Announcements, announcements-home, Events, Past Events, The Tow Center

Upcoming Tow Tea: New Beats in Digital Media Thursday, September 25, 4-6 PM


Tow Tea
New Beats and Covering Diverse Beats in Digital Media

Thursday, September 25th, 2014
4:00 pm – 6:00 pm
The Brown Institute for Media Innovation

The Tow Center for Digital Journalism is thrilled to kick off our Fall 2014 Series of Tow Teas with an exciting conversation between Zave Martohardjono and David Noriega.  All are welcome and encouraged to attend.

Zavé Martohardjono is a Brooklyn-based trans* artist who works in performance, movement, video, and text. With roots in documentary filmmaking, Zavé became interested in video and media while studying International Relations and Political Economy at Brown University. He went on to grassroots filmmaking and youth media education, later receiving an M.F.A. in Media Arts Production at the City College of New York.

David Noriega is a reporter with Buzzfeed.  Born in Bogotá, Colombia, he moved to the U.S. as a teenager. He graduated from Brown University with a degree in comparative literature in 2008 before pursuing his Master’s at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Noriega is interested in covering social justice issues and the Latin American diaspora.

Open to the public

Past Events

Behind “Losing Ground” II: Q&A with Scott Klein and Al Shaw of ProPublica


We  spoke with Scott Klein, assistant managing editor, and Al Shaw, news application developer at ProPublica about the editorial decisions and satellite imagery used in “Losing Ground.”  To read more about the science behind the imagery, read a case study by Fergus Pitt here.

Smitha: Where did the idea for “Losing Ground” come from?

Scott: Mapping is an important part of what we do. We hadn’t done all that much with satellite—maybe an image or two.

I attended the Tow Center’s Remote Sensing Seminar, a two-day conference, and I started thinking, people have used this in news, but no one’s used this to do an investigative story. I started talking to Fergus Pitt about what makes sense for an investigative story and among the things we thought would be interesting was using satellites–using satellites not just to illustrate a story but also as a key way of analyzing information. So Fergus and the Tow Center very generously offered to help us.

Another thing that happened is that we had been working in the Mississippi river delta for a long time, and we knew that there was a big story happening in Southeast Louisiana that was not known outside the delta which was this soil erosion, subsidence, land loss issue.

Al: Bob Marshall at the Lens had been writing about this extensively. I had also read a book called Bayou Farewell, which is a fantastic book about the people who live outside the levees and watching the land disappear, so there were a lot of different inspirations.

Scott: One of the things we wanted to look at with satellites was the Mississippi delta. In our reporting, we found that NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, maintained a list of places to remove from maps because of climate change and soil erosion. These are settlements, marshes, bays and rivers and things like that that are now just open water, so that NOAA knows they don’t have to provide weather alerts there, because you don’t have to provide weather alerts for places that don’t exist.

So this is fascinating for us, and we had seen that nobody had covered this before. This really inspired us to start asking the question, what’s being lost?

If you drew a circle around New Orleans, everyone inside the circle knows that this is happening, everyone outside the circle doesn’t.

We said this is a story we want them all to hear, we really think there’s a compelling reason to use satellites to analyze the information and then to use the satellite images to tell the story and let them see what’s being lost, both from a 30,000 foot view, almost literally, all the way down to personal stories.

And that’s when we started thinking, who has done really compelling work in southeast Louisiana? Who has the contacts and the means and the understanding to be able to go and tell personal stories of the people whose settlements, whose culture, whose livelihoods are being destroyed?

Al: Bob Marshall has grown up and spent his entire life down there.

He actually has a boat and knows these bayous by heart. When we first started talking about this, I went down there and asked him, “Say we had satellite imagery— what are the areas that you would like to see most illuminated?” and we kind of went through a map and he said, “This is one of the most important places.” We actually started drawing boxes around places, and that’s how the reporting built up from there.

Smitha: So you had a lot of local knowledge from Bob to rely on.

Scott: That was really a key thing that we didn’t have here in New York. Again, thanks to the Tow Center, Al and some other folks  got some pretty intensive training from a studio that does satellite work as well as from Lela Prasad, a woman who used to work for NASA.

It was sort of like, when the people in the Matrix are asked, if each of you had to buy a helicopter: just over three days, there was an incredibly intensive knowledge exchange and Lela Prasad taught us exactly how to understand and work with satellite images.

And that was when things really got started.

Smitha: How easy was it to pick up this technology? Was it challenging, or was there a steep learning curve?

Al: It is somewhat of a steep learning curve. When you download these images right from NASA, they don’t look like anything really.   And the tools are still somewhat rudimentary. You kind of have to cobble stuff together. We had to actually write a bunch of new software.

Scott: Now there are also a number of satellites with different capabilities and different caveats that you have to understand.

Al: The sediment kind of looked indistinguishable from the land, so that didn’t tell our story that well. We had to color correct the images because satellites don’t make water look like what we think of as water, like bright blue, or bright green for land. The images are also shot on different days, shot from different angles, there’s cloud cover. To turn that into the big image you see on the site took a fair amount of processing.

The 1922 map, that’s a United States Geological Service (USGS) map we got from Louisiana State University, and we geo-referenced it, which basically means adding geographic data to their standard image in order to line up with the 2014 land set satellite image.

Smitha: So there was a lot of stitching together geospatial information from very different sources as well.

Al: In the intro slideshow, there are overlays from the levees, the canals, oil and gas infrastructure, and pipelines, which came from different sources in USGS, from government sources in Louisiana, from a dissertation that an LSU student had done. So a lot of different sources went into it.

Smitha: One thing that really struck me about the way the piece is put together is that it’s very simple. Even though there is a lot of complex information, it feels very easy to navigate.   How did you approach the issue of usability, the user’s experience of the site?

Scott: From the beginning we knew we wanted to make something where the maps were the main kind of metaphor. The maps were going to be the biggest thing on the page, the central spine of the interaction.

A few weeks ago we did some semi-formal user testing. We put a tweet out and sent an e-mail asking for volunteers to come and take a look at this. We watched them navigate through a draft of the app on a big screen and we asked them questions. It taught us a lot, and we cut out a lot of stuff. There was a whole different navigation metaphor that we left out.

Smitha: What are your hopes for the policy implications of this piece?

Scott: Our job as journalists is to inform the debate and give people as much information as they need to make really good decisions. Our hope for the policy piece is that we inform the debate in Louisiana. More importantly, I think focusing national attention on this will bring it needed scrutiny.

Smitha: What challenges are unique to working with satellite imagery?

Al: The raw size of the data is a big one. We went through tens of gigabytes of satellite imagery and other sources and being able to chew through that is a big barrier itself.

Smitha: The collaboration with The Lens, based out of New Orleans—-is this something you do a lot, working closely with local papers?

Scott: We do it very extensively. It’s a long tradition for us to work with local newsrooms.

Smitha: Has the cost of working on an interactive piece like this been prohibitive at all, or has it been a worthy investment?

Scott: It has absolutely been a worthy investment. The only costs have been staff time, travel—the imagery is all from the government.

Smitha: Do you have any projects similar to “Losing Ground” currently in the works or in gestation?

Scott: We do! We can’t talk about it. And this isn’t even the end of the Louisiana project, so we will have more to come.



Past Events

Why We Like Pinterest for Fieldwork: Research by Nikki Usher and Phil Howard


Nikki Usher, GWU

Phil Howard, UW and CEU


Anyone tackling fieldwork these days can chose from a wide selection of digital tools to put in their methodological toolkit. Among the best of these tools are platforms that let you archive, analyze, and disseminate at the same time. It used to be that these were fairly distinct stages of research, especially for the most positivist among us. You came up with research questions, chose a field site, entered the field site, left the field site, analyzed your findings, got them published, and shared your research output with friends and colleagues.


But the post-positivist approach that many of us like involves adapting your research questions—reflexively and responsively—while doing fieldwork. Entering and leaving your field site is not a cool, clean and complete process. We analyze findings as we go, and involve our research subjects in the analysis. We publish, but often in journals or books that can’t reproduce the myriad digital artifacts that are meaningful in network ethnography. Actor network theory, activity theory, science and technology studies and several other modes of social and humanistic inquiry approach research as something that involves both people and devices. Moreover, the dissemination of work doesn’t have to be something that happens after publication or even at the end of a research plan.


Nikki’s work involves qualitative ethnographic work at field sites where research can last from five months to a brief week visit to a quick drop in day. She learned the hard way from her research for Making News at The New York Times that failing to find a good way to organize and capture images was a missed opportunity post-data collection. Since then, Nikki’s been using Pinterest for fieldwork image gathering quite a bit. Phil’s work on The Managed Citizen was set back when he lost two weeks of field notes on the chaotic floor of the Republican National Convention in 2000 (security incinerates all the detritus left by convention goers). He’s been digitizing field observations ever since.


Some people put together personal websites about their research journey. Some share over Twitter. And there are plenty of beta tools, open source or otherwise, that people play with. We’ve both enjoyed using Pinterest for our research projects. Here are some points on how we use it and why we like it.


How To Use It

  1. When you start, think of this as your research tool and your resource.   If you dedicate yourself to this as your primary archiving system for digital artifacts you are more likely to build it up over time. If you think of this as a social media publicity gimmick for your research, you’ll eventually lose interest and it is less likely to be useful for anyone else.
  2. Integrate it with your mobile phone because this amps up your capacity for portable, taggable, image data collection.
  3. Link the board posts to Twitter or your other social media feeds. Pinterest itself isn’t that lively a place for researchers yet. The people who want to visit your Pinterest page are probably actively following your activities on other platforms so be sure to let content flow across platforms.
  4. Pin lots of things, and lots of different kinds of things. Include decent captions though be aware that if you are feeding Twitter you need to fit character limits.
  5. Use it to collect images you have found online, images you’ve taken yourself during your fieldwork, and invite the communities you are working with to contribute.
  6. Backup and export things once in a while for safe keeping. There is no built-in export function, but there are a wide variety of hacks and workarounds for transporting your archive.


What You Get

  1. Pinterest makes it easy to track the progress of the image data you gather. You may find yourself taking more photos in the field because they can be easily arranged, saved and categorized.
  2. Using it regularly adds another level of data as photos and documents captured on phone and then added on Pinterest can be quickly field captioned and then re-catalogued, giving you a chance to review the visual and built environment of your field site and interrogate your observations afresh.
  3. Visually-enhanced constant comparative methods: post-data collection, you can go beyond notes to images and captions that are easily scanned for patterns and points of divergence. This may be going far beyond what Glaser and Strauss had imagined, of course.
  4. Perhaps most important, when you forget what something looks like when you’re writing up your results, you’ve got an instant, easily searchable database of images and clues to refresh your memory.

Why We Like It

  1. It’s great for spontaneous presentations. Images are such an important part of presenting any research. Having a quick publically accessible archive of content allows you to speak, on the fly, about what you are up to. You can’t give a tour of your Pinterest page for a job talk. But having the resource there means you can call on images quickly during a Q&A period, or quickly load something relevant on a phone or browser during a casual conversation about your work.
  2. It gives you a way to interact with subjects. Having the Pinterest link allows you to show a potential research subject what you are up to and what you are interested in. During interviews it allows you to engage people on their interpretation of things. Having visual prompts handy can enrich and enliven any focus group or single subject interview. These don’t only prompt further conversation, they can prompt subjects to give you even more links, images, videos and other digital artifacts.
  3. It makes your research interests transparent. Having the images, videos and artifacts for anyone to see is a way for us to show what we are doing. Anyone with interest in the project and the board link is privy to our research goals. Our Pinterest page may be far less complicated than many of our other efforts to explain our work to a general audience.
  4. You can disseminate as you go. If you get the content flow right, you can tell people about your research as you are doing it. Letting people know about what you are working on is always a good career strategy. Giving people images rather than article abstracts and draft chapters gives them something to visualize and improves the ambient contact with your research community
  5. It makes digital artifacts more permanent. As long as you keep your Pinterest, what you have gathered can become a stable resource for anyone interested in your subjects. As sites and material artifacts change, what you have gathered offers a permanent and easily accessible snapshot of a particular moment of inquiry for posterity.


Pinterest Wish-list

One of us is a Windows Phone user (yes really) and it would be great if there was a real Pinterest app for the Windows Phone. One touch integration from the iPhone, much like Twitter, Facebook, and Flicker from the camera roll would be great (though there is an easy hack).


We wish it would be easier to have open, collaborative boards. Right now, the only person who can add to a board is you, at least at first. You can invite other people to join a “group board” via email, but Pinterest does not have open boards that allow anyone with a board link to add content.


Here’s a look at our Pinboards: Phil Howard’s Tech + Politics board, and Nikki Usher’s boards on U.S. Newspapers. We welcome your thoughts…and send us images!





Nikki Usher is an assistant professor at the George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs. Her project is Post Industrial News Spaces and Places with Columbia’s Tow Center on Digital Journalism. Phil Howard is a professor at the Central European University and the University of Washington. His project is a book on Political Power and the Internet of Things for Yale University Press.


Announcements, Events, Past Events, Research

Digital Security and Source Protection For Journalists: Research by Susan McGregor



The law and technologies that govern the functioning of today’s digital communication systems have dramatically affected journalists’ ability to protect their sources.  This paper offers an overview of how these legal and technical systems developed, and how their intersection exposes all digital communications – not just those of journalists and their sources – to scrutiny. Strategies for reducing this exposure are explored, along with recommendations for individuals and organizations about how to address this pervasive issue.







Order a (bound) printed copy.

Comments, questions & contributions are welcome on the version-controlled text, available as a GitBook here:



Digital Security for Journalists A 21st Century Imperative

The Law: Security and Privacy in Context

The Technology: Understanding the Infrastructure of Digital Communications

The Strategies: Understanding the Infrastructure of Digital Communications

Looking Ahead



Announcements, Events, Past Events, Research, The Tow Center

Tow Center Program Defends Journalism From the Threat of Mass Surveillance


Knight Foundation supports Journalism After Snowden to ensure access to information and promote journalistic excellence. Below, Jennifer Henrichsen, a research fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School, and Taylor Owen, research director, write about the expansion of the program.

We’ve long known that it’s easy to kill the messenger. Journalists are murdered all around the world for speaking truth to power. But, it wasn’t until recently that we realized how mass surveillance is killing source confidentiality, and with it, the very essence of journalism. By taking away the ability to protect sources—the lifeblood of journalism—surveillance can silence journalists without prosecutions or violence. Understanding the implications of state surveillance for the practice of journalism is the focus of our project, Journalism After Snowden.

We’re in an age of mass surveillance and it’s expanding. Metadata can reveal journalists’ sources without requiring officials to obtain a subpoena. Intelligence agencies can tap into undersea cables to capture encrypted traffic. Mobile devices, even when powered off, can be remotely accessed to record conversations. The extent of manipulation and penetration of the technology that journalists rely on to communicate with their sources makes it difficult—if not impossible—for journalists to truly protect them. And without reasonable assurances of protection, sources will invariably dry up, cutting off a supply of information about government wrongdoing which for more than a century has been a critical balance of power in democratic governance. And journalism without sources is not journalism at all; it’s public relations for the powerful.

So what can we do? With generous funding from The Tow Foundation and Knight Foundation, the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School seeks to address what we think are three core challenges facing journalism in the age of state surveillance.

First, more journalists and news organizations need to take source protection seriously. They need to conduct risk assessments and embrace digital security tools and techniques. They need to arm themselves with knowledge of their legal rights—or lack thereof—and conduct a thorough audit of how the technology platforms they use retain and release data. And more news organizations should consider implementing technologies likeSecureDrop, an open-source whistleblower submission system, which enables media organizations to more securely accept documents from anonymous sources.

Second, we need to strengthen collaboration between journalists and technologists. Bridging this professional divide is critical to ensuring journalists can reach out to trusted technologists for expertise and technologists can better understand the challenges that journalists face and create more user-friendly tools that address their needs. Journalists also need to be more skeptical when problems with their devices arise. Rather than immediately running to the Apple store to wipe their devices (which can actually hide the problem), journalists should enlist technologists to help determine if there is a more sinister cause than simple equipment malfunction. Researchers and technologists also need to join together to develop a system to collect and anonymize data showing digital attacks against journalists so researchers can analyze these attacks, ascertain potential trends and identify possible solutions.

Third, journalist educators and journalism schools need to discuss how to integrate digital security curricula into their classrooms. Currently, most journalism professors provide ad hoc digital security education—if they do at all. Digital security education needs to become more mainstream in journalism classrooms to ensure emerging journalists are cognizant of the real risks they and their sources face in this changing environment, and to foster the confidence they need to better protect both.

The Journalism After Snowden Project seeks to contribute high-quality conversations and research to strengthen the national debate around state surveillance and freedom of expression. The initiative will feature a yearlong series of events, research projects and articles that we will publish in coordination with Columbia Journalism Review, and it will forge new partnerships with the individuals and organizations that are already doing great work in this space. These will include: a workshop bringing together technologists and journalists in San Francisco, a public lecture by Glenn Greenwald; a lecture series in partnership with the Yale Information Society Project; an edited volume likely to be published by Columbia University Press; a poll on the digital security practices of investigative journalists to be published with Pew Research Center; several research reports on digital security teaching and training for journalists; and a conference on national security reporting in Washington, D.C.

By tackling these challenges together, we’ll help to prevent the death of journalism at the hands of mass surveillance and ensure journalism after Snowden is stronger, not weaker.

Past Events

Glenn Greenwald Speaks | Join the Tow Center for an #AfterSnowden Talk in San Francisco on June 18, 2014


Join the Tow Center for an evening lecture with Glenn Greenwald, who will discuss the state of journalism today and his recent reporting on surveillance and national security issues, on June 18, 2014 at 7pm at the Nourse Theater in San Francisco.

In April 2014, Greenwald and his colleagues at the Guardian received the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. Don’t miss Greenwald speak in-person as he fits all the pieces together, recounting his high-intensity eleven-day trip to Hong Kong, examining the broader implications of the surveillance detailed in his reporting, and revealing fresh information on the NSA’s unprecedented abuse of power with never-before-seen documents entrusted to him by Snowden himself.  Sponsored by: Haymarket Books, Center for Economic Research and Social Change, Glaser Progress Foundation, Tow Center for Digital Journalism – Columbia Journalism School, reserve your seat for Glenn Greenwald Speaks / Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State.

Please note: this is a ticketed event. Tickets are $4.75 each.  | Purchase Tickets

This event is part of Journalism After Snowden, a yearlong series of events, research projects and writing from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism in collaboration with the Columbia Journalism Review. For updates on Journalism After Snowden, follow the Tow Center on Twitter @TowCenter #AfterSnowden.

Journalism After Snowden is funded by The Tow Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Lauren Mack is the Research Associate at the Tow Center. Follow her on Twitter @lmack.

Past Events

Tow Center Launches Amateur Footage: A Global Study of User-Generated Content in TV and Online News Output


Crediting is rare, there’s a huge gulf in how senior managers and newsdesks talk about it and there’s a significant reliance on news agencies for discovery and verification. These are some of the key takeaways of Amateur Footage: A Global Study of User-Generated Content in TV and Online News Output published today by the Tow Center of Digital Journalism.


The aim of this research project was to provide the first comprehensive report about the use of user-generated content (UGC) among broadcast news channels. UGC being – for this report – photographs and videos captured by people unrelated to the newsroom, who would not describe themselves as professional journalists.


Some of the Principle Findings are:

  • UGC is used by news organizations daily and can produce stories that otherwise would not, or could not, be told. However, it is often used only when other imagery is not available. 40% of UGC on television was related to Syria.
  • There is a significant reliance on news agencies in terms of discovering and verifying UGC. The news agencies have different practices and standards in terms of how they work with UGC.
  • News organizations are poor at acknowledging when they are using UGC and worse at crediting the individuals responsible for capturing it. Our data showed that: 72 percent of UGC was not labeled or described as UGC and just 16 percent of UGC on TV had an onscreen credit.
  • News managers are often unaware of the complexities involved in the everyday work of discovering, verifying, and clearing rights for UGC. Consequently, staff in many newsrooms do not receive the training and support required to develop these skills.
  • Vicarious trauma is a real issue for journalists working with UGC every day – and it’s different from traditional newsroom trauma. Some newsrooms are aware of this – but many have no structured approach or policy in place to deal with it.
  • There is a fear amongst rights managers in newsrooms that a legal case could seriously impact the use of UGC by news organisations in the future


This research was designed to answer two key questions.  First, when and how is UGC used by broadcast news organizations, on air as well as online?  Second, does the integration of UGC into output cause any particular issues for news organizations? What are those issues and how do newsrooms handle them?


The work was completed in two phases. The first involved an in-depth, quantitative content analysis examining when and how eight international news broadcasters use UGC.  1,164 hours of TV output and 2,254 Web pages were analyzed here. The second was entirely qualitative and saw the team interview 64 news managers, editors, and journalists from 38 news organizations based in 24 countries across five continents. This report takes both phases to provide a detailed overview of the key findings.


The research provides the first concrete figures we have about the level of reliance on UGC by international news channels. It also explores six key issues that newsrooms face in terms of UGC. The report is designed around those six issues, meaning you can dip into any one particular issue:

1) Workflow – how is UGC discovered and verified? Do newsrooms do this themselves, and if so, which desk is responsible? Or is UGC ‘outsourced’ to news agencies?

2) Verification – are there systematic processes for verifying UGC? Is there a threshold that has to be reached before a piece of content can be used?

3) Permissions – how do newsrooms seek permissions? Do newsrooms understand the copyright implications around UGC?

4) Crediting – do newsrooms credit UGC?

5) Labeling – are newsrooms transparent about the types of UGC that they use in terms of who uploaded the UGC and whether they have a specific agenda?

6) Ethics and Responsibilities – how do newsrooms consider their responsibilities to uploaders, the audience and their own staff?


The full report can be viewed here.

Past Events

Tow Center Launches Three Tow Reports on UGC, Sensors, and Data-driven Journalism


The Tow Center team is thrilled to launch three new research reports.

Amateur Footage: A Global Study of User-Generated Content in TV and Online News Output, written by Claire Wardle and Sam Dubberley is the result of a major global study into the integration of User Generated Content (UGC) in news output in television broadcasts and online.

Sensors and Journalism, led by Fergus Pitt and including a wide range of contributors, explores how recent advances in sensor networks, citizen science, unmanned vehicles and community-based data collection can be used by a new generation of sensor journalist to move from data analysis to data collection.  The report critically reviews recent prominent uses of sensors by journalists, explores the ethics and legal implications of sensing for journalism, and makes a series of recommendations for how sensors can be integrated into newsrooms.

The Art and Science of Data-Driven Journalism, by Alex Howard provides a recent history and current best-practices in the space of data and computational journalism, based on dozens of interviews with industry leaders.

This research was made possible by grants from the Knight and Tow Foundations.  More details on the Tow Center research program can be found here.

All three reports will be launched at today’s Tow Center conference Quantifying Journalism: Data, Metrics, and Computation which will also include panels on newsroom metrics, data journalism, and sensors as well as talks by a range of Tow Fellow.  Further information on today’s conference can be found here.  All sessions will be broadcast live starting at 9am (EST) here.

Past Events

LIVE BLOG: Quantifying Journalism: Data, Metrics, and Computation

From left: Amanda Cox, Dan Gardner, and Mark Hansen.

From left: Amanda Cox, Dan Gardner, and Mark Hansen.

UPDATED June 3, 2014:

The following is the Live Blog from the Tow Center’s first Tow research conference Quantifying Journalism: Data, Metrics, and Computation held Friday, May 30, 2014 at Columbia Journalism School.

The day-long conference included panel discussions, lectures, lightning talks, and the launch of three Tow Center reports. All sessions can be viewed here: 

Download a PDF of the Conference Program Live Blog curated by

Yumi Araki (@yaraki)
Lauren Beck
​Rachel Delia Benaim
Anna Ruela-Browne
Julien Gathelier
​Jessica Quan Li (@CURJournal)
Rachel Lowry​ (@rachelllowry)

9:15am–10:30am PANEL | Beyond Clickbait: How are news organizations actually using analytics, and what does It mean for content?

  • Caitlin Petre, Tow Fellow (@cbpetre)
  • James Robinson, Director of News Analytics, The New York Times (@JamesGRobinson)
  • Tony Haile, CEO, Chartbeat (@arctictony)
  • Daniel Mintz, Director of Business Intelligence, Upworthy (@danielmintz)

[9:10 a.m.] Welcome to the live blog! We’re kicking off today’s talks with a subject that is on the minds of many newsrooms: how to leverage analytics to drive meaningful traffic. Our panelists are just about to hit the stage.

Tune into our live stream!

IMG_4173 [9:15 a.m.] Tow Center Director Emily Bell (@ takes the stage and welcomes the panel to the Tow Center’s first research conference.   [9:20 a.m.] “We need to talk about the hashtag!” [9:21 a.m.] Caitlin Petre introduces the panelists on stage.      Petre says the goal for the talk is to map out the landscape of metrics, and to gain a more nuanced understanding of how newsrooms are using metrics. Tow-Panel [9:27 a.m.] Tony Haile, CEO of Chartbeat takes the mic. Haile informs the crowd that even when newsrooms have data, it’s difficult to precisely predict reader engagement. Choosing the right metrics to align the end-goal is important. Here are some of the trends Haile has noticed in the world of analytics:

“Caring about traffic to caring about audience.”


“New and better ways to measure.”

[9:35 a.m.] Petre introduces Daniel Mintz, Director of Business Intelligence of Upworthy: Mintz says choosing the right metric to measure audience engagement is vital. He says there is a distinction between page views, clicks, and how long a user spent on a page, article, etc. (Upworthy uses a metric called Attention Minutes.)

“Data just for data’s sake is useless.” “You are what you measure.”

Mintz says that as Upworthy fights the zero-sum game for attention for things that really matter, choosing the right kind of metrics to advance the website’s goals is the way to go. [9:41 a.m.] Petre introduces James Robinson, Director of News Analytics at the New York Times: The difference between reporting and insight-generated analytics.

“How did my story do?”

Metrics are “a means to an end.”

[9:50 a.m.] Petre throws out a question to the panel about commensuration: how do we compare metrics? Can we compare them?

Petre then asks, who is going to be interpreting the data? Who should and who does have the role of interpreting the data? Should it be reporters? Should it be the ones who understand what a p-value is? Editors? “The answer is ‘yes’,” says Haile. Haile says the key question is: “What can I do for this story right now?”

“If you just give numbers to people, that’s no good.”

Mintz says that data is only useful insofar as it helps make decisions in context. His analytics team handles engagement; his business team handles monetizing the engagement. Robinson doesn’t have a rule about who handles the analytics.

Here are some thoughts from the audience: 

[10:09 a.m.] Questions from the audience:

Q: What’re some of the metrics used?

A: Are you paying attention to the content or not? Mintz says you can pull up a video’s API (application programming interface) and see how long a user is playing the video. (This is like Upworthy’s Attention Minutes.) Google analytics is “super janky” and better for measuring engagement on e-commerce sites, not necessarily for news/content.

Q: To what extent are advertisers considering attention?

A: Hale says “increasingly.” Brands advertisers want to be able to communicate their message to audiences that are paying attention. Advertisers are increasingly getting specific about how much time they want to show their ads to X customer.

Q: What are good tools to measure social shares?

A: There are a set standard given tracking tools – Haile Mintz recommends buying off-the-shelf internal analytics suites. Robinson says social and mobile are often connected.

Q: [To Robinson] – Any advice for building up a baseline for parsing out differentiation (of users)? What are the most valuable lines to draw–is it age? Demographics? 

A: Robinson says they’re still in the prototype days [so it's hard to say, exactly].

Q: Where do we draw the line between making decisions based on data versus based on intuition and experience?

A: Robinson says it’s a combination of both relying on analytics, statistics, and intuition. Mintz says, “I ask people to tell me a story.” If you can’t tell him how A got to B, then there is no correlation.

That’s a wrap! Stay tuned in for our next panel.


TOW REPORT LAUNCH | The Art and Science of Data Journalism

  • Alexander Howard, Tow Fellow

[10:35 a.m.] Alexander Howard says data and programming originated in the 1960s with computer-assisted reporting, and has since escalated to a surge in data creation, with the addition of new devices: “This is a trendy thing, but not a new thing.”

[10:40 a.m.] Howard applauds news outlets such as WNYC, New York Times and La Nación for innovative data journalism. 

[10:44 a.m.] “This is just another set of tools, but the story itself still matters,” Howard says, predicting that data journalism will cease to be a niche in the future. “We don’t talk about telephone journalism, or email journalism — it’s just journalism.”

[10:48 a.m.] Howard says people need to understand the basics of data analysis and numeracy: average vs. median, statistical significance, correlation and causation.

[10:56 a.m.] There is this huge amount of data flowing now, Howard says. From startups to social data flowing online on social networks, as well as open government data platforms, there is an explosion of tools that allows people to put data to use and make sense of it. A question of rights to these data mining tools becomes relevant. [10:59 a.m.] Howard says there are new risks for discrimination, with personalized red lining. “People who understand data and statistics will find examples of it.” [11:05 a.m.] “Data journalism is the new punk,” Howard says. “Anyone can learn new punk. And there is a lot of bad punk music out there, but the fact is that we all can learn these things.” He says we won’t all be computer whizzes right away, but there are many opportunities for data journalism for the masses. [11:09 a.m.] Howard notes the necessity of government data.

[11:09 a.m.] Data-ism is a thing, Howard says. Embrace it. Be a skeptic. This kind of work matters to reach everyone and report on everyone.


Alexander Howard, Tow Fellow

@rachelllowry: stay tuned for our next panel. 11:30am–12:45pm

PANEL | Data: What is (and isn’t) it good for?

  • Jonathan Stray, Tow Fellow
  • Amanda Cox, Graphics Editor, The New York Times
  • Dan Gardner, Author and Journalist
  • Jen Lowe, Data Scientist, datatelling
  • Mark Hansen, Director, David and Helen Gurley Brown Institute for Media Innovation & Professor of Journalism, Columbia University

[11:32 a.m.] “Data is never just data,” Jonathan Stray says. “It’s never about answering the question.” There are politics attached to it. “Can you really use data to decide whether two people of the same gender can marry? Stray says much of what journalists deal with are empirical questions that we cannot use data to answer. Sometimes, he says, it’s difficult to determine which.

[11:41 a.m.] Data-backed journalism is opinion journalism, Stray says, quoting Richard Lanham: “There is no truth. There is only opinion.” 

[11:48 a.m.] And yet on the other hand, our political system would not work without data, Stray says. How, then, to reconcile between the two and distinguish between quantitative vs.qualitative?   

[11:48 a.m.] Dan Gardner says the problem today is ignoring the empirical evidence unless it happens to coincide with our biases. How to guard against such biases? “You have to demand more and better evidence,” Gardner says. He hopes one day the real problem is that we are paying too much attention to the data. For Gardner, we’ve got a long way to come.  [12:02 p.m.] It is important to be aware of the human side of data and its implications, Mark Hansen says. Journalists should be able to interrogate and tell stories around data: “Stories may come from a clever use of data that was used for an entirely different purpose,”Hansen says. “Data can be a source of speculation, exploration and answers. It can be useful for helping us arrive at the right question.” [12:08 p.m.] Stray: At the onset of increasingly sophisticated models and techniques, if we can’t explain how we arrived at a conclusion, nobody will believe us. [12:10 p.m.] Gardner spoke on an upcoming book he is authoring. The book brings in volunteer intelligence analysts who have access to classified information: “One of them is a pipeline worker in Alaska,” Gardner says. “And he’s kicking the CIA’s ass.”

photo (2)

Left to right: Jonathan Stray, Amanda Cox, Dan Gardner, Mark Hansen.

[12:25 p.m.] Stray asks if journalism should be representative. And if so, with who and how do we do that? “Journalists do a lot of generalization without really looking at it closely.” How to guard against that? [12:28 p.m.] Often, Gardner says, journalists and politicians must make an empirical claim to cover a morale claim. Good journalism has to have both a data and a non-data component. [12:31 p.m.] Stray asks, if we want to improve the quality of data journalism, does there have to be a standard? Gardner : “It’s that great collective argument that eventually hashes out the truth.” [12:35 p.m.] Hansen adds: Yes, we need to set best practices and be tool builders and not tool users, but it can be a trap to focus on the places we get it wrong, rather than pay attention to the places where we get it right.

[12:36 p.m.] Questions from the audience:

Q: Is it even possible to do representative journalism and can we learn from non-representative journalism?

A: No, Cox says. She is comfortable with slight bias: “Representativeness is not always desirable.”

Q: Are journalists going to be able to use data to call out bullshit on politicians?

A: Gardner says data there are many strong improvements: You have to have some faith in the progression of man and as politicians are being held to the fire, we are seeing more evidence that data can reward that kind of behavior. Hansen agrees. But he says there needs to be a place where children, at a k-12 level, learn how to use data.

LUNCH TALKS | Reports from Tow Fellows ongoing Tow Research Projects

  • Andy Carvin
  • Brian Abelson and Michael Keller | NewsLynx
  • Nicholas Diakopoulos | Data Journalism: Algorithmic Accountability
  • Susan E. McGregor | Journalism Security

Brian Abelson and Michael Keller discuss NewsLynx: A suite of open source tools for online analytics and a research project.   It combines data from many sources (Google Analytics, Twitter, Facebook, Press Clippings, etc.); incorporates a framework for logging qualitative ‘impact events’.

Brian Abelson and Michael Keller on Newslynx

Brian Abelson and Michael Keller on Newslynx

Software features:  tracking of social media “mentions” and “likes” over time and integration with Google Analytics. Nicholas Diakopoulos, Tow Fellow, talks about algorithmic power.  @ndiakopoulos says algorithm is becoming pervasive in society, including in romance. Open questions about algorithms:  How is an algorithm discriminatory/unfair? Does it make a mistake that denies a service?  Censorship?  Breaks the law or social norm?  False prediction? Diakopoulos’ research addresses teaching journalists algorithmic accountability, legal issues, algorithms in the newsroom and transparency policy. [1:37] Susan E. McGregor presents her paper, which will be released in full next month, on source protection. “If we don’t have sources, we don’t have journalism,” she said.

Susan McGregor on Journalism Security

Susan McGregor on Journalism Security

Source protection is non negotiable, she said. All reporters needs to worry about source protection, not just national security reporters. There is a new technology known as Stingrays that can be used to hack cell conversations. These devices mimic and cell phone tower and can be used to triangulate the location of a cell phone signal. The majority of the devices are controlled by the federal government, but sometimes they are shared with local law enforcement officers who use the tech to identify communications. Unfortunately there isn’t a lot of clarity about what our [reporters] rights are in the context of the law. There is often a sense of helplessness when thinking about how to resolve these protection issues.McGregor suggests that we need to educate ourselves about what is visible, and how these systems work so we can protect ourselves. We need to educate; we need to organize; we need to innovate. “Digital security is herd protection.” By our doing due diligence and learning about and using digital security, we will be doing a service to all reporters around the world that may not have access to this sort of technologies. Look out for McGregor’s full report, which will be released on June 18th! [1:48] Andy Carvin on Broken News. Carvin speaks about what happens when new organizations get it wrong, and social media makes it worse.

Andy Carvin on Broken News

Andy Carvin on Broken News

He recounts NPR’s misreporting of Gabby Gifford’s shooting/death. The misreporting took place on social media, but the correction did too. Through social media because of the inherent column response nature of it, there is a quick way to correct misinformation/misreporting.

A similar situation happened with the Newtown Massacre when CNN misreported Ryan Lanza as the “murderer.” This information spread like wildfire on Twitter. Boston Bombing: Carvin flips the data-approach on its head. Here, online communities made the mistake and the media followed, as opposed to the other way around like with the Gifford and Newtown cases. What I’m really trying to do is understand the interplay between social media and the news cycles, he says. Corvin’s project will look at how journalists can embed themselves in these communities and avoid these mistakes. [2:00pm] Journalism by the numbers: Measuring a rapidly moving target. Jesse Holcomb (speaker)

Jesse Holcomb on The State of Data on Journalism

Jesse Holcomb on The State of Data on Journalism


“We do data–that’s our hedgehog on politics” “we try to tell big stories” How is journalism being produced, consumed, and distributed? [2:06pm] “let’s get journalism out of the ivory tower,” says Holcomb. [2:09pm] Holcomb exploring the nonprofit news landscape. Remark: we seem to be publishing data journalism about data journalism… Questions that remain from ongoing conversations: What is a non-profit news room? How many are there? 16,000 news jobs lost in the past decade. What’s happening in digital news publishers? 5000 jobs hosted by about 500 digital news outlets. [2:13pm] With rising citizen efforts in measurement, we still have limitations in how well we can collect data. Data on digital revenue has been harder to come by. [2:15pm] Professional Journalism Revenue: $63-65 billion today. Ratio of revenue distribution has changed, more in favor of audience and non-traditional revenue. Media deserts–sources that lack good information, often which serve communities of color, that speak English as a second language. What are some data challenges that we’re encountering today. The CNN’s, Buzzfeeds, etc.–how are we evaluating the engagement, consumption, quality of these sources? It’s harder than ever for people to remember where they got their news–so many sources, whether radio, newspaper, TV, online/mobile news. Variation in social desirability of  “Important” information. Young people consider news part of the social atmosphere–present on Facebook, etc. “Ambient” news–present on feeds, but not as actively sought out. [2:20pm] We are finding that it is becoming increasingly difficult to aggregate and normalize data from social media sites–secured by firms, guarded by individual users, etc. makes studying digital and social news behavior more and more difficult. Shout out to work being done at MIT — mapping diffusion of information on digital and social networks. Detecting and Tracking Political Abuse in Social Media: Modeling Social Diffusion Phenomena using Reality Mining: Trends Prediction Using Social Diffusion Models: Information Diffusion Through Blogspace: Holcomb warns that audiences ought to continue to expect incomplete, imperfect sources of data and information.

Emphasizes the importance of remaining transparent about how much exactly data can say, the validity of studies.

[2:30pm] Families are becoming more and more multi-screen users. Watching various news sources simultaneously. So we start to see the disappearance or obsolescence of certain legacy platforms, but they’re not going away tomorrow, and are still important to our studies. Our obligation is to understand how people are still engaging with news and information in places where they have not become completely digitally immersed.

Check out this storify, made by Yangbo Du @mitgc_cm

2:45pm–3:30pm TOW REPORT LAUNCH | Amateur Footage: A Global Study of User-Generated Content in TV and Online News Output

  • Claire Wardle, Tow Fellow
  • Sam Dubberley, Tow Fellow

[2:51pm] Now, in 2014 we take social media involvement in current event information dissemination for granted, says Wardle. “User-generated content” — anyone have suggestions for a better phrase? requests Wardle. UGC is the wild west–no normalization of practices. Many news rooms, as a consequence, really wanted to know what other news rooms were doing. [2:55pm]: Two phases of the research, as described by Wardle: 1) The How, When, and Why that the issues are built upon. Quoted 8 news channels from around the world, to look at UGCs, international scope. Found a way to record the channels (surprisingly most news channels don’t actually record their own outputs). Observed the differences among news sources–internet vs. TV–and how they used UGCs. The news sources of different countries also broadcast these findings at different rates, in different amounts. Some countries making motions to use UGCs as data. [3:05pm] “the V word: Verification” Journalists often groan when asked to verify things, yet news sources are always absolutely terrified of putting out incorrect information, which is why they are especially hesitant to rely on social media sources for information. How do we verify information? Claiming experience as a journalist who has been in the field for X number of years is simply not sufficient–how about the empirical methods we have developed to study the flow and sourcing of information that have been put on on social media outlets? –Wardle, on Verification. Journalist need to take the legal aspects of crediting and verification seriously. Their reaction to advocates for properly crediting sources is often that their creativity is being “stifled” and that this whole issue is simply “bollocks.” –Sam Dubberley, on Crediting. [3:10pm] Crediting vs. Labeling. Naming the source of the photo vs. simply acknowledging that it isn’t your own. Being transparent with your audience about where the information and photography is coming from, whose work is it? Need an industry standard for how we ought to site and label content. [3:15pm] Present some suggestions: 1) crediting: often news rooms gave “screen cluttering” as a reason for not crediting sources 2) news room technology: even news rooms with advanced media asset management system, they could not process the details about information used. credit needs to be burned into the UGC video before it enters the system, so that information is not lost in the process 3) agencies: all have different standards. news rooms need to ask some important questions. Reuters, for example, do not credit and can’t even if they wanted to because they so often do not speak to their sources in a room, so there’s no way of knowing the accuracy of the identities of the sources. 4) social networks need to work towards developing a standard of use 24/7 for news sources that is like creative commons–to have a common standard across industry so news rooms can know what they can do with content. 5) very limited resources, very limited training for journalists to develop these skills and to be aware of these practices.

Question: What sources can journalists look to learn these skills?

Answer: Verification handbook, by Craig Silverman. Specifies how to verify videos, tweets. Can use storify as well. Rise of these sources of learning how to credit. Absence of these skills in newsrooms–really worth the time, if you’re a freelancer, to look into these.


 REPORT LAUNCH | Sensors and Journalism

  • Fergus Pitt, Tow Fellow
  • Scott Klein, Assistant Managing Editor, ProPublica
  • Shannon Dosemagen, Co-founder and Executive Director, Public Lab
  • Joe Procopio, VP of Product, Automated Insights
  • Nabiha Syed, Associate, Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz

Fergus Pitt, on Robot Reporters, and what new journalistic data gathering tools, such as drones and sensors are on the horizon.

Sensors and Journalism — report.

[3:30pm] Joe Procopio elaborates on the development of automated content, and its application to a wide array of websites. Algorithms for tone, style, topic, lexicon, prioritization of content. Usually applied to content that journalists leave out–fantasy football, etc. recaps of sports, diverse, thousands at a time, compiling information in a timely manner, presenting this information to journalists, efficiently canceling out outliers, as long as data is there Automated Insights can provide insights.

[3:35pm] Scott Klein, Propublica. Nonprofit news outlet–producing long-form investigative journalism. Speaking on satellite journalism. News Applications–data journalism effort, statistics, data science, build large-scale interactive databases, tools that allow you to look up why data is important and interesting to individuals and their communities.

[3:40pm] reference sensor journalism workshop at the tow center:

[3:45pm] Using satellite journalism to draw attention to important phenomena–for instance, the fact that Louisiana is experiencing serious land erosion at its southern coast–seen from above, losing football-sized pieces of land every hour.

Using people’s stories, audio, photographs, satellite imagery, to tell stories and to enhance journalism.

New way of recording history, live cams of ongoing problems, orbiting satellites capturing sections of the earth quickly every day.

[3:50pm] Shannon Dosemagen, Co-founder + Executive Director of Public Lab

Nonprofit, open source community supporter. For open Technology and Science. Started low-cost air sampling. Worked with environmental justice groups. During BP oil spill, complete media blackout–took to boats, beaches, with basic cameras on balloons to take pictures of the events as they unfolded. 100,000 different images. Mapped about 100 miles of coastline in a community-driven manner.

Created open source software platforms to allow this data to be sent out to the public. Created open-archiving systems to allow individuals to download metadata, maps, to see exact coordinates, the individuals involved in creating the data, videos, pictures, ground-field notes, etc. Doing work now on air quality sensing, water quality sensing.

Community-driven monitoring. Engage people as researchers, not as subjects. Creating access–to low-cost tools to involve people in community monitoring, journalism, involve individual in the process of science and journalism. Pull complexity off the shelf. Turn simple camera into effective data-collection device. Reimagining our relationship with the manufacturing environment.

[3:55pm] Build in openness and accountability. Create collaborative workflows. Maintaining public data archives. Mainstream true accountability. Creating local versions of tools. a tool from @PublicLabs that allows you to stitch together aerial photos. #towtalk

— Nick Diakopoulos (@ndiakopoulos) May 30, 2014 [4:00pm] Losing a sense of concepts like good, bad, superlatives, the number 10, in favor of percentages, ratios, etc. — values in context, rather than raw data. Producing a more robust report. Saying an athlete “had a great day” vs. an athlete had x number of touch downs, performing at what percentile compared to other players or him/herself– Joe Procopio “We don’t have to be great but we can never be wrong.” – Joe Procopio, VP of Product at Automated Insights, on automated journalism #towtalk — Matt Waite (@mattwaite) May 30, 2014

  [4:08pm] Public lab: emphasizing access. — Shannon Dosemagen Federal agencies have approached @PublicLab about helping to fill gaps in their data #towtalk — Current Public Media (@currentpubmedia) May 30, 2014Lots for newsrooms to learn from @PublicLab‘s process in terms of openness, transparency, engagement and more. Thanks @sdosemagen. #towtalk — Josh Stearns (@jcstearns) May 30, 2014

[4:09pm] producing new knowledge and information — research scientists and journalists come at things with different intensions, use the same tools, but are after the same “truth.” Very much a symbiotic flow between the two fields. — Scott Klein.  9 Key Principles for Open Tech, by @PublicLab: Summary of @SDosemagen‘s #TowTalk — Jeremy Caplan (@jeremycaplan) May 30, 2014  [4:11pm] Bottom-up research. Problem identified by community member, calls upon team of interdisciplinary forces to come together to engage people in solution. — Shannon Dosemagen.

  The idea of translating the intention of these satellite tools will be the next challenge. So long as we emphasize that these efforts are expressive, then these efforts are safe in 1st amendment territory. It is key, then, to highlight the fact that these robots are actually directed by real people with real goals. — Nabiha Syed.


Thanks all for coming and following Tow Center at today’s “Quantifying Journalism” Conference at Columbia University! Feel free to follow up with us with any questions and comments you have after the event! Looking forward to hearing from you all! Top Tweets from Today’s #TowTalk “Quantifying Journalism” Event via @SeenCo

Past Events

TAKEAWAY: Tow Tea on Digital Security


Around 30 people gathered to attend the Tow Tea on Digital Security on May 1.

The Tow Tea, which featured guests from the Guardian Project and Tor, began with a question from the Tow Center’s Assistant Director Susan McGregor, who moderated the conversation.

“How can you be sure a car will never hit you?” asked McGregor. “Security in the real world isn’t perfect, just how security isn’t perfect in the digital world.”

She listed different kinds of threats, including physical threat and legal threats, and said one of the first things people can do to protect themselves is not leave their laptops and phones anywhere – whether it is while going to a bathroom at a conference or while heading out to lunch.

To avoid legal threats, she suggested deleting emails more than three months old.

“Once you delete everything, Google can no longer be compelled to produce them [emails],” said McGregor, adding that it is expensive for Google to produce them again. She suggested uing applications like Thunderbird to open all old content. She also recommended opening emails, downloads, and attachments on your web browser before downloading them to the computer.

McGregor stressed the importance of encrypting all files and using browsers like Tor to browse the Internet. Tor Project Anonymity Online is a network of virtual tunnels that prevents people from learning your location or browsing habits.

“Your password means nothing until you encrypt your file,” said McGregor. “Like all security, encryption is not unbreakable but it is expensive.”

A Tor representative later explained how to use Tor, and why it was an effective mechanism to secure privacy on the Internet. Tor bounces your signal to another location so it is obscure to anyone watching.

Among other security measures, she suggested using only WPAs (Wi-Fi Protected Access) and WPA2, two security certification programs developed to secure wireless computer networks, for local protection on your computer, and looking for https (Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure) connection everywhere.

“Also use multiple service providers. Diversity is a good thing in all aspects of life,” said McGregor.

Shiwani Neupane is the Tow Center’s Digital Media Associate.