Well-known news sites to use Knight money to deepen reporting

Four poster children for the community online news movement plan to use new cash infusions from the Knight Foundation to strengthen reporting resources on their hometown sites.

The Knight Foundation, journalism’s biggest funder of digital innovation, announced it was giving $390,000 to the Voice of San Diego, the St. Louis Beacon, MinnPost and ChiTown Daily News. All are non-profits, and the first three represent some of the most ambitious efforts to marshal community news reporting solely on the Web.

By relying on major gifts and foundation money, the sites are trying to create large enough audiences to sustain themselves – through advertising and/or continued philanthropy – when the initial funding peels away. Other, mostly smaller, online news startups are trying to build businesses from the ground up by relying on advertising alone.

OJR took fresh looks at the Voice of San Diego, Minn Post and ChiTown Daily News early this fall, and the New York Times followed suit last month with a front-page story on the muckraking San Diego site. “There hasn’t been a day go by since then that I haven’t had some follow-up from that story,” said co-executive editor Scott Lewis. Many inquiries have come from job-seekers or news entrepreneurs hoping to replicate the “Voice” in their own hometowns, he said.

Lewis said its $100,000 Knight grant would be used to start a free-lance operation to supplement its stable of about 10 full-time reporters and editors. The two main areas will be science and technology, which already are highlighted on the site, and the federal government’s involvement with San Diego. The latter focus may partially fill a void created by the year-end closing of the Washington bureau of San Diego’s daily newspaper, the Union-Tribune. Lewis said the focus initially will be on border issues and the area’s big military operations.

Lewis and co-leader Andrew Donohue also hope to benefit from another Knight initiative exploring how civic foundations might rally to the cause of independent online news. Knight has pledged $24 million in matching funds, over five years, to push the idea that community foundations could take a leading role in helping ensure local news needs. Knight is expected to make announcements about the program in early January.

The Voice of San Diego and the other four sites represent a hybrid business model in which they seek the support of foundations, philanthropists, advertisers and NPR-style member-donors. Lewis said his site’s budget projections are on track this year, despite the down economy.

Here’s how the other three sites say they’ll use their Knight money:

ChiTown Daily News – Editor Geoff Dougherty said his $100,000 Knight grant would go toward hiring four full-time reporters to cover local issues. He plans to expand coverage of higher education and public housing, and begin new beats on public health and labor. A separate $50,000 grant from the Abra Prentice Foundation will also go toward those reporting efforts.

St. Louis Beacon — Margaret Wolf Freivogel, the Beacon’s editor, said Knight’s $90,000 grant would go for two or three new hires who would focus on “the nexus of the economy, politics and health care.”

MinnPost – CEO and editor Joel Kramer said its $100,000 grant would finance additional reporters placed on retainers. Kramer told Knight that the funds might deepen coverage from Washington or on local business and government, but that actual use will depend on circumstances – including “finding the right talent within our price range.”

An online journalist's guide to entering the Pulitzer Prizes

Set one more milestone along the road toward the convergence of the online medium with the rest of the field of journalism.

This week, the Pulitzer Prizes announced that it will accept entries from online-only news publications. The highest honor in American newspaper journalism now is simply the highest honor in American written journalism. Print and online, at last, will be judged as one.

Of course, I’d argue that distinction between the media long since been lost among our readers, the public. News is news, regardless of its medium. People will turn to the news sources that are, for them, the most informative, engaging, immediate and convenient. But I’ll let other wax about the cultural significant of the Pulitzer decision. Today, allow me to address a more practical matter…

How do you nominate your website for a Pulitzer Prize?

Many print veterans are familiar with the entry process. But many worthy bloggers and online reporters won’t be. And putting a site up for a Pulitzer isn’t as simple as pasting your best URLs into an online form. A Pulitzer win, however, could catapult an online-only news site, fighting for attention in a hyper-competitive news marketplace, into a leading position in its market. The $10,000 cash award also could help plump the lean budgets at many online news start-ups.

Still, the awards are not throwing open their doors to every blogger on the planet. Entries are restricted to U.S.-based publications which “regularly engage” in original reporting. Commenting on work done by others isn’t enough. Your site needs to be publishing original interviews, public record research and/or event coverage on a regular basis for the Pulitzer juries to consider your entry.

I swapped e-mails this week with Sig Gissler, administrator of the Prizes, to get more details to help online-only publishers navigate the process.

First, you will need to send print-outs of your work, as well as URLs. From The Pulitzer Prize Plan of Award [PDF file]:

All online material, which may include written stories, interactive graphics, databases, blogs and still or video images, must be published on an eligible Web site during the calendar year and, when submitted, must depict its original publication on the Web, not its subsequent update or alteration. An online link to material must remain active during the judging period. For ease of judging, the URL should be as brief as possible. The entry’s summary letter should describe the online material being submitted and the entry should include a legible representation of the material, such as screen shots.”

The deadline for entries in February 1, 2009 and this years’ awards cover work first published from Jan. 1 – Dec. 31, 2008. Entries in most categories must consist of the entry form, a cover letter and print-outs or CD/DVDs of up to 10 URLs. (Reserve the CD/DVDs for essential video elements. Send print-outs for text and photo work.)

Do also read the Pulitzer Tips for Online Entries. That PDF file (again – the Pulitzers love their PDFs) was written for newspapers including online elements in their Pulitzer submissions, but the advice still holds for online-only entrants, Gissler wrote.

Two pieces of advice stood out: “Think thematically” and “Beef up your cover letter.”

Gissler echoed that thought on the importance of the cover letter:

“We put the burden on the entrant to demonstrate that they meet the criteria (e.g., primary dedication to original news reporting and adherence to the highest journalistic principles),” he wrote.

“It is important that in a cover letter, the entrant describes their journalistic mission and provides ample evidence of their primary devotion to original news reporting…. We deal with this in the Q&A, where we also define ‘original news reporting’ and the ‘highest journalistic principles.'”

Of course, many news websites are creating and embracing publishing and story formats that have no identical counterpart in print. Gissler wrote that the Pulitzer Board is not creating new categories for online-only work at this point, but he noted that the Pulitzers “have changed a lot in recent years” in expanding eligibility for online work.

Perhaps that door is not closed?

It’s also one thing to invite online-only websites to submit their work, but something else to have that work judged by online veterans, as opposed to judges who spent their entire careers in print. Gissler wrote that the Pulitzer Board is inviting some representatives from the online-only world to serve as judges, but that the juries are still in the early formative stage.

I asked Gissler how his crew was preparing for the possibility of an onslaught of submissions from websites.

“We’re uncertain about the impact,” he wrote. “While an outlet might qualify, it might hesitate to enter because of the high-quality competition. Certainly, in years past, not every eligible newspaper has entered the Pulitzers. That said, we have been handling online content in the judging process for several years. For example, we used rented laptops to provide online access for jurors. So we’re hopeful that we can deal with the changes with reasonable smoothness.”

The sun never sets on the journalism awards season

The finalists for the annual Webby Awards are out, and, as usual, they are well worth a look from any Web publisher in the mood for some inspiration.

Webbys haven’t been at the top of the “most coveted” list for many online journalists, but they do get more attention online than several other awards which honor online news content:

Google search results:

  • 1,660,000 for “Webby Awards”
  • 13,000 for “EPpy Awards”
  • 13,000 for “Online Journalism Awards”
  • 4,500 for “Digital Edge Awards”

    And for comparison:

  • 326,000 for “Pulitzer Prizes”

    (I chose the plural form to get online stories about awards themselves, rather than pages referencing an individual award winner. Using the singular, references to the Pulitzers surge ahead of the others, if for no other reason that they’ve been around so much longer and have so many more winners.)

    The Webbys honor sites to dozens of categories, including websites, video and online advertising. The finalists include personal webpages and viral video, such as this year’s “Obama girl.” But traditional news organizations are making their mark in this competition. The New York Times led all organizations this year with the most finalist honors, with 16. NPR had eight, PBS seven and magazine publisher Conde Net earned six. That tied Conde Net with… The Onion, which also gained 6 nominations.

    (Hey, I’d be willing to argue that the Onion might be the finest opinion journalism publication around today. From teaching on a college campus, I know that it attracts the attention of young readers, and while much of its satire is puerile, many of its pieces are sharp, insightful and perceptive.)

    The Onion’s satire aside, the Webby finalists offer many examples of first-rate, contemporary, non-fiction storytelling. To me, that’s journalism, even if it does not originate from a so-called “news organization.” I find especially interesting the finalists that reflect the work of collective, social media efforts. (Such as best writing nominee Where are the Joneses?.) So, please take a look.

    Miss the Webby entry deadline?

    Like a new British Empire, the sun never sets on the journalism awards season. The Online News Association has opened nominations for this year’s Online Journalism Awards. You can enter online at https://www.journalistawards.org/submit/category.html. New this year, the ONA has added a category for outstanding non-English language news sites.

    The awards are open to work first published online between July 1, 2007 and the entry deadline of May 31, 2008. The awards will be presented at the ONA’s annual conference, which is September 11-13 in Washington, DC.