Endeavour’s other mission: Advancing Open Journalism

The toughest and best question people ask me about the open journalism ideas I put forward months ago in an interactive paper for USC Annenberg: Can these ideas work in real life — i.e. in a newsroom doing journalism in live time?

I rejoined live journalism in April as executive editor at KPCC / Southern California Public Radio, attracted in part by the station’s mission and the newsroom’s advantages for open journalism. In radio, KPCC had a convention of inviting audience interaction (through call-in shows). The station’s expansion included an active slate of live events onsite, in a wonderful space called the Crawford Family Forum, and an increasing commitment to in-person engagement in other venues. And KPCC was employing formal methods (the Public Insight Network) and active social media presence to invite people into coverage.

Still, the challenges of daily journalism lend themselves to old formulas, and back in action I recognized the challenges of changing some of the fundamentals of the news paradigm – news comes from journalists, comment from others, etc.  As I wrote in my paper on open journalism, the true promise lies in connecting professional journalism with a broadly networked information universe — a two-way connection versus one-way news distribution— to improve the quality and accessibility of good public affairs reporting.

Open journalism thinking continues to percolate across the media landscape. Significantly, the role of the professional journalist continues to shift amid a torrent of information from all manner of sources. At KPCC, key players from CEO Bill Davis to web editors and radio reporters are vocal about the urgency they feel to help build new ways of doing public service journalism. Given my recent explorations, I’m delighted that open journalism thinking is figuring in more heavily all the time in KPCC’s work.

One recent example that showed the power of open exchange: KPCC’s coverage of the shuttle Endeavour being moved to Los Angeles, first by air and then by ground as it was literally inched along city streets to its permanent home at the California Science Center. For the flyover, photojournalist Mae Ryan wrote a blog post days ahead offering tips on how to photograph Endeavour. She and colleague Grant Slater curated user photos and shot their own. They offered similar guidance for the shuttle’s slow roll through South LA, and the KPCC Facebook, Twitter and Instagramaccounts crackled with posts on Endeavour.

Yet this coverage showed that traditional platforms, in this case radio, can powerfully translate open journalism thinking. This power came across most vividly as our weekend show Off-Ramp, led by its versatile and talented host John Rabe, produced a two-hour live special that combined reported and produced pieces with invitations to listeners to call in to tell their stories as the Shuttle made its snail’s-pace trip to the science center.

The broadcast has staying power (listen here). Rabe interspersed live hits and produced pieces from KPCC journalists with audio from listeners who called to share what they knew and what they had experienced. Imagine, exclaimed one, being able to reach out and touch a vehicle that had traveled through outer space! Another broke down in tears remembering her father’s work in the aviation industry — “he walked to work for 45 years!” and how big a part of the family’s life was the advance of US space exploration. Rabe shared the emotion, telling his audience “I have to admit I’m a softie…” and expressing the poignancy of seeing Los Angeles’ amazing diversity on display in the people who came together to witness the shuttle’s arrival.

Journalism like this turns the news into a shared experience instead of a transmission. While the shuttle’s arrival is a different kind of story from, for instance, covering a contested congressional race, the idea holds for covering public life: by drawing on professional journalists, amateur photographers, informed sources, eyewitnesses and expert guides, all toward the goal of accurate and accessible coverage.


Journalism art and craft, Pulitzer edition

Josh Stearns (@jcstearns) has been talking today with a few folks on Twitter about community needs and journalism, drawing me and others in. It got me thinking about that ongoing question of what defines successful journalism — quality — in 2012.

For too many journalists, still, quality is defined by peer recognition. This is the season of journalism prizes, of course, and it  bursts into full bloom on Monday with the Pulitzer Prize announcements, previewed here by Roy Harris Jr. for Poynter. The winners of these contests, especially the investigative efforts, always inspire me and remind me of the transient but glorious experience of being recognized, as my former newspaper The News & Observer of Raleigh was  in 1996 with the gold medal for public service. The Pulitzers shifted to online entries only this year and are gradually adapting to digital shift.

During my 11 months working outside a newsroom I puzzled a lot over how we define journalistic quality and impact today.  I’ve judged plenty of journalism contests, and in every case heard plenty of grumbling from other jurors about the length and format of entries. My own family reminds me regularly that they appreciate journalism but wish we’d all get to the point a little quicker and more succinctly. And almost no one outside journalism pays much attention to our contests — this is peer recognition, important, gratifying and inspiring but perhaps not definitive. (Pop quiz: How many of last year’s Pulitzer winners can you name? Bonus: How many non-journalism winners?)

I welcomed an antidote to insular thinking the other day at a gathering called TechRaking 2012, organized by the Center for Investigative Reporting and Google and held Thursday at the Googleplex in Mountain View. Brian Boyer, news applications editor at the Chicago Tribune, gave a short talk on art versus craft in journalism. Boyer works with clay and used an analogy of making coffee mugs with handles that were lovely but functionally deficient versus making cups that you could hold and drink from easily. Art is about beauty; craft, Boyer noted, produces utility. As a pottery lover and journalist, I loved this comparison. Journalism should be useful. I’m thinking about this as I dig into my new role as executive editor at Southern California Public Radio.

Colleague P. Kim Bui, social media and community for SCPR, tweeted on Boyer’s talk this way.

And Lauren Rabaino blogged Boyer’s presentation for 10,000 Words, focusing on Boyer’s three questions to ask and answer before building a news app: Who are your users, what are their needs and what can you do for them?

That seems as close to gospel as anything. Boyer added that journalists need to “fight your urges” — to make elaborate timelines and maps, for instance, when a simple address-based lookup might serve users better.

This isn’t to knock contest winners. Work that serves the public well often is recognized by journalism prizes. If we begin with Boyer’s starting points, journalists and our communities can come out winners.




Lost in translation (by web bots?)

I’m new to WordPress blogging and have been surprised (sorry, naive) by the level of spam in commenting. I’ve approved 15 comments or pingbacks to my last post but have three or four times as many spam responses. Fortunately, I’m moderating comments.

But one in particular was amusing — a “translation,” if you can call it that, of some of that post as quoted by KDMC’s Michele McLellan in her recent Leadership 3.0 blog entry responding to posts by me and former Greensboro News & Record editor John Robinson. A couple of bot-aggregation sites ripped down the post.

They did, however, alter the wording. Boy howdy, did they ever. And I quote (emphasis is all theirs):

Thoughtful posts by Melanie Sill and John Robinson could infer highly exegetic for editors who are still heading normal newsrooms by a digital transition.

Sill, former editor of The Sacramento Bee, intent a contention with “Take it from former editors: Newspapers need bolder change.

“The biggest threats to newspapers aren’t only their informed income problems and ever-proliferating competitors, though also a event costs of unwell to innovate some-more boldly—to be transformative, not incremental, in relocating forward,” Sill writes.

She continues:

I’ve oral with 8 or 10 former tip editors in a march of a final few months, some late and others operative in new jobs in media. From any we listened a chronicle of a same regrets: looking back, they wished they’d pushed harder, focused some-more on a universe outward newsrooms and responded some-more resolutely to a opportunities and hurdles of digital shift.

Thing is, there’s still copiousness of time. We’re not during a finish of change, we’re in a midst of it. Even for imitation newspapers, there’s copiousness of upside (and copiousness of audience)—not for a shrunken chronicle of a journal format of 1992 to be profitable in 2012, though for contemporary approaches to imitation to offer readers good as partial of a menu of options in a digital era.

Robinson, former editor of a News Record in Greensboro, N.C., picks adult a thread in “Newspapers: Looking behind to pierce forward

I’ll leave that last to John. One thing I’ll say about journalism these days: there’s so much more to learn and new ways to do it.

And, fortunately, copiousness of time.



Take it from former editors: Newspapers need bolder change

In a recent post to his Media, Disrupted blog,  John Robinson argued that newspapers should start doing some basic things differently — from having a real person answer telephones to punching up editorial commentary — to restore their communities’ sense of  ownership and trust in their local newsrooms. Then Robinson, who left his job as editor of the Greensboro News & Record recently, added a P.S.:

“I know some of my former staff are saying, ‘Where the hell has this guy been,’ ” he wrote. “I apologize for that. It’s amazing the clarity of purpose that comes with having time to think about things.”

I knew John for many years in North Carolina journalism (I worked at The News & Observer for 25 years, and John at the News & Record for 27) and we have something else in common: We both left top newspaper editing positions recently. (I left the Sacramento Bee in May 2011, John stepped down in Greensboro at the end of the year). And like John,  I’ve found great benefit in “having time to think about things” as I consider journalism’s future and my own place in it.

The biggest threats to newspapers aren’t just their familiar revenue problems and ever-proliferating competitors, but also the opportunity costs of failing to innovate more boldly — to be transformative, not incremental, in moving forward.

That’s why I was a bit disappointed when the new Tampa Bay Times landed on my doorstep, sent to me in Sacramento because of my role on the advisory board of Poynter, which owns the newspaper formerly called the St. Petersburg Times. The name change, announced last fall, took effect Jan. 1 in a handsome edition including extensive tribute to the 113-year history under the St. Pete name.

I thought the name change was a bold and smart step reflecting the Times’ role in its region, the market’s changes and the company’s ambitions. Looking at the new model, though, I wondered: Why didn’t they change more? Why not underscore the new name’s symbolism as a move to the future by leaving behind the 19th-century typography in the nameplate and bringing more 21st-century thinking to the print edition with some content and format shifts?

Turns out famed design leader Mario Garcia thought about this, or at least the nameplate, back in November after hearing about the planned name change for the Times, which is his local paper. Garcia even mocked up some different nameplates gratis on his blog, though he noted that the Times would probably stick with the Old English typeface used by the St. Petersburg Times  “and there is nothing wrong with that.”

As the Times changed its name it told readers it was moving affirmatively into the future — yet Editor Paul Tash reassured them that the paper wasn’t really changing. I’ve written  columns offering similar semi-contradictory messages about major format changes, so I understand the impulse and don’t mean to pick on Tash, a journalist I respect and like. Instead, I recognize a familiar struggle seen in most news organizations over how to keep loyal customers while moving forward in contemporary ways.

I thought about this culture struggle again the other day in reading a column by Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton, who argued that the paper might be doing too much innovating at the expense of — well, it was hard to say. The complaints were familiar, both the reader gripes and the staff concerns Pexton mentioned, yet they didn’t get at the core question: do the changes improve the Post’s coverage and relevance for contemporary readers?

Most newspapers are stuck in the late 20th century formulas, scarcely varied across the country, for section concepts (even names) and types of coverage. These conventions, moreover, carry over into digital forms, and only in the past couple of years have we begun to see new forms made only for digital channels.

Amid legitimate struggle in newsrooms to make this outdated formula work with vastly reduced staffs and greatly increased production demands, there’s not enough attention on creative breakthroughs — the kind of conceptual innovation needed today. What should a print edition do in a 24/7 news world? How is it differentiated from other platforms in content, format and organization?

As someone who spent too much time reassuring readers that newspapers weren’t really changing, I wish now that I’d invested that energy instead in discussing the goals of change and enlisting readers as advisers with a stake in the paper’s future. I wish I’d done more of the things I argued for in my recent USC Annenberg paper on open journalism. The barriers often were were psychological as much as practical.

I’ve spoken with eight or 10 former top editors in the course of the last few months, some retired and others working in new jobs in media. From each I heard a version of the same regrets: looking back, they wished they’d pushed harder, focused more on the world outside newsrooms and responded more boldly to the opportunities and challenges of digital shift.

Thing is, there’s still plenty of time. We’re not at the end of change, we’re in the midst of it. Even for print newspapers, there’s plenty of upside (and plenty of audience) — not for a shrunken version of the newspaper format of 1992 to be valuable in 2012, but for contemporary approaches to print to serve readers well as part of a menu of options in the digital era.

One start for news companies might be giving their top editors and probably many other key people some working time away from their papers — the kind of thinking time I and others have embraced after stepping away — to consider the view from outside, gain that  “clarity of purpose” John described and return to the fight renewed.





My open journalism paper is out

The Annenberg Innovation Lab has published “The Case for Open Journalism Now: A new framework for informing communities,” my online discussion paper on the emerging idea of open journalism.

The web paper (which can be downloaded as  PDF) includes dozens of links to open journalism in action and draws on thinking, writing and actions by people across journalism, including bloggers and nonprofit newsrooms along with print, broadcast and online journalists. It resulted from my work during the fall semester as Journalism Executive in Residence at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism in Los Angeles. Along with Nikki B. Usher, assistant professor of journalism at George Washington University and a recent Annenberg Ph.d., I gave a talk at the National Press Club on Dec. 12 on open journalism and open source influence in journalism.

My biggest challenge has been extending the conversations that enriched the reporting for this paper into an online forum. I hope you’ll read and weigh in using the online response form or via email. There’s plenty to debate, and you might disagree with my conclusions, but certainly those who consider journalism a public good have reason to consider the arguments from me and others included in this paper.