Google Maps mash-ups into their sites. They also only half-heartedly embrace innovations in process, equally important to technological innovations. They send reporters to conferences, seminars and fellowships and when the reporters return they often have learned a great deal but get no support from their respective organizations when it comes to implementing newly learned techniques. With rare exception they very rarely attempt to modify the core practices of their organization and do-so company wide.

If Mozilla-Knight can nudge large media organizations toward the open web as you stated in a blog post earlier this year than that is commendable. The amount of influence these organizations have is, simply put, massive. In my opinion though you will only be pushing the large players forward an inch instead of pushing the industry forward a mile.

An Idea

Right, so enough being a critic, how about a bit of advocacy here; how about a tangible detailed suggestion?

Let’s take the Techcrunch idea from my blog post and run with it. The Knight news Challenge as I recall was funded with up to $5 million dollars a year for 5 years, or something to that effect. So let’s say we have a budget next year of $5 million.

Have TechCrunch run a disrupt event (they’re good at that), but ONLY for news/journalism/reporting startups. Have all the VC that are normally present for disrupt events there. The competition would be in two phases. Give $50k or perhaps $100k to not one but 10-20 participants. Those participants will be voted on by the, “biggest innovators, angels, VCs and influencers in the Tech community.” Then they have a set period to implement and then launch their ideas. Six months post launch the remainder of the money will be given to the most successful organizations as judged by a similar panel. Perhaps 1-3 organizations then split the remaining 2-3 million. Participants can be required to abide by Mozilla designated openness standards and be given some development resources, advice and help from Mozilla. From pitching to receiving the check the process should be relatively short, say two months or less.

That is just one idea that is off the cuff.

The notion is don’t waste resources getting established players to create models that will disrupt their current models.