launches online database of California's war dead

Thought I’d share with OJR readers a project I’ve been working on: Last week the Los Angeles Times launched a database of California’s military dead in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This story does a nice job of introducing the database:

Across the nation, more than 4,600 have died while in service to the country. Of the California dead, the median age was 23. Their deaths left 205 widows and three widowers, and 300 children who will grow up without their fathers, two without their mothers. Thirty-eight of the 492 were engaged.

About 67% were in the Army, Army National Guard or Army Reserve; 27% in the Marine Corps or Marine Corps Reserve. The Air Force accounted for 2%, the Navy and Navy Reserve for 4%. Two percent of those killed were women.

At least 59 were immigrants.

Basic training in Flash journalism

Phil O’Connor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch e-mailed me about the Post-Dispatch’s latest Flash journalism project: Reporting for Duty. O’Connor and photographer David Carson followed a group of U.S. Army recruits through their nine weeks in basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, in Missouri. The result was a six-chapter series, supplemented with online video interviews and features, all wrapped in a Flash shell.

Flash accompaniments to major investigative or feature projects have become a mainstay of departments over the past several years. But how well does the format serve the audience? What have we learned about storytelling in the Flash medium and what ought journalists be doing to help production conventions evolve?

So I asked Jean Buchanan, assistant managing editor/projects for the Post-Dispatch, to reflect via e-mail on this project, then take a look ahead based on what the paper’s staff, online and off, have learned from it.

OJR: What projects at other news organizations or websites inspired the design for this project?

Buchanan: For the multimedia part, we basically started from scratch. The primary online programmer on this project, Rich Rokicki, says he went into this kind of blindly without checking out too many things beforehand. The idea was to keep it very simple.

OJR: Do you think that this is the most ambitious online project that’s been done to date at the Post-Dispatch? What are some of the Post-Dispatch’s notable previous online projects?

Buchanan: Yes, this is the most ambitious online project we’ve done to date. Here are some of our previous projects:

The Blues project

From Afghanistan

Feeding Africa

Recovery and Salvation

Stan the Man

OJR: What do you think is unique about the design and functionality of this project?

Buchanan: The “Meet the Squad” page was one of our favorites. The short video interviews with the recruits early in their training were very revealing and the flicking of each person’s pictures was engaging. The photos helped connect each of these recruits to readers because the treatment showed their humanity. We also put together a movie-type trailer that we released in advance of the project to generate interest. Once the project launched, that video became our introduction to all the videos.

OJR: What personnel and processes did the Post-Dispatch need to have in place in order to make this project happen?

Buchanan: A photographer comfortable with video and video editing, an online photo editor and Flash programmers. This project was a major test because the photographer, David Carson, had shot limited video before this, and this is the first project by Rich Rokicki, the primary Flash programmer. We learned that our processes need to be refined to ensure that we aren’t trying to change a lot of things in the last week or two.

OJR: Did you consider other formats before deciding on this design and functionality for this project? What were they and why didn’t they stick?

Buchanan: No. But after the project was over, we realized some things just did not work. For instance, viewing story copy in the Flash presentation did not work well. The stories should have been on their own webpage, not in the multimedia presentation. We’ve certainly learned more about the questions to ask next time.

OJR: How have readers responded to the project’s online presentation? What’s the traffic, especially in comparison with previous online projects and Post-Dispatch feature stories?

Buchanan: The traffic to this project is very strong, relative to other multimedia/interactive projects we’ve done in this manner, but it doesn’t show up strong in our pageview counts relative to other stories or features.

The one thing no one likes, and which we would definitely do differently, is the presentation of the story. Because of the limitations of the design, the window for reading the story is too small and people have complained about having to scroll so much. We’ve talked about a way to present the stories outside of the Flash next time up.

OJR: What’s the lesson that you’ve taken away from this project, that could be applied to others in the future to make them better?

Buchanan: We need to:

  • Learn how to think through the story we want to tell through video — still new for most of us.
  • Learn how to package content like this in a way that is well integrated with the rest of the site, but doesn’t short-change us in terms of pageview traffic. The self-contained nature of this project translates into one pageview per visit — regardless of how much time a viewer spends or how much content they view.
  • Learn to be more adept at some of the Flash tools that would plug us in better to our Omniture metrics software. Doing some could mean more pageviews.
  • Figure out how to integrate it in a way that offers advertisers more impressions. In addition to the one pageview per visit, we only offer one advertising impression.
  • Figure out a more systematic online marketing campaign to get exposure for our work.

    What is your reaction to the Post-Dispatch’s project, or to similar Flash news presentations? Please tell us in the comments.

  • Newspapers and blogs: Closer than we think?

    David Vaina is a research associate at the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

    Back in the mid-1850s, the English philosopher John Stuart Mill argued that a citizenry could not, would not, flourish unless it was nourished by the full spectrum of voices that exist among the people:

    It is, however, obvious that law and authority have no business with restraining either [side or sides of the debate], while opinion ought, in every instance, to determine its verdict by the circumstances of the individual case, condemning every one, on whichever side of the argument he places himself, in whose mode of advocacy either want of candour, or malignity, bigotry, or intolerance of feeling manifest themselves; but not inferring these vices from the side which a person takes, though it be the contrary side of the question to our own; and giving merited honour to every one, whatever opinion he may hold, who has calmness to see and honesty to state what his opponents and their opinions really are, exaggerating nothing to their discredit, keeping nothing back which tells, or can be supposed to tell in their favour. This is the real morality of public discussion.

    Well over one hundred years later, the blogosphere came into our lives, allowing us, in the words of Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, to “hear voices that had been shut out of the corporate media outlets.”

    These old “corporate media outlets,” refusing to fade away, have held their ground. According to William Dietrich, a writer with the Seattle Times Sunday magazine, the sacred purpose of the newspaper reporter “is to fulfill an essential function of our democracy not just by disseminating information but also by analyzing it, detecting patterns, spotting trends, and increasing societal understanding.” Indeed, bloggers may generate a more democratic Public Square, but can they facilitate a more comprehensive understanding of how political events are most likely to evolve, the Old Guard worries and wonders. In other words, Mill might not be enough.

    To contribute to this Great Debate, I decided to conduct a content analysis of how blogs and newspapers covered the Iraq War during one week in late March 2007. By looking at how the two media have sourced their news stories, I hoped to offer insights into what exactly the American public “hears” from newspapers and blogs.

    More specifically, my research, by examining five major newspapers and six popular political blogs, sought to answer three questions:

    • Which media platform uses more sources?
    • Which offers a more diverse range of sources?
    • And which types of sources are more prevalent in each platform?


    Overall, the data showed that blogs included a higher number of total sources and a slightly wider range of sources.

    Blogs included an average number of nine sources per blog posting, compared to an average of just six for newspapers stories.

    The gap between newspapers and blogs was considerably narrower when evaluating the types of sourcing. Still, blogs were slightly more diverse in their sourcing, with four sources per posting compared to an average of three in newspaper stories.

    Digging deeper, which types of sources were the two media most likely to use?

    Both blogs and newspapers were likely to include traditional Washington sources, both political and intellectual.

    But blogs and newspapers did diverge in several key ways. Compared to newspapers, blogs were considerably less likely than newspapers to include official Iraqi sources.

    And perhaps as a tell-tale sign of what the mainstream press really thinks of the blogosphere, just two percent of newspaper stories used a blog as a source. Not surprisingly, bloggers used other bloggers as sources at almost the same frequency as they used the mainstream press.

    Sourcing in Blogs

    Seven in ten (69%) blog postings included a mainstream media outlet (e.g. Washington Post, AP, The New York Times) as a source and 64% used other bloggers as sources.

    Political Washington was well represented. Thirty percent of all stories had a source from a Democratic politician or party strategist, 28% included one from a Republican or GOP operative, and 23% included a source from the White House.

    Meanwhile, a quarter (25%) included sources from the Pentagon, a soldier fighting in Iraq, or an immediate member of a soldier’s family. Ten percent of all blog postings had a source from other government officials, such as analysts from the State Department or the American embassy in Iraq. Furthermore, 16% of all postings included a government document as a source, such as a hyperlink to a PDF of a legislative bill or the complete voting results for a particular bill from the Office of the Clerk at the U.S. House of Representatives.

    Considerably fewer blog postings, however, included sources from Iraqi government officials (11%), such as local police and security forces and hospital administrators, and an even smaller number offered sources from Sunni or Shiite politicians (five percent). And only two percent of all postings included a source from the Iraqi insurgency.

    Five percent of posts included sources from Iraqi civilians, and eight percent had sources from U.S. civilians.

    Finally, a quarter (25%) offered a source from a non-partisan, non-governmental entity, such as a think tank, polling organization, or university.

    Sourcing in Newspapers

    Turning to newspapers, the most frequent source was a U.S. military official or family member. Over half (53%) of all newspaper stories included a source from this cohort—more than double the percentage in blogs.

    The second most common source was a Democratic one; more than three in ten stories (32%) offered a Democratic source.

    A quarter (24%) included a source from the Bush Administration, and another 16% had a source from other Republican politicians or strategists.

    Another 22% included a source from other government officials outside the halls of Congress, the White House or the Pentagon.

    Newspapers were also likely to offer an Iraqi point of view. Thirty-one percent of all stories included sources from the Iraqi authorities. Two in ten (20%) stories included sources from either Shiite or Sunni politicians. An additional seven percent was from sources coded as insurgents.

    At the non-political level, newspapers were more likely to quote an Iraqi civilian, with ten percent of all stories offering this point of view. Half that percentage (five percent) included sources from U.S. civilians who were not family members of an American solider fighting in Iraq.

    Twenty-three percent used a poll, statement from a non-partisan think tank, or academic as a source.

    Finally, eight percent of stories used a mainstream media outlet as a source, and just two percent included blogs.


    Much of the current debate in journalism that centers around how sourcing is used in blogs concerns the issues of verification of information not reported in the mainstream press. But for now, this doesn’t appear to be their raison d’etre. The function of blogs may be an equally important one, however, offering a more nuanced, synthesized perspective not found anywhere else on the Web.

    Perhaps what’s most at stake for blogs is to evaluate which voices are being synthesized. According to the data for this study, an admittedly limited one, bloggers may be missing perhaps the most important piece of the political puzzle when we acknowledge the realpolitik of Iraq.

    Both the American and Iraqi people are growing increasingly weary of the American military presence in Iraq, according to public opinion polls in both countries. If there is one point Democrats and Republicans can agree on it is that Iraq’s future success rests on the further strengthening of Iraq’s political institutions.

    Right now, it may be that the traditional press—represented by newspapers here-has picked up on this better than blogs. The data shows that roughly four times as many stories in newspapers included sources from leading Sunni and Shiite politicians as did blogs. Where blogs excelled, with more bloggers, media sources and original texts as sources, is perhaps more easily to duplicate for newspapers on their websites. What cannot be mimicked so easily is the ability to discern which way the political winds are blowing in Baghdad and Washington.

    One might dismiss this conclusion as an elitist, Lippmanian one. Regardless, it begs the question of whether or not the public most benefits from a traditional journalist sensibility that, despite its flaws and declining commitment to foreign affairs, can still be found at the country’s best newspapers. Perhaps all those years of having boots on the ground overseas still colors, positively, newspaper coverage.

    However, one should keep in mind that only a third (34%) of all bloggers considers their blog a form of journalism, according to a study from the Pew Internet & American Life Project. So my insights may be a case of trying to fit a round peg into a square hole. Furthermore, until the mainstream press can better understand that media consumption and production are increasingly conversational, collaborative activities—where bloggers and citizens talk to each other—perhaps the best advice I can give is to take the time to read a newspaper and a blog or two.

    About the Study

    For this study, I counted the number of sources over seven days in late March 2007 (March 23-March 29). Only stories with the war in Iraq as the dominant story (50% or more of the story) were coded. Overall, 172 newspaper stories and blog postings–the units of analysis–were coded.

    Sources did not have to be original. For example, a blog that quoted an interview from Senator John McCain that originally appeared in the Washington Post would be counted as a source, even though the actual reporting was not done by the blogger. Original sources, though in small numbers, could be found in blogs, most notably in Greg Sargent’s postings on Talking Points Memo.

    First, I looked at five major newspapers: Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The New York Times, USA Today, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Wire stories that appeared in newspapers were included. A total of 111 newspaper stories were coded.

    Second, I conducted an analysis of three major blogs from the left and three from the right. They included: Talking Points Memo, Political Animal (the Washington Monthly blog), Daily Kos, Michelle Malkin, Powerline, and Hugh Hewitt. A total of 61 blog postings were analyzed for the research.

    For blogs, a source was defined as those that were available either on the homepage posting or those on secondary pages within one mouse click from the original blog posting. Then, sources within these secondary pages were coded as well (e.g. links to other news sources, bloggers, and government documents). This methodology was employed in order to measure—as much as possible—the total available number of sources that are consumed by the typical blog reader, and not just those that appear in the original blog posting. Sources within tertiary pages (and beyond) were not coded because I felt that only a small number of blog readers would actually read this deep into a blog posting. Nevertheless, these tertiary (and beyond) pages theoretically expand the number of potential sources and should be kept in mind before forming any firm conclusions about the nature of sourcing in blogs.