Tag Archives: Nieman Journalism Lab

How Jeff Bezos is transforming the Washington Post


I’m excited to let you see what I worked on during the spring semester at the Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics and Public Policy: a paper on the reinvention of the Washington Post under Jeff Bezos titled “The Bezos Effect.” It’s long, but I also wrote a summary version for my friends at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

My time as a Joan Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School was incredibly rewarding. An expanded version of my paper will appear in my book-in-progress, which has a working title of The Return of the Moguls and which will be published by ForeEdge, the trade imprint of University Press of New England, in 2017.

Thinking outside the (newspaper) box: Lessons from N.J.

Previously published at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

Local news is the lifeblood of communities. But with traditional models of paying for local coverage no longer working, residents of too many cities, towns, and neighborhoods find themselves with little of the information they need to be informed, involved citizens.

Last week, the Local News Lab, launched by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation with funding from the Knight Foundation, issued a progress report on its first 18 months of working with community journalism projects in New Jersey. (Nieman Lab’s Joseph Lichterman laid out some of the findings here, focusing on the lessons for philanthropists; you can download a PDF of the full report here. And, full disclosure, Knight is also a funder of Nieman Lab.)

The report is chock full of interesting ideas about collaboration, community engagement, and the role of philanthropy. Some of those ideas are so old that they’re new again. To wit: A $5,000 experimentation grant that was used in part to purchase newspaper boxes, thus saving New Brunswick Today some $300 a month.

Over the weekend, I interviewed the report’s authors, Molly de Aguiar, Dodge’s director of informed communities, and Josh Stearns, Dodge’s director of journalism and sustainability, over email. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

DAN KENNEDY: What is the most important takeaway for someone who reads your report and is thinking about starting a community news project?

JOSH STEARNS: For someone just starting out with a local news project, the most important takeaway from our report — and our work in general — is that we are stronger working together than we are working alone. And, frankly, this is the same advice I’d give to new startups and legacy newsrooms alike.

This idea plays out over and over again in our report. So many people starting up new newsrooms feel isolated (this is true of entrepreneurs in a lot of sectors), but by developing smart partnerships, by inviting people in, and by finding networks to plug into, journalists can develop new layers of support and strength. Jim Brady of Billy Penn describes this as huddling together for warmth. But this is true outside journalism too. Researchers point to community ties and neighborhood networks as the heart of resiliency in the face of crisis.

Professional networks like NJ News Commons and the Institute for Nonprofit News are critical for sharing lessons, testing ideas, and leveraging economies of scale while retaining the unique character of each individual community site. Partnerships like the Center for Investigative Reporting’s local/national work give local journalists access to expanded capacity, unique tools, and resources to tell stories in new ways. Finally, you need to build community around your work from the very start. Invest in your community and they will invest in you.

KENNEDY: In your section on $5,000 experimentation grants, we learn that in addition to using the money to build apps and engage with social media, one of the grantees used part of it to buy newspaper boxes. It made me wonder if we all tend to have too much of a knee-jerk orientation toward technology and innovation in reimagining local journalism.

STEARNS: You are right that we tend to have a vision of innovation that is biased towards technology solutions and platform approaches. Too often, innovation means pursuing a moonshot. But the way we approached innovation was focused on strategic changes rooted in community needs. Sometimes those changes were big and tech driven — new apps, creative social media experiments — but sometimes they were small and decidedly analog, like the newspaper boxes you mentioned.

For the experimentation grants, we worked closely with journalists to assess their newsrooms’ capacity and identify community needs. We defined innovation as something the newsroom could undertake that would change the way they serve community and help them approach revenue in a new way. Innovation doesn’t have to be about trying something never done before; it can simply be about applying an old idea in a new way or in a new context. What might be a failed strategy for some could be a game-changer for others.

When the goal is to shift culture in small newsrooms that are already stretched thin, sometimes you have to tackle a lot of small changes that together can add up to a newsroom that looks fundamentally different from where you began. Focusing on incremental innovation allows you to prototype ideas, fail safely, learn, and try again.

KENNEDY: You discuss ways in which crowdfunding and what we used to call public (or civic) journalism — in its simplest form, just a matter of listening to the community — can be effective ways of building an audience for local news. Could you discuss the challenge facing journalists who are dealing with fractured communities that, increasingly, have not cared all that much about local affairs?

: Communities that appear not to care much about local affairs probably actually care a great deal about local affairs but don’t feel empowered to participate in local decision-making in meaningful ways. We know from Pew’s Local News in a Digital Age report that residents in Macon, Denver, and Sioux City have a high interest in local news — and high dissatisfaction with local news coverage. People don’t see their lived experiences or their concerns reflected in their local news sources. The challenge for journalists, therefore, is building relationships with community members from all backgrounds and earning their trust, which is both time- and labor-intensive. There are no shortcuts.

We saw this play out very successfully with our partners at The Lo-Down, whose crowdfunding campaign raised more than $27,000 and was, in many ways, the culmination of years of important neighborhood coverage that gave a voice to community members concerned about gentrification and the loss of locally-owned small businesses. We wrote a blog post about it here.

KENNEDY: I detect a tension in one part of your report. On the one hand, you say philanthropic support should be used to pay for infrastructure and experimentation, not operating costs. On the other hand, you call for local donors and foundations to support journalism in their communities. Where exactly would you draw the line on grant money and local journalism? At a time when advertising is on the wane, doesn’t it make sense for philanthropies to step up and provide some direct funding on an ongoing basis?

DE AGUIAR: Actually, the report notes that “philanthropy’s most valuable role is to nurture networks, and provide a blend of operating support with experimental dollars.” We do provide operating support to nonprofit and public media in New Jersey, and have a long history of that. However, the work we describe in the report is primarily focused on the for-profit local newsrooms we are currently working with. And in their case, we are providing experimental dollars, not operating support, in order to help their businesses become stronger. We do not want to set a precedent of providing ongoing operating support to for-profit newsrooms.

We think the two most important messages to local donors and foundations in this section of the report are:

  • Many “mom and pop” for-profit local newsrooms are mission-driven community anchors that could benefit significantly from some short-term experimental dollars to strengthen their businesses and better serve their communities.
  • While funding a specific beat is a common strategy, there are many overlooked opportunities for supporting local journalism that foundations might consider — for example, funding infrastructure (legal support, web development, ad sales, etc.) that can substantially strengthen the entire field. There is no one right way — just many underappreciated options.

KENNEDY: What are the next steps for the Local News Lab?

DE AGUIAR AND STEARNS: We’ve got some exciting experiments and projects ahead regarding new revenue streams and community engagement.

With respect to the community-engagement bucket, we launched a number of projects last year that we introduced in our report — Hearken, The Listening Post, News Voices: New Jersey, Neighborhoods to Newsrooms, among others — and this year is really about giving those projects the space and time to blossom and document what we are learning. We are going to be looking at a few very different ways to bring communities into the reporting process and foster their investment in local news, including creative uses of art, theater, community organizing, and citizen journalism.

On the business side, we are looking at how newsrooms can create collaborations like PRX’s Radiotopia in the podcast space, to combine audience and reach bigger advertisers. We are also exploring how small local newsrooms can build profitable events strategies on a shoestring budget. But to some extent one of our next steps it to simply keep doing what we are doing — mentoring and coaching newsrooms to help develop more revenue streams, deepening their engagement with community, and further strengthening collaboration across the New Jersey ecosystem. We’ve made some amazing progress, but there is still a lot left to learn.

And we are going to be focused on further documenting and sharing all our work, not only in reports but also in concrete guides, sample materials and trainings.

Snapchat news targets the young and the underinformed


Previously published at WGBHNews.org and republished in The Huffington Post.

Two years ago, then-CNN reporter Peter Hamby lamented the negative effect he believed Twitter and other social media were having on presidential campaign coverage. In a 95-page research paper (pdf) he wrote while he was a fellow at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, Hamby put it this way:

With Instagram and Twitter-primed iPhones, an ever more youthful press corps, and a journalistic reward structure in Washington that often prizes speed and scoops over context, campaigns are increasingly fearful of the reporters who cover them.

On Tuesday, Hamby was back at the Shorenstein Center, this time to tout the journalistic virtues of an even more ephemeral media platform: Snapchat, built on 10-second videos that disappear as soon as you view them. Hamby, who is barely older than the 18- to 34-year-old users he’s trying to reach, told a friendly but skeptical crowd of about two dozen that Snapchat is bringing news to an audience that is otherwise tuned out.

“Because our audience is so young, I view our mission as educational,” he said. “I think it’s OK that our mission is to illuminate the issues for young people. That’s not to say we won’t get into more serious, complicated things.”

My personal philosophy about new media platforms is to watch them from afar and to more or less ignore them until it’s no longer possible to do so. That served me well with networks like Foursquare and Ello, which seem to have faded away without my ever having to partake. On the other hand, I’ve been tweeting since mid-2008, which is about the time that Twitter’s emerging importance as a news source was becoming undeniable.

Snapchat, it would appear, has reached that turning point. It already has about 100 million daily users, the vast majority of them between 18 and 34, as Michael Andor Brodeur notes in The Boston Globe. And it is starting to branch out beyond those 10-second disintegrating videos.

The newsiest part of Snapchat is called Discover — channels from media organizations such as CNN, ESPN, Vice, BuzzFeed and National Geographic that provide short graphics- and music-heavy stories aimed at providing a little information to a low-information audience.

CNN’s fare of the moment comprises such material as the fight between Afghan and Taliban forces in the city of Kunduz; an FBI report that crime rates are dropping (a story consisting of nothing more than a video clip of a police cruiser with flashing lights, a headline and a brief paragraph); and the re-emergence of the Facebook copyright hoax.

Perhaps the most ambitious news project Snapchat has taken on — and the one in which Peter Hamby is most closely involved — is called Live Stories. Snapchat editors look for snaps being posted from a given location and, with the consent of those users, weave together a brief story. They disappear after 24 hours; the only one playing at the moment is “Farm Life: Worldwide,” which is as exciting as it sounds. But Hamby mentioned stories from presidential campaign announcements, the Iran nuclear deal, music festivals and the like that he said drew tens of millions of viewers. (If you want to get an idea of what a well-executed Live Story looks like, Joseph Lichterman of the Nieman Journalism Lab found a four-and-a-half-minute piece on the hajj that someone had saved and posted to YouTube.)

“At CNN we would cover an event with one or two cameras,” Hamby said. “With Snapchat we have everyone’s camera at our disposal.”

For me, at least, the most frustrating part of my brief experience with Snapchat (I only signed up Tuesday morning) has been finding worthwhile — or any — content that’s not part of the Discover channels or the Live Story of the moment. The search function is not especially useful. I did manage to friend several news organizations and presidential campaigns.

Any user can create a story that will stay up for 24 hours. So far, though, I’ve only managed to see relatively useless clips from Rand Paul and Lindsey Graham. Hamby gives points to former candidate Scott Walker and current candidate John Kasich for their imaginative use of Snapchat. But as best as I can tell, Kasich hasn’t posted a story in the past day. His campaign website — like those of a few other candidates I looked up — does not include his Snapchat username, even though it includes buttons for Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

Snapchat is mobile to a fault — you can install it on an iOS or Android device, but not a laptop or desktop computer. That makes it fine if you’re on the go. But for an old fogey like me, it complicates the process of finding worthwhile material. And vertical video! Yikes!

In listening to Hamby on Tuesday, I was struck by his animus toward Twitter. “I think Twitter has made the tone of the coverage more negative,” he said. “Twitter is a uniquely toxic, negative space.” And though you might dismiss that as simply putting down a competitor, he said much the same thing in his 2013 report, citing a Pew Research Center study to back him up. Hamby quoted John Dickerson, now host of CBS’s “Face the Nation,” as saying of Twitter:

It makes us small and it makes us pissed off and mean, because Twitter as a conversation is incredibly acerbic and cynical and we don’t need more of that in coverage of politics, we need less.

Will Snapchat prove to be the antidote to Twitter? Count me as skeptical. Five to eight years ago, when Twitter pioneers were using the nascent platform to cover anti-government protests in Iran and earthquakes in California, Haiti and elsewhere, we had no way of knowing it would devolve into one of our leading sources of snark, poisoning the public discourse 140 characters at a time. (And I’m not sure I agree that that’s what it’s become. I mean, come on, just unfollow the worst offenders.)

But to the extent that we have to bring news to where the audience is rather than waiting for people to come to us, then yes, Snapchat may prove to be a valuable home for journalism. I just hope it whets users’ appetites for something more substantial.

The Worcester Sun charts a path from digital to paid print

Worcester Sun co-founders Fred Hurlbrink Jr., left, and Mark Henderson.

Worcester Sun co-founders Fred Hurlbrink Jr., left, and Mark Henderson.

Previously published at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

Mark Henderson is certainly not the first person to launch a hyperlocal website in the shadow of the daily newspaper that used to employ him. Nevertheless, his ideas about how to build the site into a sustainable business are unorthodox enough to merit attention.

Henderson, a former executive with the 150-year-old Telegram & Gazette of Worcester, Mass., unveiled the Worcester Sun in August. From the start, the Sun’s content has been protected behind a hard paywall of $2 a week. There are no discounts; if you want to subscribe for a year, it will cost you $104.

Once the Sun has attracted a critical mass of paid digital subscribers (Henderson won’t reveal the magic number except to say that it’s well short of 1,000), he’ll add a Sunday paper for $1 a week, perhaps as soon as next spring. Print matters, Henderson says, because that’s still where most of the advertising is.

“If you’re going to start something new, monetizing digital is tough,” says Henderson. “And you can’t look at print as a medium without understanding that there is a ton of money still to be made there. Especially in Sunday print. We could use Sunday print to boost us into the stratosphere, to get us into a stable orbit where we can launch other things.”

Bootstrapping paid digital to break into paid print? Matt DeRienzo, interim executive director of Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers, says he’s skeptical but intrigued. “Sunday print is going against the grain. There’s a lot of reasons the cards are stacked against them,” says DeRienzo, the former editor of Digital First Media’s Connecticut publications, which include the New Haven Register. But he adds: “The best ideas are going to come from people who live in and care about their community and who are closest to the problem. Who’s to say it’s not going to work?”

With a population of 183,000 — the second-largest city in New England after Boston — and a median household income of about $46,000, more than $20,000 below the state average, Worcester is a city facing economic challenges. It’s precisely the sort of community that could benefit most from independent media projects such as the Sun, says Catherine Tumber, a scholar with the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University.

“No one else is coming to their rescue,” says Tumber, the author of the 2011 book “Small, Gritty and Green: The Promise of America’s Smaller Industrial Cities in a Low-Carbon World.” “They have to rely on their own resources and civic ecosystems in order to reconstruct their cities and maintain quality of life there.”

Last week, I met Henderson and his business partner (and cousin) Fred Hurlbrink Jr. in a brightly lit coworking space on the first floor of the Innovation Center of Worcester — formerly the Franklin Street headquarters of the Telegram & Gazette, the daily newspaper where Henderson worked for nearly 25 years. Across the street is City Hall and the Worcester Common. On the other side of the common looms the mid-sized tower that is the current home of the T&G.

Henderson, 49, rose from the paper’s sports department to deputy managing editor for technology and, starting in 2009, online director. He left on June 2, 2014, the day that John Henry, who had purchased The Boston Globe and the T&G from the New York Times Company, sold the T&G to Halifax Media Group of Daytona Beach, Florida, after previously saying he intended to sell to a local group. Halifax cut about 20 journalistsfrom the full-time newsroom staff of about 80. Further cuts came a few months later when Halifax turned around and sold the paper to New Media Investment Group, an affiliate of GateHouse Media, based in the suburbs of Rochester, New York.

Hurlbrink, 38, had two stints with GateHouse — first as a copy editor at The MetroWest Daily News of Framingham and later at the Design House, run out of the Framingham plant, which handled design and some copyediting tasks for multiple GateHouse papers. In August 2014, GateHouse announced that the operation would be closed and moved to Austin, Texas.

Even with a shrunken Telegram & Gazette, Henderson and Hurlbrink find themselves in the midst of a highly competitive media environment. In addition to the T&G, Worcester is covered by MassLive.com, part of Advance Digital; GoLocalWorcester, which has sister sites in Providence, Rhode Island, and Portland, Oregon; and Worcester Magazine, whose parent company, Holden Landmark Corporation, is controlled by GateHouse Media chief executive Kirk Davis but is not part of GateHouse.

In the face of such competition, Henderson and Hurlbrink say their plan is to steer clear of breaking news and offer depth and analysis instead. “We’re never going to cover breaking news,” Henderson says. “Will we cover the opiate epidemic rather than three people who OD’d in the last 24 hours? Yeah, we’ll take a look at that. But we’ll devote the resources to do it and give people an insight that they didn’t have before.”

The Sun’s content so far reflects that philosophy, starting with the August 9 debut, which featured an essay on the city’s bygone newspaper scene by Worcester native Charles P. Pierce, the high-profile journalist and author who these days spends most of his time blogging about politics for Esquire. The Sun has also published stories on the privacy concerns posed by surveillance cameras, the city’s sagging downtown business district, and a mother’s quest to find the educational resources she needs to help her daughter with ADHD. The site also offers such quotidian fare as profiles of local businesses, editorials and, yes, obituaries.

“I think there’s a niche,” says Timothy McGourthy, executive director of the Worcester Regional Research Bureau. “I think it provides kind of a thoughtful human-interest approach to Worcester. It’s a generally positive approach to the city. I think the challenge is going to be getting the word out in the marketplace.”

The Sun’s paywall — as well as that of the T&G — is based on technology provided by Clickshare, whose website touts the software as a “flexible system” that allows for different types of paid access, billing and payment processing, and various options for e-commerce. Bill Densmore, who founded Clickshare in the mid-1990s, believes that print and digital serve two different types of audiences — and that Henderson and Hurlbrink are smart to try to serve both.

“A lean-back experience once a week makes a lot of sense to me,” says Densmore, a research fellow at the Reynolds Journalism Institute. “It’s an experiment, really, and an important one, both for the existing industry and for people starting on the digital side and wondering where that leads. I think the marriage of print and digital makes a lot of sense, particularly if you’re not trying to put out a daily paper, which increasingly seems anachronistic to me and to people in the digital world.”

Starting and maintaining a community news site is a hard way to make a living, but the allure is undeniable. LION counts about 130 member sites, and of course there many more that are not LION members. New ones pop up regularly. Just this week, The Boston Globe reported on a project called The Spark, cofounded by a former photographer for the GateHouse-owned Enterprise of Brockton.

It’s the same allure that has kept Henderson and Hurlbrink going despite setbacks — including a $150,000 Kickstarter campaign that fell well short of the mark. So far, they say, they’ve invested $200,000 in money and time. Soon they hope to unveil the first in a line of ebooks. And they’ve got plans to launch online verticals in areas such as education and local sports. “I think there are places we can go where we can be effective,” says Hurlbrink.

If all goes according to plan, they foresee a staff of 20 full- and part-time journalists. The key, adds Henderson, is to fill a niche — and not worry about what the competition is doing.

“We’ve never said we’re here to take the T&G out,” says Henderson. “Other people have. We don’t agree with that. Our stated goal is to serve our audience, the city of Worcester, the best we can. And if we have an opportunity to grow our audience, all the better.”

New Haven Independent celebrates its first decade


Arts writer David Sepulveda with a vintage copy of the first incarnation of the New Haven Independent, which was co-founded by Paul Bass and was published for several years in the late 1980s.

Congratulations to Paul Bass and the staff and friends of the New Haven Independent, who are celebrating the community website’s 10th anniversary.

On Wednesday evening a couple of dozen people gathered at the offices of La Voz Hispana, the Independent’s partner and landlord, to toast 10 years of nonprofit online journalism. It was a lower-key affair than the fifth anniversary — Bass and crew have been so busy launching the Independent’s low-power FM radio station, WNHH, that they didn’t have time to plan a proper celebration. (The Independent is the subject of my book “The Wired City.” I wrote about WNHH recently for the Nieman Journalism Lab, and was later a guest.)

The party was emceed by Norma Rodriguez-Reyes, the president of La Voz and chair of the Online Journalism Project, the nonprofit organization that oversees the Independent and its affiliated projects — WNHH, the Valley Independent Sentinel  and the Branford Eagle.

Last week Bass marked the 10th anniversary with a special hour-long conversation on WNHH about the state of independent journalism with Rodriguez-Reyes; Christine Stuart, the editor and co-owner of CT News Junkie, a for-profit website covering politics and public policy in Connecticut; and Babz Rawls-Ivy, managing editor of The Inner-City News, an African-American newspaper based in New Haven, as well as a talk-show host on WNHH.

Among other things, Bass compares legacy media’s coverage of the decline of journalism to someone who spends all his time hanging out at a funeral home and concludes that everyone must be dead. Well worth a listen.


Mubarakah Ibrahim (left), host of “Mornings with Mubarakah” on WNHH, with her children.


Paul Bass (right) and me. Photo by Independent alumnus and current Wall Street Journal reporter Thomas MacMillan.

The New Haven Independent takes to the airwaves

WNHH station manager Lucy Gellman and New Haven Independent editor Paul Bass.

WNHH station manager Lucy Gellman and New Haven Independent editor Paul Bass.

John Dankosky stood before the 20 or so fledgling radio hosts who had crowded into the New Haven offices of La Voz Hispana de Connecticut and told them not to be afraid to assert themselves in the face of an overly talkative interview subject.

“It’s your show and it’s your microphone and they are your guests. You need to be the gatekeeper,” said Dankosky, vice president of news at Connecticut’s public radio network WNPR and host of the daily public affairs program “Where We Live.”

Dankosky was leading a session of Radio 101 for WNHH, a low-power FM (LPFM) community station scheduled to make its debut on August 11. The station is being launched by the New Haven Independent, a pioneering online nonprofit news site that debuted 10 years ago next month.

Read the rest at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

Why newspaper apps still matter


The Washington Post’s new iOS app.

Remember when the iPad was going to save the news business? How did that work out? But if the redemptive qualities of tablets turned out to be overblown, they are nevertheless a compelling platform for consuming all kinds of text and multimedia material, including news.

This morning I spent way too much time with The Washington Post’s new iOS app, which is detailed at the Nieman Journalism lab by Shan Wang. It is beautiful, with large pictures and highly readable type. I was already a fan of what the Post is now calling “Washington Post Classic.” But this is better.

So do I have a complaint? Of course. The Classic app is more complete; it includes local news (no, I have no connection to the Washington area, but it’s nice to be able to look in on occasion), whereas the new app is aimed at “national, international audiences.”

And both apps rely more on viral content than the print edition, a sluggish version of which is included in Classic.

Quibbles aside, this is a great step forward, and evidence of the breakthroughs that are possible with technology billionaire Jeff Bezos in charge. In fact, the new app is a version of one that was released last fall for the Amazon Fire. So it’s also heartening to see that Bezos isn’t leveraging his ownership of the Post entirely to Amazon’s advantage.


The Boston Globe’s new app.

Another paper with a billionaire owner has taken a different approach. Several months ago John Henry’s Boston Globe mothballed its iOS replica edition — that is, an edition based on images of the print paper — and replaced it with an app that is still print-centric but faster and easier to use. It was developed by miLibris, a French company.

The first few iterations were buggy, but it’s gotten better. In general, I’m not a fan of looking at the print edition on a screen. But I find that the Globe’s website is slow enough on my aging iPad that I often turn to the app just so I can zoom through the paper more quickly, even if I’m missing out on video and other Web extras.

One big bug that still needs to be squashed: When you try to tweet a story, the app generates a link that goes not to the story but, rather, to the Apple Store so that you can download the app. Which, of course, you already have.


The Boston Herald’s app.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the Boston Herald has a pretty nice iOS app, developed by DoApp of Minneapolis. It’s based on tiles, so it’s fast and simple to use. It’s so superior to the Herald’s creaky website that I wish there were a Web version.

Do apps for individual news organizations even matter? We are, after all, entering the age of Apple News and Facebook Instant Articles.

My provisional answer is that the news organizations should both experiment with and push back against the drive toward distributed content. It’s fine for news executives to cut deals with the likes of Tim Cook and Mark Zuckerberg. But it would be a huge mistake if, in the process, they let their own platforms wither.

Also published at WGBH News.