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Home pages could become a thing of the past for media organizations

We could soon see the emergence of a a new wave of publishers that don’t require home pages or apps; their sole purpose is to syndicate content through different channels and social platforms.

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Since the advent of the Internet, publishers have been trying to leverage distribution channels — such as social media networks — to drive traffic to their own websites. Now, though, content can be hosted and monetized on these third-party platforms through services including Facebook’s Instant Articles or Snapchat’s Discover. As such, we can see the emergence of a new wave of “homeless” media companies that don’t require a home page; their sole purpose is to syndicate content.

The evolution of digital media distribution

Digital media companies have, to this point, generated revenue primarily through advertising displayed on their own websites. The amount of money earned corresponds at least indirectly with the size of the audience visiting their pages, so publishers turn to external platforms to build their brands. The Huffington Post and Drudge Report utilized search engine optimization to grow, while BuzzFeed, Vice and Vox are prime examples of sites utilizing social media channels to create “viral” content.

In fact, BuzzFeed founder and CEO Jonah Peretti said his company was “a global, cross-platform network for news and entertainment.” According to social analytics company NewsWhip, BuzzFeed earned more than 35 million combined Facebook likes, shares and comments in October alone.

From traffic acquisition to syndication

The goal of acquiring traffic via search and social is coming to an end for some, though. A few publishers are aiming to syndicate their content through various channels, not including a home page or website they own. They instead rely solely on the distribution and monetization from being on third-party platforms such as Facebook. A good example of a media company using this model is NowThis, which has built a successful content business model despite having a website that currently reads, “Homepage. Even the word sounds old. Today the news lives where you live.”

Why could “homeless” media become a trend

1. Mobile and app consumption is on the rise.

In June, mobile accounted for two out of every three minutes spent consuming digital media in the U.S., according to comScore. In 2014, mobile apps surpassed desktop as the leading digital media usage platform.

Also in June, according to comScore, total time spent consuming digital media via mobile apps reached close to 779 billion minutes, versus nearly 551 billion minutes on desktops. eMarketer (subscription required) highlights that users in the US spent 170 billion minutes on Facebook’s mobile app. It’s becoming clear, if it hasn’t already, where audiences are spending their time — social networks.

2. Third parties are creating platforms for publishers to easily distribute and monetize content.

Facebook’s Instant Articles and Snapchat’s Discover allow partnering publishers to directly reach growing audience bases with native content. For example, The Washington Post recently announced it would send 100 percent of its stories to Facebook so all content could be immediately accessible to users of the social network, with no loading time or paywalls to sift through. CNN has a dedicated team of one designer and two edit staffers specifically focused on creating content for Snapchat.

Additionally, Google recently announced its Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) Program to help publishers create mobile-optimized content and have it load instantly everywhere. Twitter has an opportunity to work with partners on its Moments feature, which presents a curated section of tweets related to the same topic.

Media companies can benefit by teaming up with these technology firms to create platform-specific content for the distribution channels with the largest audiences, potentially creating more engagement and revenue opportunities.

What does this mean for you?

If you are a journalist or executive at a traditional media company …

The rise of “homeless” media suggests a tipping point is at hand and that media companies will need to figure out how to approach it from both business and editorial perspectives. How much (and what) content should be sent to these channels? What’s the revenue potential in either case?

  • Even if you already have a big following, engagement remains the key. You will need to develop content verticals and unique programming that can attract new audiences.
  • Acquire or partner with smaller niche publications with distinctive voices that can augment your reach and inject innovation into your content.
  • Hire strategic partner managers to develop relationships with the platforms and get you on one of their publishing programs.

If you are an entrepreneur building the next big media brand …

  • Create distinctive content — build a niche audience that enables you to build a following.
  • Because you are not tied to any editorial guidelines, you have the opportunity to innovate on the format and build a following of people who are looking for new content.
  • Create a low-overhead business with minimal product development. Focus your resources on content creation and social distribution.
  • Hire people that have experience with platforms or that have worked at companies like Facebook, Twitter or Snapchat.

If you work at one of the big platforms …

  • Open up the native program to more publishers and provide support on best practices. Collaborate with publishers because the future of your business relies on great content.
  • Create a seamless experience for consumers to watch, read and experience content. You are the new “cable” so it will be important to create an uncluttered experience that centralizes the best content.
  • Share consumption data and help publishers (both new and legacy media) understand what content works so your users’ experience and content consumption can be refined over time.
  • Create opportunities for revenue sharing within the platform and build a safe environment for advertisers to invest their money.

If you are a venture capitalist looking for media businesses with growth potential …

  • Look for new media companies that have a distinctive voice and content that attracts a niche audience of engaged consumers.
  • Identify “content-first” companies with lean businesses and low overhead in product development, websites and mobile apps.
  • Help media startups in your portfolio develop strategic partnerships with larger media brands that are looking for niche content and new programming to grow their social following.

With native content consumption on third-party platforms growing, will it still be relevant for media companies to invest significant resources on running and maintaining their websites and mobile apps?

Francesco Marconi is the Strategy Manager for The Associated Press and a fellow at Tow Center. He writes about media, storytelling and innovation.

Tow Tea: FOIA Workshop

On Thursday, November 19, 2015, the Tow Center hosted a Tow Tea workshop on accessing and collecting data and information made available under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Guests Shawn Musgrave, from The New England Center for Investigative Reporting’s and Nabiha Syed of BuzzFeed shared their tips and strategies for making FOIA requests.

A FOIA request is a legally binding request to a government agency for an *existing* record, says Syed. A record is data that people keep, so think broadly about it. Data sets count as records in most states, though sometimes FOIA officers don’t know that, and you have to persuade them.

At Buzzfeed, Syed oversees many FOIA requests and finds that robustly written requests get better responses, even though detailed explanations are not required by law.

One quick way to get information is to request a set of records that has been requested before – many offices publish lists of prior requests, says Musgrave. If you can determine who made the request, you can say somethibg like: “I want what ProPublica got for this article.”

Non-profit organizations and advocacy groups are also good resources when you are trying to figure out how to draft your request. Get in touch with them before you file and ask if they know anyone you can contact. As with other reporting methods, Musgrave notes, it helps to do your homework ahead of time – and for data requests in particular, it’s important to get an IT person involved if possible. The panelists both agreed that and being in phone contact with the people handling your request is also key.

Keeping track of your requests also matters. Syed suggests telephoning as soon as you file, just to let the office know you’ve submitted. Every statute has a time period during which the agency has to provide reasonable estimate of the time it will take to fulfill the request.

“Sometimes they might say it will take 20 days,” says Syed,but warned that 20 days is a magical number that is rarely achieved.

“Sometimes, you get a letter and the agency says they it will take to seven months – but you can call every month and ask what’s going on. If it takes a year, stay on top of it. I do FOIA Fridays,” says Syed.

If you simply don’t hear from an agency within the estimated period, says Musgrave, you do have the right to sue for “constructive denial” of the request, though this usually requires a lawyer’s advice.

While filing FOIAs for a particular story makes sense, says Musgrave, if you have a beat you cover, you may simply want to make requests in that topic area.

“If I find a public document referenced somewhere and can’t locate it, I’ll just file for it.”

While FOIA laws operate under a “presumption of openness,” it doesn’t mean you can get access to everything.

Syed pointed out that there are a range of exemption conditions under which your request can be denied. National security and privacy, are big ones, says Syed, but there are some surprising things like the locations of gas and oil rigs. Drafts of things that haven’t yet become policy are also exempt.
That said, one can always appeal a denial and challenge the exemption – you don’t have to take what the government says at face value.

Most of all, Syed and Musgrave agreed, it is important to keep in mind that people who respond to FOIA requests are human. Try to develop them as you would any other source and you will be much more successful.

Image Truth / Story Truth

On Friday, October 16, 2015, the Tow Center hosted Image Truth/Story Truth, a conference by Nina Berman and Gary Knight, in collaboration with the Brown Institute for Media Innovation.

The conference explored the ubiquity of the image in the digital age, and allowed participants from different disciplines and professions to come together and discuss the norms and ethics around photojournalism today.

The program can be viewed here.

Nina Berman, professor at Columbia Journalism School wrote about the conference:

When talking about photojournalism ethics, the conversation tends to focus on the integrity of the digital image and the rules governing Photoshop manipulation. Photojournalists are prohibited from adding or deleting objects or people from their pictures, or combining two pictures together and passing it off as one moment. Those who break these conventions are dismissed from employment. The degree of acceptable toning and use of filters to enhance contrast and color varies widely by publication.

The Image Truth/Story Truth conference aimed to broaden the debate around ethics and direct it away from pixels and post processing, towards representation, context and commissioning.

Are photojournalists creating images that repeat certain visual tropes and perpetuate social stereotypes? Do contests such as World Press Photo and the Pulitzer Prize, reinforce those stereotypes by consistently awarding work that focuses on the dramatic individuation of suffering and the search for the iconic moment?

Is it time to dispense with the catchwords of yesterday that focus on humanizing subjects (as though they were ever less than human), or giving voice to the voiceless, language steeped in hierarchy and outdated notions of narrative privilege?

Given the complexity of contemporary conflict, should pictures do more than provoke emotional reactions? Is it enough to simply wait for disasters to happen and then make gorgeous images of those disasters, as one panelist asked? Can a deeper form of documentation and witnessing take place that looks less to the dramatic moment, and more to causes and context? Can new technologies help or distract? Is a new visual language required?

And finally, what is the purpose of photojournalism? Is it to record? Or to advocate? Is it illustrative or investigative? Detached or collaborative? Can work produced within a corporate commercial context be anything but conformist? Is work commissioned by NGOs more true or just a different kind of sell?

Image Truth/Story Truth – an intentionally ambitious title – predictably presented no conclusions. Rather, the purpose was to put highly accomplished people together who don’t normally converse, industry leaders with academics, curators and critics, and see what develops.

-Nina Berman

The day was comprised of five panels, ranging in topic from a deep-dive into the ethics around the World Press Photo Awards to a panel that explored the narratives that develop around particular images in a socio-political context. Video of the five panels can be viewed below:

Panel 1: Introduction and Contests and Ethics: The World Press Photo Award

Panel 2: World Press Photo Response

Panel 3: Politics of the Image and the Constructed Event

Panel 4: The Press and Photography

Panel 5: What is a Photograph?  The Future of Photography and the Professional Image-Maker

Crowdsourcing, in theory and practice

By Jeanne Pinder

Tow Fellow, “A How-To Guide to Crowdsourcing”

Here’s one big lesson I learned in building a startup that uses crowdsourcing as a tool of journalism: As in all things journalism, it’s important to listen.

I founded my startup, ClearHealthCosts, in 2011, after volunteering for a buyout from The New York Times, where I worked for almost 25 years as a reporter, editor and human resources executive.  We use crowdsourcing and other reporting tools to bring transparency to the health care marketplace by telling people what stuff costs.

I have spent the last few months as a Tow Fellow working on the “How-to Guide to Crowdsourcing” with co-authors Jan Schaffer and Mimi Onuoha. My experience with ClearHeathCosts undoubtedly informed our research, and as we launch our Guide this week, I wanted to share some of the personal lessons I’ve learned.

Health care is the last big remaining opaque marketplace. It’s very hard to find out what things cost. It’s a perfect place to use the hive mind: to collect highly actionable, relevant information, which is normally hidden from view.

I had some experience with this, having had a bill including a charge of $1,419 for a generic drug I found I could buy online for $2.49. By listening to others, I learned that my experiences were not unique. I founded the company with a grant from the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

We started out using shoe-leather journalism—talking by phone with providers, for example – and  database sourcing and curation, to find and share information. We’ve always been interested in crowdsourcing, and grew it as part of our reporting strategy, as crowdsourcing grew more common in news, noted by us and others.

In 2012, Emily Bell, Clay Shirky and C.W. Anderson mentioned this trend in their Tow Center report on “Post-Industrial Journalism.” “What’s going away is a world where the news was made only by professionals, and consumed only by amateurs who couldn’t do much to produce news on their own, or distribute it, or act on it en bloc,” they wrote “…The kinds of changes that are coming will dwarf those we’ve already seen, as citizen involvement stops being a set of special cases and becomes a core to our conception of how the news ecosystem can and should function.”

How we work: we collect pricing, then invite members of our community to share their prices. In addition to our own community, we also provide tools and guidance for the communities of our media partners: KQED public radio in San Francisco, KPCC public radio in Los Angeles, WHYY public radio in Philadelphia, and MedPage Today, a wing of the health giant Everyday Health. (More soon!)

By using our embeddable PriceCheck widget, we and our partners join hands with community members to make a community-created guide to health care pricing, and to do great journalism – and to have a conversation about the topic.

In building this practice, we had to overcome some objections.

Objection: How would you know if people were telling you the truth?

What we learned: The data reveal the wide range of prices. The data sets are, in a way, self-validating: you can see outliers. But those outliers may not be wrong, they’re just outliers. By listening, we understood even better: there is confusion about pricing, of course. That’s part of the story. So we created drop-down menus to help people specify the procedure they had, making sure we’re comparing apples to apples. And there are not a lot of people out there trying to lie to us about the prices of their mammograms.

Objection: People won’t want to share this intimate medical information with you.

What we learned: Hundreds and hundreds have shared prices. People are really upset about health-care pricing, and they tell us they’re glad we’re doing this. Sample comments: “Great idea!!  I’ve loved you folks for years, and now even more J” and “I love what your organization is trying to do and I would like to contribute information. ” Also, people engage in different ways: sharing data, searching data, Tweeting about us, sharing our Facebook posts or writing about us.

Objection: It’s really hard to crowdsource.

What we learned: Again, by listening, we have learned a lot about who to ask, how to ask, what to ask, when to ask. And we’ve learned that once you’ve got your basic framework set, then it’s pretty easy (though not always perfect) and definitely rewarding.

We’ve also learned that it’s important to make it simple for people to contribute – and also to thank them, to show them what we’re doing with their contributions, and to make the process a true collaboration, a conversation.

Our impact

Our partners are enthusiastic. PriceCheck “has allowed us to work together with our audience to tell stories about health costs,” said Rebecca Plevin, health reporter at KPCC. “Through this crowdsourcing effort, they’ve become our sources on data and they’ve brought that data alive through their personal experiences.

“I think the crowdsourcing model has also captured the imagination of our listeners,” she added. “When I’m out in the community, people often tell me that they love the way we’re working with our audience to report on health costs.”

We’ve had other impact too: Here’s a sampling. Lisa Pickoff-White, senior producer at KQED, and Lisa Aliferis, the KQED health editor and lead reporter, just won a Society for Professional Journalists award for journalism innovation for PriceCheck. Pickoff-White spoke about our work at the National Institute of Computer-Assisted Reporting conference and also at the Association of Health Care Journalists conference. I was invited to speak to the California State Senate Health Committee in Sacramento about price transparency. We were asked to write about our data for the Harvard Business Review/New England Journal of Medicine collaboration, and also for JAMA Internal Medicine, the prestigious journal. We have also been invited to supply information to Covered California, the California state insurance exchange, and to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services of the federal government.

News-gathering tools change

One lesson for me in learning how to do crowdsourcing is that it’s part of the evolution of journalistic practice: In the old days, reporters went out with a pad, pencil and camera. Later, we used phones, while the old-timers told us that was lazy. Now we do some of our reporting on the Web, and deliver our reporting on that same Web.

Remember, too, that recently, reporters resisted putting their phone and email addresses on stories. Now, reporters frequently put their phone and email on stories: It’s a way of saying “come talk.”

Another thing I learned: There are significant differences in how mature news organizations and digital natives think about their conversations with their communities. The digital natives’ work may not fit this report’s definition of crowdsourcing – a specific ask, a specific task – but it is an important part of what they do.

Look at ProPublica: Engagement in their “Patient Safety” Facebook community has helped power remarkable coverage, as has their outreach over the Agent Orange investigation.

At Medium, Buzzfeed, Gawker and other sites – some more platform than publisher, some more creator than others – conversation with the community is more fluid and frequent.  (To be sure, at some digital-native sites, there’s much less conversation.)

For some mainstream organizations, confronting shrinking revenues and waves of layoffs, there’s a hesitance to devote resources to crowdsourcing.

For ClearHealthCosts, and for our partners, the practice is extremely valuable, and promises even greater rewards.  People are using each other’s finds and insights. Our readers now know things: how it may often make sense to put away your insurance card and pay cash, and whether they should actually pay $6,000 for an MRI.

We see crowdsourcing as one more example of the journalist’s listening talents, and also as the natural evolution of shoe-leather reporting—for us, today, for health costs, but also for many other news organizations and many other topics.

Elana Gordon, health reporter at WHYY, said calling out to the community to share has been “incredibly rewarding.” She added: “It has allowed us to connect with listeners in a more meaningful way and spurred valuable reporting. That has in turn fueled an even deeper conversation in our community about health care. We learned that crowdsourcing is a challenge, that it requires partnerships and relentless efforts. But if kept up, the payoff is…priceless. “

New Report: A Guide to Crowdsourcing

The Purpose of the Research

The term “crowdsourcing” has been around for a decade. Although Wired writer Jeff Howe coined it in 2006, the ways in which news organizations define and employ it today vary enormously.

This guide is organized around a specific journalism-related definition of crowdsourcing and provides a new typology designed to help practitioners and researchers understand the different ways crowdsourcing is being used both inside and outside newsrooms. This typology is explored via interviews and case studies.

During our research, we interviewed 51 people, analyzed 18 survey responses, engaged in online explorations of dozens of projects, and developed four in-depth case studies.

Definition and Typologies

Our definition: Journalism crowdsourcing is the act of specifically inviting a group of people to participate in a reporting task—such as newsgathering, data collection, or analysis—through a targeted, open call for input; personal experiences; documents; or other contributions.

Using that definition, most crowdsourcing generally takes two forms:

  • An unstructured call-out, which is an open invitation to vote, email, call, or otherwise contact a journalist with information.
  • A structured call-out, which engages in targeted outreach to ask people to respond to a specific request. Responses can enter a newsroom via multiple channels, including email, SMS, a website, or Google form. Often, they are captured in a searchable database.

We argue that crowdsourcing requires a specific call-out. If a newsroom simply harvests information or content available on the social web, we don’t believe this constitutes crowdsourcing. For us, the people engaging in crowdsourcing need to feel they have agency in contributing to a news story.

We acknowledge that crowdsourcing efforts don’t fit neatly into discrete classification, but for the purpose of this report, we’ve organized our typologies into six different calls to action:

  • Voting—prioritizing which stories reporters should tackle.
  • Witnessing—sharing what you saw during a news event.
  • Sharing personal experiences—telling what you know about your life experience.
  • Tapping specialized expertise—contributing data or unique knowledge.
  • Completing a task—volunteering time or skills to help create a news story.
  • Engaging audiences—joining in call-outs that can range from informative to playful.

Principal Findings

  • The rise of crowdsourcing correlates with the rise of the Internet and web technologies that have made it easier for journalists to identify and cultivate communities; organize data; and follow real-time, breaking-news developments.
  • Crowdsourcing leaders, like The Guardian and ProPublica, believe in the practice and integrate it thoroughly.
  • Some stories involving specialized data or unique personal experiences can be told only via crowdsourcing.
  • Crowdsourcing allows newsrooms to build audience entry points at every stage of the journalistic process—from story assigning, to pre-data collection, to data mining, to sharing specialized expertise, to collecting personal experiences and continuing post-story conversations.
  • News organizations are taking different paths toward audience growth and engagement. Some are focusing on crowdsourcing; others are interested in mining non-solicited citizen contributions through social media.
  • Good crowdsourcing efforts are high-touch, labor-intensive efforts. Journalists must determine a type of call-out, the communities to target, the method for collecting responses, and the avenues for connecting and giving back to the community of contributors.
  • News organizations must demonstrate active engagement and reward the community during the crowdsourcing process, by actively participating in comments or updating contributors on a story’s progress, to encourage more contributions.
  • Some organizations have created additional venues, such as Facebook Groups, to continue the conversation.
  • Tension exists in some news organizations around whether crowdsourced contributions are trustworthy. Experienced practitioners say this is not a problem.
  • For digital-first startups, in particular, crowdsourcing provides a way to cultivate new audiences from scratch and produce unique journalism.
  • Some news organizations are situating crowdsourcing out of newsrooms and within communities.
  • Several crowdsourcing ventures are turning into bona fide businesses, offering B2B (business-to-business) crowdsourcing solutions to media companies.
  • News consumers clearly have stories to share, but they don’t necessarily want to write the news.
  • Ways of measuring the impact of engaging in crowdsourcing initiatives and analyzing its value to a newsroom are still in development. Such measures have not been institutionalized.


The research shows that crowdsourcing is credited with helping to create amazing acts of journalism. It has transformed newsgathering by introducing unprecedented opportunities for attracting sources with new voices and information, allowed news organizations to unlock stories that otherwise might not have surfaced, and created opportunities for news organizations to experiment with the possibilities of engagement just for the fun of it.

In short, it has done just what the pundits predicted a decade ago: helped turn journalism into more of a conversation, rather than a one-way megaphone.

Crowdsourcing also deserves credit for shaping journalism into more of an iterative process: as data or stories come in from contributors, reporters see new possibilities for their journalism—and news organizations see opportunities to incrementally publish those contributions in ways that tease out more.

Certainly, though, crowdsourcing can be high-touch and high-energy, and not all projects work the first time.

For all its potential, crowdsourcing’s promise is widespread and systemic at just a few big news organizations—ProPublica, WNYC, and The Guardian, for example. At other mainstream news organizations, like CNN Digital and The New York Times, only a handful of reporters and editors—and not the institutions themselves—are the standard bearers.

To be sure, crowdsourcing businesses are flourishing outside of journalism. But within the news industry, wider systemic adoption may depend on more than enthusiasm from experienced practitioners and accolades from sources thrilled by the outreach.

We would like to see more research and evidence exploring whether crowdsourcing can foster greater support for journalism. That support might take the form of audience engagement, such as attention, loyalty, time spent on a site, repeat visits, or contributing personal stories. Or it might mean financial support from members or donors, from advertisers who want to be associated with the practice, or from funders who want to support it.

Also to be explored is whether crowdsourced stories have more real-world impact, such as prompting legislative change, than other types of journalism do.

Until this data is available and a better suite of tools and practices is developed, some news organizations may be wary of joining the ranks of long-time practitioners and investing the time and resources needed to support crowdsourcing projects.

Journalism + Silicon Valley Research Conference

Last Thursday, the Tow Center hosted its annual research conference, Journalism + Silicon Valley about the complex relationship between publishers and platforms.  Journalists, academics, and industry professionals gathered for a day of seven panel discussions and dynamic conversation on a variety of topics including the technology beat and funding journalism.  The lineup included Mark Thompson, CEO of The New York Times, and Michael Reckhow, product manager of Instant Articles at Facebook.  It was was written up by CJR.

Below is video of the full day.


The Future of News Depends on Journalists and Technologists Working Together

We talked with executives from media and technology companies to explain the developing relationship between the two industries. The topic was a source of discussion at a conference on Nov. 12, at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism.


(Editor’s Note: A version of this article was first published on The Associated Press’ Insights blog, which looks at industry trends from the perspective of AP’s employees and academic partners)

The symbiosis between two worlds — journalism and technology — that have historically had different cultures and business models, is creating both tension and opportunity.

News organizations are increasingly behaving like startups and journalists are expanding their skills beyond just reporting. They are leveraging data, building products and exploring new platforms to distribute content and grow audiences. How has this relationship changed the news industry?

Journalists are technologists

Journalism is increasingly dependent on and influenced by companies that dominate the social web. Facebook, Twitter, and Google are no longer “just platforms” — they are shaping how journalism is practiced and funded.

On the other hand, these technology companies are aware that journalism and content are crucial for the success of their businesses. For example, Facebook has been developing products such as Instant Articles, Twitter recently launched Moments and Google announced its Accelerated Mobile Pages project to help media organizations take advantage of their platforms and technologies.

“We are extremely optimistic about the future of news because of the ease with which voices of all shapes and sizes can find new audiences,” Richard Gingras, head of news products at Google, said. “And because of the various technologies that can change the very nature of journalistic expression — from the ability to use data journalism and manage our communities, to new forms of storytelling like virtual reality that can deepen our understanding of the human condition.”

Major technology companies aren’t the only prime examples of platforms influencing journalism, though. News startups such as NowThis and Newsy are creating social, mobile video and seeing success because of shifting audience demographics. Mic, BuzzFeed and Vice have also leveraged social media to their benefit.

Journalists are entrepreneurs

With shrinking budgets and revenue pressures, many newsrooms are being forced to think innovatively with the resources they have available. In fact, they are leveraging methodologies that were born in Silicon Valley, such as “design thinking,” which puts experimentation, feedback and iteration at the center of the content and product development process.

“Design thinking is a process that journalists can use to maximize their storytelling creativity and engage their audiences,” said Paul Cheung, director of interactive news at AP.

But to learn these skills, journalists are linking up with the entrepreneurial community. For instance, The McClatchy Company, The Associated Press, A. H. Belo Corporation and Community Newspaper Holdings have partnered with startup accelerator Matter to bring innovation training to their staffs through boot camps held in San Francisco.

“With the extraordinary change that technology has brought to the news and information landscape, we think that the future of news depends on journalists and technologists working together to create a more informed world,” said Steve Grove, director of the Google News Lab, also a sponsor of Matter. “Google has created many technologies and platforms that have changed the media industry — sometimes intentionally, sometimes not — which has made us a player in the media landscape, even though we’re a technology company.

“And we want to have a much more collaborative, forward-leaning effort to help build the future of the industry alongside the most innovative people and organizations in media today.”

News organizations are more connected to universities and research

The education of journalists is becoming similar to that of computer science engineers, who must learn new programming languages every year. As news consumption patterns change, journalists need to develop new storytelling and reporting tools.

“Journalists today need to be able to juggle different skill sets that might previously have been divided among a number of specialist roles,” Nathan Griffiths, AP’s interactive editor, said. “They should know how to read and write code and understand how principles of design and development impact reader comprehension and engagement. They need to understand that sometimes, the code is the story.”

News organizations are becoming closer to universities, too. Students are exposed early to media companies and execute projects with them. For example, AP brings students from different institutions to collaborate on projects that include content creation, product development and marketing strategy.

But academia is also acting as a teaching practitioner. An example is that of Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, which brings its researchers and scholars to newsrooms to trains journalists. It also organizes on-campus events for journalists and media professionals.

“With digital innovation taking place at breakneck speed, it’s crucial that media organizations work closely with academia,” said Claire Wardle, research director at the Tow Center. “The only way the news industry is going to keep up with the technical expertise of Silicon Valley is by combining the theoretical knowledge housed in universities with the practical use cases faced by news organizations every day.”

Another success case of industry-academia collaboration is that of the NYC Media Lab, an organization that connects media companies to students and researchers to develop innovative projects.

“The smartest companies in New York realize that more than ever they must engage with ideas and people outside their own walls,” said Justin Hendrix, executive director of the NYC Media Lab. “This includes universities, where ideas and talent are nurtured, and the startup community, where they are commercialized.”

News organizations are becoming venture capitalists

As traditional news organizations seek innovation and growth opportunities, millions of dollars are being invested into digital media startups. Venture capitalism is becoming a mechanism for media companies to diversify their offerings and reinvigorate their businesses.

For example, The Associated Press has invested in a startup, NewsWhip, whose technology is being used to solve needs in its newsroom. The platform enables social data mining to receive insights on which stories are trending and how to effectively deploy editorial resources. These tools are now being used by other major newsrooms, including USA Today, BBC and Bloomberg.

“Digital platforms are completely reinventing how information and stories get discovered, investigated and distributed,” said Paul Quigley, CEO of NewsWhip. “Journalists and media organizations need new tools to navigate and thrive in this environment, and that’s where the startups and new tech companies come in, innovating at the edges, and helping so-called old media become new media.”

Other companies are looking at investments as ways to grow their audience — for example, NBC with its recent investment in BuzzFeed and Vox, as well as Germany-based Axel Springer’s investment in Business Insider.

News organizations are becoming collaborative

Another path to innovation is through partnering with startups to inject new ideas and capabilities into the organization. AP teamed up with Graphiq, for example, to turn data into infographics and with RYOT News to create a virtual reality film series.

“Media and journalism are going through an incredible period of change and disruption,” said Bryn Mooser, co-founder and CEO of RYOT News. “When startups and traditional media companies can partner together, it means both can benefit. The startup can offer innovation and the established organization can offer reach and elevation.”

For a new area of opportunity such as virtual reality, other large companies are also opting to seek the partnership route. The New York Times partnered with VRSE to launch its virtual reality app and PBS FRONTLINE recently teamed up with the Tow Center and digital studio Secret Location.

New technology isn’t limited to virtual reality, though. In June, the Daily Mail partnered with ephemeral messaging startup Snapchat and advertising and public relations firm WPP to launch Truffle Pig, a joint venture that combines ad agency services, a newsroom and social media talent to produce content for brands.

“It’s been an amazing experience to work with the Daily Mail on their Discover channel and innovate alongside them,” Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel said at the time.

More of these partnerships are likely to develop over time. Is this environment setting the stage for a more interconnected media industry? Only time will tell.

Follow @TowCenter for the latest insights on journalism, innovation and the future of media.

New Report: Virtual Reality Journalism

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After decades of research and development, virtual reality appears to be on the cusp of mainstream adoption. For journalists, the combination of immersive video capture and dissemination via mobile VR players is particularly exciting. It promises to bring audiences closer to a story than any previous platform.

Two technological advances have enabled this opportunity: cameras that can record a scene in 360-degree, stereoscopic video and a new generation of headsets. This new phase of VR places the medium squarely into the tradition of documentary—a path defined by the emergence of still photography and advanced by better picture quality, color, film, and higher-definition video. Each of these innovations allowed audiences to more richly experience the lives of others. The authors of this report wish to explore whether virtual reality can take us farther still.

To answer this question, we assembled a team of VR experts, documentary journalists, and media scholars to conduct research-based experimentation.

The digital media production company Secret Location, a trailblazer in interactive storytelling and live-motion virtual reality, were the project’s production leads, building a prototype 360-degree, stereoscopic camera and spearheading an extensive post-production, development process. CEO James Milward and Creative Director Pietro Gagliano helmed the Secret Location team, which also included nearly a dozen technical experts.

PBS’s Frontline, in particular Executive Producer Raney Aronson-Rath, Managing Editor (digital) Sarah Moughty, and filmmaker Dan Edge, led the editorial process and enabled our virtual reality experiment as it was shot alongside an ongoing Frontline feature documentary.

The Tow Center for Digital Journalism facilitated the project. The center’s former research director and current assistant professor at UBC, Taylor Owen, and senior fellow Fergus Pitt embedded themselves within the entire editorial and production process, interviewing participants and working to position the experiment at the forefront of a wider conversation about changes in journalistic practice.

This report has four parts.

First, it traces the history of virtual reality, in both theory and practice. Fifty years of research and theory about virtual reality have produced two concepts which are at the core of journalistic virtual reality: immersion, or how enveloped a user is, and presence, or the perception of “being there.” Theorists identify a link between the two; greater levels of immersion lead to greater levels of presence. The authors’ hypothesis is that as the separation shrinks between audiences and news subjects, journalistic records gain new political and social power. Audiences become witnesses.

Second, we conducted a case study of one of the first documentaries produced for the medium: an ambitious project, shot on location in West Africa with innovative technology and a newly formed team. This documentary was a collaboration between Frontline, Secret Location, and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. The authors have documented its planning, field production, post-production and distribution, observing the processes and recording the lessons, missteps, and end results.

Third, we draw a series of findings from the case study, which together document the opportunities and challenges we see emerging from this new technology. These findings are detailed in Chapter 4, but can be summarized as:

  1. Virtual reality represents a new narrative form, one for which technical and stylistic norms are in their infancy.

  2. The VR medium challenges core journalistic questions evolving from the fourth wall debate, such as “who is the journalist?” and “what does the journalist represent?”

  3. A combination of the limits of technology, narrative structure, and journalistic intent determine the degree of agency given to users in a VR experience.

  4. The technology requirements for producing live-motion virtual reality journalism are burdensome, non-synergistic, rapidly evolving, and expensive.

  5. At almost every stage of the process, virtual reality journalism is presented with tradeoffs that sit on a spectrum of time, cost, and quality.

  6. The production processes and tools are mostly immature, are not yet well integrated, or common; the whole process from capture through to viewing requires a wide range of specialist, professional skills.

  7. At this point in the medium’s development, producing a piece of virtual reality media requires a complete merger between the editorial and production processes.

  8. Adding interactivity and user navigation into a live-motion virtual reality environment is very helpful for journalistic output, and also very cumbersome.

  9. High-end, live motion virtual reality with added interactivity and CGI elements is very expensive and has a very long production cycle.

  10. This project’s form is not the only one possible for journalistic VR. Others, including immediate coverage, may be accessible, cheaper, and have journalistic value.

Finally, we make the following recommendations for journalists seeking to work in virtual reality:

  1. Journalists must choose a place on the spectrum of VR technology. Given current technology constraints, a piece of VR journalism can be of amazing quality, but with that comes the need for a team with extensive expertise and an expectation of long-turnaround—demands that require a large budget, as well as timeline flexibility. Or, it can be of lower-production quality, quicker turnaround, and thereby less costly. If producers choose to include extensive interactivity, with the very highest fidelity and technical features, they are limiting their audience size to those few with high-end headsets.

  2. Draw on narrative technique. Journalists making VR pieces should expect that storytelling techniques will remain powerful in this medium. The temptation when faced with a new medium, especially a highly technical one, is to concentrate on mastering the technology—often at the expense of conveying a compelling story. In the context of documentary VR, there appear to be two strategies for crafting narrative. The first is to have directed-action take place in front of the “surround” camera. The second is to adulterate the immersive video with extra elements, such as computer-generated graphics or extra video layers. The preexisting grammar of film is significantly altered; montages don’t exist in a recognizable way, while the functions of camera angles and frames change as well.

  3. The whole production team needs to understand the form, and what raw material the finished work will need, before production starts. In our case, a lack of raw material that could be used to tell the story made the production of this project more difficult and expensive. While the field crew went to Africa and recorded footage, that footage only portrayed locations. Although those locations were important, the 360-degree field footage—on its own—was missing anything resembling characters, context, or elements of a plot. Journalists intending to use immersive, live-action video as a main part of their finished work will need to come back from the field with footage that can be authored into a compelling story, in the VR form. It is very hard to imagine this task without the field crew’s understanding of the affordances, limitations, and characteristics of the medium.

  4. More research, development, and theoretical work are necessary, specifically around how best to conceive of the roles of journalists and users—and how to communicate that relationship to users. Virtual reality allows the user to feel present in the scene. Although that is a constructed experience, it is not yet clear how journalists should portray the relationship between themselves, the user, and the subjects of their work. The conclusions section lists many of the relevant questions and their implications. Journalists, theorists, and producers can and should review these ideas and start to develop answers.

  5. Journalists should aim to use production equipment that simplifies the workflow. Simpler equipment is likely to reduce production and post-production efforts, bringing down costs and widening the swath for the number of people who can produce VR. This will often include tradeoffs: In some cases simpler equipment will have reduced capability, for example cameras which shoot basic 360-degree video instead of 360-degree, stereoscopic video. Here, journalists will need to balance simplicity against other desirable characteristics.

  6. As VR production, authoring, and distribution technology is developed, the journalism industry must understand and articulate its requirements, and be prepared to act should it appear those needs aren’t being met. The virtual reality industry is quickly developing new technology, which is likely to rapidly reduce costs, give authors new capabilities, and reach users in new ways. However, unless the journalism industry articulates its distinct needs, and the value in meeting those needs, VR products will only properly serve other fields (such as gaming and productivity).

  7. The industry should explore (and share knowledge about) many different journalistic applications of VR, beyond highly produced documentaries. This project explored VR documentary in depth. However, just as long-form documentary is not the only worthwhile form of television journalism, the journalism industry may find value in fast-turnaround VR, live VR, VR data visualization, game-like VR, and many other forms.

  8. Choose teams that can work collaboratively. This is a complex medium, with few standards or shared assumptions about how to produce good work. In its current environment, most projects will involve a number of people with disparate backgrounds who need to share knowledge, exchange ideas, make missteps and correct them. Without good communication and collaboration abilities, that will be difficult.

At a time defined by rapid technological advances, it is our collective hope that this project can serve as the start of a thoughtful industry and scholarly conversation about how virtual reality journalism might evolve, and the wider implications of its adoption. In short, this project seeks to investigate what’s involved in making virtual reality journalism, to better understand the nonfiction storytelling potential of VR, to produce a good work of journalism that affords the audience with a new understanding of elements of the story, and to provide critical reflection on the potential of virtual reality for the practice of journalism.

What follows is our attempt to articulate a moment in the evolution of VR technology and to understand what it means for journalism—by creating a virtual reality film, as well as reflecting on its process, technical requirements, feasibility, and impact.

You can read the whole report here. 

Chat apps and news: Evolution or Revolution?

Which news organizations are using chatapps

Messaging apps now have more global users than traditional social networks—which means they will play an increasingly important role in the distribution of digital journalism in the future. While chat platforms initially rose to prominence by offering a low-cost, web-based alternative to SMS, over time they evolved into multimedia hubs that support photos, videos, games, payments, and more.

While many news organizations don’t yet use messaging apps, digitally savvy outlets like BuzzFeed, Mashable, The Huffington Post, and VICE have accompanied a more traditional player in BBC News by establishing a presence on a number of these platforms. To complement our research, we interviewed leadership at multiple news outlets and chat platforms, thereby synthesizing key lessons and presenting notable case studies reflecting the variety of creative and strategic work taking place within the messaging space.

Most publisher efforts around messaging apps are still in a formative, experimental stage, but even those have often proven effective in diversifying traffic sources for digital content. Drawing upon our interviews and case studies, we identify a number of opportunities and challenges for organizations using—or hoping to use—messaging apps for news. We argue that to devise a successful messaging app strategy, publishers must understand regional strongholds, user demographics, and popular features of each app.

Advantages to the chat ecosystem include huge, untapped audiences; high engagement through push notifications; unique products like stickers and “chatbots” (see glossary for definitions); and the opportunity to build community through chat rooms and crowdsourced storytelling. Meanwhile, challenges include limited analytics tools and a fragmented social landscape boasting roughly a dozen messaging apps, each with over 50 million registered users.

Our case studies illustrate a number of ways in which major news outlets have utilized various messaging apps, each with its own niche characteristics. In the past two years, many platforms—including Snapchat, Viber, Kik, LINE, WeChat, and Telegram—introduced official channels that publishers like CNN, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, and Cliff Central now leverage for content distribution and user engagement. Other players, like WhatsApp, have no official offering for media owners, but this has not deterred organizations —most notably the BBC—from launching experimental campaigns.

Our research indicates that one of the greatest benefits of chat apps is the opportunity to use these platforms as live, sandbox environments. The chance to play and iterate has helped several news organizations develop mobile-first content and experiential offerings that would have proved difficult in other digital environments. As these services primarily and in some cases exclusively—exist on mobile phones, editorial teams have learned to focus purely on the mobile experience, freeing themselves from considerations about how content will appear on desktop websites or other broadcast mediums.

As happened after the early days of social media, before which a proliferation of services (some with regional strengths) led to intense competition for user attention, we expect to see some eventual consolidation among chat apps. While Facebook Messenger and Skype do not garner much focus in this report, we believe they could become significant players in this space over the coming year as they figure out the right proposition for their platforms to partner with media organizations.

Elsewhere, we conclude that issues around information, privacy, personal security, and mobile data penetration will unfold in different ways around the world; apps like Telegram and FireChat are among those at the forefront of addressing and solving these problems. They, in conjunction with similar applications, are likely to see an increase in user uptake as they meet needs that other major chat apps are unable to serve.

In developing editorial strategies for some of these wide-ranging messaging platforms, news organizations are not just helping to future-proof themselves, they are also venturing into online spaces that could enable them to reach hundreds of millions of (often young) people with whom they have never engaged before.

Key Observations
The key findings of this report can be summarized as follows:

  • Messaging apps offer strong opportunities to engage new or difficult-to-reach demographics. For example, Snapchat, a very popular app among millennials, has been credited with engaging and informing young audiences on complex issues like the Iran nuclear deal.
  • Innovations such as bespoke (or customized) stickers and emojis can help news outlets quickly build significant audiences via messaging apps.
  • Messaging apps enable news outlets to gather (potentially exclusive) user-generated content and can become a major source during breaking news situations (e.g., as in the BBC’s coverage of the second Nepal earthquake in 2015).
  • News outlets may need to experiment with a variety of chat apps to decipher which content type best suits the audiences of each app. BuzzFeed, for example, had considerably more success using LINE for soft news than for hard news.
  • Messaging apps can provide unique opportunities for giving audiences direct access to content and publishers, be it through tailormade WeChat platforms (Cliff Central) or Public Chats on Viber (The Huffington Post).
  • Messaging apps provide a space for news outlets to engage their audiences with different—possibly lighter—types of content (e.g., The Washington Post has used Kik to distribute games, quizzes, and chat adventures).
  • Even apps that are not as geared toward publishing as some of their competitors, such as WhatsApp, hold great potential for news outlets if used strategically.
  • Messaging apps not only facilitate communication with eyewitnesses in areas where other forms of communication aren’t functioning (e.g., during extreme weather conditions), they can also provide a platform for people who don’t feel safe speaking on the telephone. Additionally, apps such as Telegram focus strongly on encryption and security.
  • Messaging apps are not used solely to drive traffic to websites (e.g., BuzzFeed is using LINE as part of a more distributed strategy and aims to provide as much information as possible inside the app, rather than direct users to its website).
  • When sourcing user-generated content, apps like WhatsApp, which are tied to a user’s phone number, can significantly speed up the verification process as they provide a direct line to the content creator/eyewitness.
  • Messaging apps are relatively new and evolving at a rapid pace. Consequently, many news outlets are still in the process of establishing strategies to best utilize these platforms.
  • There is emerging evidence that messaging apps may drive traffic back to outlets’ other, more traditional platforms (e.g., CNN’s Snapchat Discover drove people to seek out longer-form content on CNN’s TV news channel).

This week we launched ‘A Guide to Chat Apps’ by Trushar Barot and Eytan Oren. You can read the whole report here

Tow Tea: Parsing Tech Talk

For any journalist writing about science or technology it is not uncommon to hear scientists and subject experts complain about how news organizations get facts or interpretations wrong in their stories. With technology today becoming more ubiquitous than ever before, there is an increasing interest in stories about science and technology. Consequently, are very often faced with the challenge of decoding complex technology and science jargon in the process of communicating these topics to lay readers.

On November 5, the Tow Center hosted a Tow Tea entitled “Parsing Tech Talk” in which data artist and Intercept staffer Josh Begley joined Marguerite Holloway – science journalist and Director of Columbia Journalism School’s Science and Environmental Journalism program – to help journalists think about how to write science and technology pieces that are accurate and meaningful to a wide audience.

“Don’t try and ask the big questions on the implications of the research study, because if you do, [experts] will freeze up because they don’t want to speculate and make inferences about things,” said Professor Holloway. “Ask specific, narrow questions.”

“For instance, you could pick out the methodology, or a graph or something else in the middle of the paper that you don’t understand, and ask them about it. This shows them that you have engaged with their work and are interested in getting the details. Then they begin to trust you, open up and give you the bigger picture.”

Professor Holloway also indicated that while scientists are still wary about journalists getting things wrong, they are often interested in the publicity they can offer, as funding grows tighter and grant requirements often now include a public outreach component.

As readers may be put off by jargon and technical terms, it is important to find interesting metaphors that can still accurately capture new trends and developments.

Josh Begley, a data artist at The Intercept, suggests that visualizing information using maps or graphs as part of the reporting process can help when one is trying to understand a technical topic. “My process in trying to understand complex things is a visual process. I like to for instance make a map to understand how things work, but treat it as something that can stay behind the curtains,” he says.

This will also help understand things creatively and explain them without using clichés, Begley says.
Equally important is developing relationships with sources and experts off of whom you can bounce story ideas. According to Begley, getting outside one’s “echo chamber,” is an important part of push one’s craft forward when doing science and technology journalism.

But what about professional training in math or statistics – is this a necessity for science and technology journalists? The panelists agreed that while one need not be trained in a particular subject in order to cover it, it is important to know your own limitations. One must be able to think critically about technical material, but also know when to look for help.

Another point that one needs to keep in mind while covering science and technology stories is to include any gaps and uncertainties that may be present in the data or the content. “There is nothing better than reading a story that is honest about whatever is uncertain,” Begley says.

Over time, journalists working in these areas will gain expertise, meaning that the jargon is no longer new or incomprehensible. Professor Holloway pointed out that this can be a pitfall, and that it is important to recall how one first reacted to a particular topic or phrase. “You need to make note of what strikes you when you initially read it. It is important to maintain awareness of the novice’s experience.”

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