Non-profit investigative reporting sites do one thing, do it well

Kristen Lombardi at Dan Kennedy's Reinventing the News class, March 22

Investigative reporters are probably seen by accountants and others who stare at spreadsheets as big money losers. It’s not totally unwarranted. A daily newspaper is pretty much in the business of writing daily news, and investigative stories take months, if not years, to report. That means investigative reporters aren’t exactly turning over stories quickly.

Kristen Lombardi works for the Center for Public Integrity, a non-profit site started decades ago by an ex-“60 Minutes” reporter who was “frustrated by commericail media and an inability to do deep-digging investigative projects,” she said.

“Much of my work at the center has been what you’d call an investigation hidden in plain sight,” Lombardi said. “It’s not as if these stories weren’t out there for mainsteam reporters to seize upon. Nobody, I think, had the time or resources to deal with them.”

Lombardi, who is a 2011-12 Nieman Foundation fellow, said she came to the center after taking a buyout from the Village Voice. Out of a job, she said she didn’t want to go back to daily assignment reporting and wanted to work at an online publication, seeing that as “being ahead of the curve.”

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Final project: How college newspapers manage their online presence

My final project will compare at least two college newspapers in the Boston area and evaluate their online presence. This will take into consideration a website, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media accounts and the frequency all of these platforms are updated and maintained.

I’ve chosen the Daily Free Press, BU’s independent student newspaper, and plan to speak with Managing Editor Tim Healey and, if possible, Editor in Chief Chelsea Diana. The Daily Free Press is significant among Boston student papers because it’s long been independent from the university’s resources, something I think greatly affects editorial processes and what’s possible with editorial content that can be regulated by administrators.

That’s also why I’ve chosen to interview the editor at the Berkeley Beacon, Emerson College’s newspaper. Editor in chief Alexander Kaufman was behind the team that changed their website to an advanced HTML 5 platform, which is similar to what other major newspapers are using on their websites. The Beacon is independent as well, but it’s a weekly paper serving a much smaller campus. Their coverage during the Boston Blackout last week though was thorough, I thought, and a good example of covering a breaking story in a timely manner that would have wide appeal among their audience.

Based on my research so far, I’ve left the door open to add another paper or student-run media organization as an example. I already monitor their respective Twitter handles and plan to pay close attention to their social media platforms during my reporting process.

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10 is a scary number when it comes to paywalls

With all of the discussion in the last year or so about them, you could probably write a blog just on paywalls.

It’s already been a year since The New York Times instated its paywall on online readers, limiting readers to 20 articles a month unless they paid up for home delivery or a digital subscription. Or if they just found a way to circumvent the paid journalism guards, which proved pretty easy to do if you follow the Times on Twitter or Facebook.

But I finally caved in a few months ago and bought a digital subscription, mostly because I’d go on to NYTimes.com looking for a specific story and then get distracted and click-happy when I saw other stories I hadn’t seen on Twitter. In one sitting, 10 clicks could be gone.

Ten clicks is all non-subscribers are going to get from now on, since the NY Times has made it just that more difficult for cheapskates to scale the paywall. And 10 really isn’t that many, especially if they get any smarter about making clicks from social media count.

In just 10 days, I slammed into the Los Angeles Times’ new paywall. It felt like I hit it head first and I might have let out a few choice expletives in the middle of a Starbucks. I read the LA Times frequently for California-centric stories the NY Times doesn’t do well, or at all. And their paywall counts what you click on through social media. If they cut their free article limit to 10, I’ll be out of free clicks in a couple of days.

Twenty clicks got me through most of the month on the NY Times. Fifteen clearly wasn’t enough at the LA Times. Now 10? That’s going to make scaling the paywall tricky. Looks like I need to get some extra jobs to pay for online subscriptions.

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Historic Boston site: Faneuil Hall

It turns out the seventh-most popular tourist destination in the world is essentially a shopping mall and a food court. Yes, Faneuil Hall, where you can also buy clothes from a number of chain stores or overpriced keychains that say “Boston” on them, was the most visited spot in Boston in 2011. (It also ranks third among Foursquare check-ins in 2011, if that matters.)

Faneuil Hall’s popularity among tourists is likely reinforced by its abundance of shops, but it doesn’t hurt that the area is located between both the historic North End and busy downtown. Faneuil Hall sits in a prime location.

“It’s probably because it’s part of the Freedom Trail,” Matthew Brearley, owner of the Brearley Collection store in Quincy Market, said. “There are a lot of international tourists who come here. During the summer we get a cruise ship every day. People come here because they want the full Boston experience.”

Brearley – whose shop sells framed photographs of historic Boston sites and Red Sox players, among other shots – said he gets traffic from people headed to TD Garden for a Celtics or Bruins game, which was happening on the evening I went. For locals, Faneuil Hall probably gets written off as a tourist trap. But on some off days, like a particularly nice Monday in March, it’s kind of a cool intersection of old buildings meeting new shops. Of course, it doesn’t hurt it’s easy to get far away from Faneuil Hall if the mass of tourists becomes too much to handle.

“Boston is a compact city,” Brearley said. “It’s not too far to get from here to Fenway (Park). And any tourism magazine will tell you this is a good place to stop if you want to see the city.”

Faneuil Hall:

  • Established in 1742, expanded to include Quincy Market in 1826
  • Marketplace located at intersection of Congress and North Streets
  • Marketplace Hours: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; 12-6 p.m. Sunday
  • MBTA stops: Government Center, State, Haymarket
  • (617) 523-1300
  • www.faneuilhallmarketplace.com
  • Fun fact: Durgin Park, the oldest existing restaurant in Faneuil Hall, opened in 1826.

Flickr set on Faneuil Hall

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Maps are Journalism, too

Maps are one of the best examples of how to integrate technology with journalism. There’s nothing easier for the reader than to see exactly where news happens, without having to describe it in 100 or more words. Maps have traditionally been a standard type of infographic in newspapers, but now online maps can add so much more detail – especially in election coverage. Because this GOP nomination is being dragged out so long, it has consumed my attention.

Google’s map of elections: This is probably the best starting point for anyone looking for election results, and on nights such as Super Tuesday a week-and-a-bit ago, Google’s election maps are a great way to see how people voted in states quickly.

NYT Election Map: The New York Times does some of the best election night reporting, and I’m addicted to FiveThirtyEight. So combine this with maps that are actually a little sharper and better looking than Google’s and you have a pretty addicting set of state and national maps.

SeeClickFix – San Francisco Chronicle: SeeClickFix is popping up in a lot of places lately, but I think the Chronicle has done a good job of using it to help their geographically wide coverage area. Maps pinpointing little trouble spots such as potholes, and bigger issues of public safety, sound like a job for a hyperlocal site. While the Bay Area is plastered with these kinds of websites, SFGate.com has probably kept more than a few eyeballs on their site for neighborhood issues.

The continuing development of maps for interactive journalism can only be a good thing.

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I like what I like

Reporters from "His Girl Friday" (Wikimedia Commons)

I’ll admit, I didn’t really know where I was going when I started this blog. I love reading about the media, but am I qualified to be a writer about it? No, not really. Thank God for the Internet, then. And Media Decoder. I don’t know what I’d do without Brian Stelter and the gang who tell the country what we should be thinking about in terms of the media. Because, after all, it’s The New York Times. (Suck up time, over.)

I have to say, I’m most fascinated about what people tell us we should be using. People like the writers on Mashable’s Media site. They’re the reason I discovered Pinterest and have been ravaging my brain cells thinking of a way to work it into my life. And now, there’s Manterest, because we didn’t have enough social media platforms to think about already. But anyway, Mashable is a tech site and frankly, in the times of new media, I’m a better journalist for staying abreast of new platforms and techniques.

Keeping on the new media developments is Jeff Sonderman, the digital media fellow at Poynter Institute. Poynter is, to some extent, a journalist’s compass. It’s a constant source of information for those of us who are obsessed with the industry. Sonderman is one of the best signs that Poynter has accepted the realities of modern media. Just like Mashable, he’s on top of social media trends and trying to justify the use of them in news organizations. He’s more journalistic than Mashable, or my next source of information.

Gawker gets a reputation for being a trashy gossip blog. It’s well-earned, but that doesn’t mean it’s somehow beneath us all. I think it’s worth navigating its media section because of the way they call some media organizations out. Sometimes it’s petty, but sometimes it’s worth reading. And because of Gawker’s must-beat-everyone-else attitude, when I read something on their media section, it’s often the first time I’m hearing about it.

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Listen up

When was the last time you tuned into WRBB, Northeastern’s radio station? I haven’t, and I don’t even know what its frequency is off the top of my head. But if you find it online, you’ll see tons of sports and music. Clearly there’s demand among Huskies to be heard on the radio, whether on an FM radio or through the Internet.

In my video, I talk to WRBB General Manager James Maniscalso and two students eager to start their own shows and spread their music knowledge to Northeastern. They have a point: for music lovers, a radio show is a great way to discover new bands. Even if one of them says he’s prepared to feature some pretty weird stuff.

This was really the first video I shot and edited from start to finish by myself – and it was a pain. Much like photojournalism, it forces me to use different news muscles that are totally out of shape right now. I think I’ve been too used to breaking news reporting and thinking off the top of my head that I was unprepared for the amount of planning needed to make a good video. I know for next time now.

On the upside, video journalism is pretty cool and I remember how easy iMovie is – once you know where everything is. But you’ll see my learning experience if you click below.

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Link Like a Gentleman

The person who thought of putting hyperlinks in a story probably thought it was a great idea. He or she wondered if there could be a way to find other Web pages that had information about a given topic or could provide more context to the story and embed them in the online copy. But to be honest, I’ve never really clicked on hyperlinks. In fact, I usually rollover them just to see where they link to. And really, linking to stories is no more than a courtesy to the reader. Sort of a handshake agreement that the writer or editor will aid your reading experience, right?

Maybe not. Mathew Ingram of GigaOM wrote and did a Storify last weekend on a spat between The Wall Street Journal and MG Siegler of Tech Crunch after he apparently broke the story Apple was buying app-discovery service Chomp. Siegler was miffed the Journal didn’t link to him in their own story after they confirmed of Apple’s purchase. Actually, miffed is a polite way to describe his rant on his own Tumblr.

Ultimately, Siegler thinks WSJ should have given him and Tech Crunch props for being first on the story, by at the very least linking to his story. What the Journal really did was re-report the story, probably based on what Siegler reported earlier in the day. I know I’ve written things that were later picked up by another publication without so much as a mention to me, and that’s OK. What’s not OK is to blatantly rip off someone’s story. That’s not what the WSJ did here.

Siegler’s probably overreacting, but Ingram raises a good question: What is good linking protocol? I say linking is to give readers reputable sources of information to provide greater context. Newspapers are notably stingy on doing this, usually linking just to their own stories about the topic. That’s not bad journalism, but it’s inconvenient. Mind you, I’m not one to click on links when in the middle of a story, but it’s worth going back and seeing what other information I can get out of an article. Linking is just polite, plain and simple. It’s one of those things that’s appreciated and helpful to some readers.

Siegler should really cool his jets and not boycott WSJ links out of spite. But WSJ and other outlets should do some more reporting and at least begin to acknowledge other outlets (and Tech Crunch is no small outfit) reporting news well ahead of them. That would be gentleman-like of them.

Photo: Flickr/buddawiggi

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Paywalls Closing In on Me

When did reading newspapers online become an expensive hobby? I can understand car collecting, sailing, diving for buried treasure. But reading op-eds in the comfort of your own couch on your iPad? (And, for the record, an iPad isn’t that cheap either.) On my college student budget, I can’t afford to subscribe to everything I want and that’s making for some tough choices.

My reading habits are about to get more expensive now that the Los Angeles Times has joined the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Boston Globe in the club of big newspapers that ask readers to pony up to read online content. Some are digging that grave for newspapers while they rapidly blog. Others are biting their nails to see whether the LA Times, still the fifth-highest circulated paper in the country, can stop its readership slide. I’m wondering how much I can afford.

When The New York Times put up its paywall last year, I hemmed and hawed for a month before breaking down and pulling out the credit card. Ironically, since I’ve been paying about $8 a month to read nytimes.com on my computer (via their temperamental Chrome app) I don’t think I’ve actually used all of my 20 clicks a month, ones that would be free if I didn’t subscribe. It’s just too easy to get around the paywall since a lot of what I click on comes from social media platforms or Google News.

The Globe’s policy is too cheap to give you any free clicks per month, so you think I’d have given into their paywall by now. Trouble is, the things I actually want to read from the Globe are free on Boston.com. It’s a similar story at the Wall Street Journal. Although I used to regard a WSJ online subscription like a rare commodity, (I used the password from a previous employer for as long as I could) it’s easy enough to find what I want for free. As long as they don’t put Dan Neil behind the paywall, I’ll be a happy camper.

Unfortunately, the LA Times plans to hide their auto critic, Dave Undercoffler, behind the wall – and a lot of other great writers too. They’re only giving out 15 free clicks a month before asking for about $2 a week to read everything. I’m conflicted because while I much prefer the NYT for DC and other national stories, they can’t do California news well. And, more emotionally, I grew up reading the LA Times. I have a devotion to it similar to that of Bostonians to the Globe, which is why they’re willing to subscribe online when I can’t bring myself to.

I tweeted yesterday that buying an LATimes.com subscription might come at the expense of an NYTimes.com one, something of a “Sophie’s Choice” decision to me. James Cobb, the NYT auto editor, tweeted back and said, ” But Sophie would never turn against her Old Gray Lady…” He’s right. I should just pick up the damn paper again.

Photo: Flickr/JoeinSouthernCA

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The reality of visual journalism

Mary Knox Merrill, Feb. 16

Those who study this industry religiously say it’s becoming more about visuals and pictures than it is about words. Cynics probably would like to charge it’s because we’re growing more illiterate by the second. I, a committed words guy, say it’s because visuals have become so involving. Good pictures, mated to great audio and video, can be grounds for a pretty entertaining presentation.

Take Mary Knox Merrill’s work. As a photographer for the Christian Science Monitor, she covered presidential elections and events that merit standard still photos that would accompany text written by a reporter. But she’s also been able to travel around the world, where interviewees don’t speak English, to document stories with audio and video tied together with her pictures.

“Even if you’re a writer, you have to learn to take pictures, you have to learn to take video,” Merrill said, because people want a “full-viewing experience.”

Merrill said her time in Congo documenting gorillas was challenging because of language barriers when filming the park ranger and his family. And she couldn’t get a lot of footage of the gorillas. The post-production for extensive projects like these are also gruelling.

“You kind of know what you have when you come back, but it’s not easy,” she said.

That’s typically the problem with lavish multimedia projects like Merrill’s gorilla work, another one of cyclists in the Gran Prix of Gloucester for the Christian Science Monitor, or Amy Silva’s artificial intelligence/political science intersection explanation for Northeastern’s External Affairs department. The work needed to make it attractive, as well as well-reported, is extremely intensive.

But making presentations like this for profiles or deeply reported topics is, in a number of ways, more appealing than a 1,200-word profile and a few pictures. It’s so much easier for a viewer to be captivated by the story. If done well, there’s so much multimedia journalism can convey. And who knows? With practice, that production process could get a lot faster.

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