What if there were an eBay for news?

Imagine a place where journalists could pitch stories as soon as they hit ‘save.’ Where editors could snap them up just as quickly for printing in tomorrow’s paper. Imagine a reporting network built on trust, where both editors and journalists could accrete bodies of work tagged with endorsements and feedback. Is an eBay of news viable? And ultimately, will it deliver news to readers more quickly and more cheaply?

A pair of young entrepreneurs — she’s a graduating Berkeley journalism school student and he’s a former engineer for Amazon — have combined expertises to create one such vehicle: Reporterist.com.

OJR discussed where reportage and eBay converge and where they don’t with co-founder Sindya Bhanoo over the phone. An edited transcript follows.

OJR: Why did you start Reporterist?

Bhanoo: I saw a gap in the freelancing industry — the process of pitching an article and getting it published had holes in it. It seemed like with today’s technology it could be done in a more streamlined fashion.

When you pitch an article, you’re waiting to hear back from a specific editor before you can pitch it elsewhere. And in the news industry, timeliness is a big issue. We talked to lots of editors. They were telling us that with cost cutbacks, there is a need for high quality freelance work, but it’s difficult to get trusted freelance work that you can rely on. Editors get something like 500 e-mails a day and they don’t have time to search through all of these to identify the good ones.

So the idea behind Reporterist is a news exchange where freelancers and editors can connect. As a journalist, you can upload your work and submit it to a specific publication — say an article about hiking to an outdoor magazine — and give them two weeks to view the story and decide to publish it. But you can also line up the publications that can have access to it after two weeks. Alternatively — and we’re still working on this — you can submit it to the “marketplace.”

OJR: So if a publication wanted your piece, who sets the price?

Bhanoo: When you’re uploading the article, you can put down a minimum pirce that you’ll take for it. Or you can accept a publication’s default rate for freelancers. We’ve been testing this out in the Bay Area. We got about 13 publications signed up here. When a publication registers, they put information about what they’re looking for, the regions they cover, and the prices they pay for freelance work.

OJR: How does the marketplace option work?

Bhanoo: It’s a feature to come. If you have an article that you wanted to sell, you can choose to pitch it to all the magazines or, say, the five magazines that cover the outdoors.

OJR: Would the editors then bid for your story?

Bhanoo: No, there’s no bidding system built in. The intention is not to turn it into an eBay. It doesn’t make sense to have an auction model, because publications tend to pay at a fixed rate.

OJR: So if a publication could see your story before they pay for it, what’s to stop them from stealing your ideas?

Bhanoo: We did think about that, and we talked about it with a few people. One thing to keep in mind is that when you pitch a story currently, this is something that could already happen. The moment an editor views an article through Reporterist, you know the time that they viewed it. You also can’t copy and paste off the system easily. We also incorporated user commentary using a wiki. We want to create a system of trusted reporters, editors, and publications. The idea is to help people build a reputation.

OJR: Right. I noticed on the demo that reporters can build their portfolios on the site.

Bhanoo: Part of what we’re also offering is a way for generalists to build an online portfolio. There’s also a way for editors to look at your past work. There’s an easy way of letting people view it.

OJR: You launched Reporterist while at school. How did you go about that?

Bhanoo: Last August, we launched it with UC-Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. We talked to the faculty. We did a presentation for them. There was a very distinct need among the students and faculty to find a way to get work published. There’s a lot of time lag between professors contacting editors, trying to refer work for a student. We actually built that into the system. Professors can log into the program and endorse the student with a note attached to the work. It’s a trusted network. The student knows the professor. The professor knows the editor.

The endorsement is for a specific piece of work — a professor saying, “I looked at this story, and it would be perfect for your publication.”

By mid-September, we got the faculty on board and then we decided to expand to existing networks. We went to publications in the Bay Area that already take work from students — the Oakland Tribune, the East Bay Express, the Berkeley Daily Planet, and other regional papers. We signed up editors, showed them how to use it. They were able to see what work was pitched to them and directly download it. There are specific software systems that different newspapers use. We made it really easy for them to download it in whatever format was best for them.

OJR: Did your undergrad background in computer science come in handy in the process?

Bhanoo: I haven’t worked as a computer scientist for a while. My husband did all the technology development behind this. The most critical thing is to identify needs in the system. Keeping an eye out for what’s happening in the industry, understanding where things are going. There’s a lot of change happening.

OJR: Are you making a profit from the site?

Bhanoo: Not yet. The portfolios are free for users to create, but there are capabilities to add multimedia. Depending on how much space you need to store images or video, that will cost you. Compared to other portfolio sites, we think our site is the least expensive right now.

We’ve also built a payment model but we haven’t implemented it yet. When a freelancer sells an article through the system, they get paid immediately from the publisher. We’ll be taking something like a 10 percent cut. In the real world, it can take months before a freelancer gets paid, and the delay is usually paperwork-related. So publications are receptive to the idea of doing this electronically. We’ve implemented electronic contracts. The papers we’ve talked to are pretty interested.

OJR: Where will you take the site next?

Bhanoo: We’ve just opened up the site to the public. Columbia is interested in introducing this to their students. We’re also going to take it to specific groups such as Society of Professional Journalists or the Asian American Journalists Association. We’re going to take it step by step. Right now we have about 60 users.

OJR: What’s been your biggest challenge so far?

Bhanoo: It’s good to get more users, but you want to grow fully enough that you have enough features to keep them. You don’t want to grow too slowly that you’re stagnating, but you have to make sure to sign up users and publications at a matching rate. It’s kind of like a chicken and egg problem — you need users to get publications but you need publications to get users.

OJR: That sounds a little like CNN’s i-Report.

Bhanoo: A lot of sites are opening up to citizen journalism. But we’re trying to create a place where journalists and up-and-coming citizen journalists can sell their work and start building a reputation.

Our larger vision is that it’s the next generation wire service, like an AP or a Reuters. The public wants high quality, relevant news. As the industry’s cutting back, a lot of regions are under-covered. Most of the editors we spoke to say they’re relying too much on AP or Reuters content. At Reporterist, they will be able to look at all these stories and sort them by region or topic. Our vision is to be a wire service for local, topical news.

Newspapers use YouTube video previews to attract readers

After the Dallas Morning News and the St. Petersburg Times debuted extensive investigative reporting projects on their websites last year, they went to YouTube to market them. The News recast existing video footage from the online features into gripping movie trailers. The Times made a music video starring its staff. In an era where even journalists ponder whether a newspaper or a TV show is better at covering social issues, are traditional newspapers ready to learn something from Hollywood? In the future, will we be looking to YouTube for what’s coming soon to a newspaper.com near us?

OJR spoke to Anthony Moor, Dallas Morning News’ Deputy Managing Editor/Interactive [and who is also a member of OJR’s editorial advisory board], and swapped e-mails with Leslie White, Dallas Morning News’ Director of Photography, and Christine Montgomery, Managing Editor of TampaBay.com, about why they made the videos and how successful they were in attracting new readers.

“Unequal Justice” explores why 56 convicted murderers in Texas were sentenced to probation rather than jail.

“Texas Youth Commission” documents the scandal plaguing the state agency of the same name created to rehabilitate young offenders.

OJR: Why a trailer? What prompted the idea? Have you done anything like it before?

Moor: First of all, we shot video as part of the multimedia presentation of these projects. Both “Unequal Justice” and “Texas Youth Commission” had significant multimedia components. “Texas Youth Commission” had a smaller print component, while “Unequal Justice” was mostly print with a small Web component. So since we had the video already, we just decided to leverage that to make a trailer. Secondly, these are large projects even for the paper as a whole. We spent time on them. We wanted to give them as much exposure as possible on the Web.

A lot of our challenge overall as news organizations is to try and attract an audience for these big projects with a public service mission. Our Sunday newspaper audience is already familiar with our work – we already have them. How can we get people who don’t read the paper on Sunday, who haven’t picked up the paper? We want them to become interested and informed by news and information that matters to them. Those projects can be daunting for audience to enter in this day and age because of all the competing media out there. So we need to attract a new audience by using more effective techniques to tell them about what we were doing. The multimedia project of course is a way of getting people to enter into the story.

Secondly, we would like to have them think of the Dallas Morning News as places to go for news that matters to them, whether they’re newspaper subscribers or users of the Web.

White: Our projects editor, Maud Beelman, had suggested that we put up an overview video on DallasNews.com a few days before publication in the newspaper. Our video editor took a crack at it, but it’s rather impossible to sum up a story as complex as “probation for murder” in Dallas County. Early attempts involved having one of the reporters narrate the story.

It was my feeling that it took what we knew to be a dramatic and emotional story and turned it into what was basically a talking head video. We suggested borrowing from our best work in videos (shot by staff photographer Kye Lee) and putting it together to pull our readers back to the site on Sunday, after the stories were published with the full video content.

The end result carried a great deal more emotional impact.

OJR: Did you know from the start that you wanted to put it up on YouTube? Did you put the video up on any other sites?

Moor: I recommended that we adapt it for YouTube as a way to get an audience interested in it. We did post different versions of the video – the YouTube version was more for people who didn’t already have an understanding of our publication.

Apart from the traditional promotions, we didn’t put the video up on other sites. We wanted to attract a new audience but we weren’t sophisticated at all about it. We’d like to take more advantage of that down the line.

OJR: What were these “traditional promotions?”

Moor: The people involved in the project sent out to our own networks, put it on our Facebook pages. We also put the trailer out on YouTube ahead of the project’s publication. The project was set to run online on Saturday and in the paper on Sunday.

OJR: How did YouTube’s style affect the tone of the trailer?

Moor: Our people in the photography department really wanted to produce the video in a very captivating, dynamic, edgy format. We wanted to make you feel not only like you want to look at this, but that you want to put nine dollars down and watch a movie about it. So quick cuts, pounding music, and trailer-like tease in the storyline.

White: Well, we didn’t shoot specifically for the trailer, but we knew the edit needed to be aggressive both emotionally and visually to capture the reader. I think that anyone who has ever seen a few movies has the basic requirements for storytelling in the specific way that trailers rely on.

If you view all the videos from “Unequal Justice”, you’ll see that we pulled moments specifically for the emotional impact and storytelling moments in each.

OJR: How successful was the video in generating interest for the projects? Were you able to track how many people visited the site after seeing the video?

Moor: I’m not sure if we could do that. We’re seeing numbers in the hundreds. It’s not a lot. I’m not going to say that this is a breakout way to reach the audience, but we have to do things like this. It’s not like we don’t understand what YouTube is about. And because of the way that news and info is being distributed on the Web, we have to gain new job skills within our current titles. For example, a traffic acquisition manager – not the types of things that newspaper or website editors do. We thought this is a good way to experiment with that.

OJR: Looking back, what lessons did you learn from making the two videos? What would you tell other newspapers who are thinking about doing this? Any plans to put up more videos like this in the future?

White: I tend to look at the trailers not just as a feature on YouTube, but a way to attract more readers back to DallasNews.com for the whole story. We’ve definitely learned that a “summary video” of an investigation is not going to play as well as the real emotion of the subjects. I think any way you can get readers to your site to read, view and experience one of the newspapers best stories is a win-win. We’ll definitely be doing it more in the future.

Moor: I do think that down the line, newspapers will need to consider, within either the editorial apparatus or in marketing, creating a job where your responsibility is to ensure that articles are search engine optimized. That person will also have to get your news and info out on new platforms like iTunes, Digg, Drudge, Google News, NewsVine, and so on. If you think about how much news we push on a given day, if one article needs to be distributed through all those channels – how are we going to manage that?

“Gimme the Truth,” a music video created by and starring members of the St. Petersburg Times staff, is the fight song of Politifact, the Web collaboration between the Times and the Congressional Quarterly to fact-check statements made by the presidential candidates.

OJR: What’s new and unique about Politifact?

Montgomery: While fact-checking isn’t new, fact-checking statements presidential candidates make on the campaign trail and then actually making a ruling on the veracity of the claims is different. A lot of political coverage merely repeats what the candidates, pundits, support and opposition groups say and the readers are left to figure out for themselves what’s true, sort of true or outright false. When Politifact editors select a claim to fact-check, they dig deeply, going to original sources and documents. We try to be transparent in our reporting by linking to source docs whenever possible. We database all the claims and our rulings, making the site very easy to search. We have six different rulings, by the way, ranging from “true” to “pants-on-fire” liar.

OJR: Why a music video? Whose idea was it and what prompted the idea? Have you done anything like it before?

Montgomery: Definitely our first music video. Here’s how it came about: Our Marketing department was putting plans into place for marketing Politifact.com, using tried and true means like in-paper ads and some radio spots. We knew those would be effective in reaching our core newspaper readers and people interested in politics. But Politifact.com is the kind of site that makes politics accessible and interesting to lots of people. Especially young people, we thought. So a few of us on the editorial side started brainstorming ways to get the word out in a more viral way — that is, ways that would be easy for people to share with each other. It was about that time that the Obama Girl videos (one and two) were such a hit on YouTube. One idea lead to another and before we knew it, we had an original song called “Gimme the Truth,” composed by one of our metro editors. It was catchy!

Then one of our web editors with excellent video skills story-boarded an idea for the video. We booked a place to shoot the video, built and gathered the props, got dozens of people from inside and outside the company interested in participating, and shot the thing in a day. Editing took a couple more days. From idea to launch, it took about one month.

OJR: Did you know from the start that you wanted to put it up on YouTube? Did you put the video up on any other sites?

Montgomery: Yes, we made this video for YouTube specifically. We also seeded it on over a dozen other video sites, such as Crackle (where it was featured as their top political video for some time), Yahoo!, MySpace and MetaCafe. It has appeared on our main site, tampabay.com and is still linked off the Politifact.com home page.

OJR: Tell me about the newspaper staff involved in making the video. What special skills or interests did they have that made the idea work?

Montgomery: I mentioned the metro editor, Chris Ave, who is a musician/songwriter in his off time — and has a cameo appearance the video as guitarist/back-up singer. The Web editor is Adrian Philips. He had run his own video business before joining the Times in 2005. He came up with he storyline, shot, directed, and edited the video. His editor Anne Glover, helped gather props, manage the project and rally the troops throughout the organization to appear in the video. The only special skills those staffers needed were a sense of humor and the willingness to give up part of their Saturday. We hired a local producer and singer to record the song. Our singer appears as the lead in the video, the song’s producer is playing bass in the video. Playing drums in the video is our media critic, Eric Deggans.

OJR: How successful was the video in generating interest for Politifact? Were you able to track how many people visited the site after seeing the video?

Montgomery: So far the video has been viewed more than 200,000 times on YouTube. Unfortunately, we can’t track how many of the viewers then clicked to our site. We did see a week-over-week spike in Politifact.com traffic of 67% when the Gimme the Truth video was featured on YouTube’s homepage. Of course, it was also the week we hosted a GOP debate in our hometown and we were doing a lot of other promotion of the site. That said, I’m thrilled with the response and consider it a successful marketing effort.

OJR: Looking back, what lessons did you learn? What would you tell other newspapers who are thinking about doing this? Any plans to put up more videos like this in the future?

Montgomery: We learned that YouTube is indeed an effective way to reach people in a way that traditional marketing can’t. We learned that we can do “serious journalism” and poke a little fun at ourselves at the same time. As sort of atypical as “Gimme the Truth” is as promotional content, it does a good job of showing people what the site’s mission is all about. What would I tell other papers thinking about doing this? Go for it. It was a lot of fun and it gave many of our staffers a fresh outlet for their work. Also, all in all, it was a fairly inexpensive endeavor.

Writing to the beat of their hearts

What’s it like to be an adolescent girl in 2008? You won’t find the answer in cheeseball family sitcoms written by thirty-somethings. Thankfully, the Millennial generation, incubated in the Internet, grew up playing with all the multimedia toys of the journalism trade. With their every move tracked around the clock on blogs, Facebook status updates, MySpace bulletins, emails, texts, and IMs, today’s teens make for natural citizen reporters of their own lives.

In Red: The Next Generation of American Writers – Teenage Girls – on What Fires Up Their Lives Today, a new collection of personal essays gathered by writer and editor Amy Goldwasser, a bevy of fearless young women have cut-and-pasted their thoughts right onto the page.

Their writing is guided by only one principle: No thought is too trivial or too strange to shout into the World Wide Web. You wish your identical twin sister would lose weight so she’d be as pretty as everyone says you are. You hate how TV stifles family conversations and then you hate that, as you’re writing this, you are not getting up to turn it off. You think of grinding as make-believe sex. No matter the subject, these girls write only to the beat of their hearts.

Many of the essays were dashed off in a matter of minutes. Some were pieced together from over 50 e-mails. All of them make for tasty, unprocessed reading. OJR chatted with Goldwasser over the holiday break. An edited transcript follows.

OJR: How did the book begin?

Goldwasser: I started the project because I’d been volunteering at the Lower East Side Girls Club, teaching writing — helping with college essays, plays, podcasts. I was really impressed with the originality of the writing. I work as a magazine consultant during the day, but I was finding the writing from the girls more exciting and varied than the professionals I was working with. We adults kind of know how to perform, and things become so formatted. The leads are fairly similar. The epiphanies always happened in the same places within the same word count. The girls, though, they write what they want to write instead of what someone’s telling them to write.

So I was trying to bring it into my work at the magazine — combining my day job and what I enjoyed volunteering with. I tried to get a girl writing column in various magazines and that didn’t work. And you can’t just reuse the writing three years later because they outgrow it: A 17-year-old will disown what she wrote when she was 14. And I was feeling terrible that I was wasting their work. In March 2006, I decided to take a sabbatical and do a call for essays to see once and for all if it would work.

I knew that to sell the idea, I needed the actual essays. So I sent out an e-mail to a few dozen friends and asked them to spread the word. I got 800 essays in six weeks. That’s the difference between the young writers and the professional writers — the girls write on the spot. They’re creating these bodies of personal written work daily. Blogging and social media have taken away the fear of putting something on paper.

OJR: How did you work with the writers?

Goldwasser: I’d tell them to write about whatever they want. I’d maybe offer a little direction, like tell me about a few things you’re into. The girls would respond, then I’d pick out one of the things and I’d get a completely new essay in an hour. They saw this kind of personal writing as an outgrowth of blogging. You know, I’m furious about the NEA report that said Americans are reading less and less. It fails to acknowledge new media. The girls in the book don’t consider themselves as writers. The Internet takes the preciousness of “writing” away. If you could see these essays annotated — some of these were cut and pasted from 50 e-mails. Especially with the girls, they’ll write, “He’s cool.” And I’ll say, tell me why. Tell me three cool things you’ve seen him do and hear him say. You do have to pry out the specifics. A positive that comes from all the Internet use is that nothing’s trivial. They have opinions on everything. There’s nothing weird about blogging about a movie they just saw or . It’s making more interesting writers — chroniclers of the everyday. Writers know that the key is to wake up and write every day. The girls already do that.

OJR: How do the girls feel about their most intimate secrets published?

Goldwasser: In a way, they weren’t concerned enough. It’s another thing the Internet has done — they’re so used to being published that I almost had to take many steps back and go to great lengths to make sure they know what they’re doing. Online, you’re using a username. This is different. You’re putting this into a book forever in the adult world. Their kids and their grandmas will read this. I think they handle it fine on the Internet, but when you transfer this to a book, things are a bit different. They put their full names on their essays. We had to change other distinguishing characteristics — for example, I couldn’t show off who was from the small towns.

OJR: Would it have been possible to do this book if it were teenage boys writing?

Goldwasser: That’s the big question right now. I started with girls because it was easier — it was an experiment from home. This is just the first book in a series. There’s going to be one about boys and then maybe by geographic locations — like a New York volume. One of the cool things is that every one of the 58 authors has a blog. The website is really at the heart of it. It’s a full-on social network like Facebook. Girls and boys can submit work — including photos or videos — constantly. We’ll connect them with professionals, an editor or music supervisor. The “best of” will be published in professionally edited books. Separating media is a very adult imposed thing. The girls — they don’t see the distinction. They just work in multimedia. We’re also looking into adapting Red for theatre.

I think the Internet is the best thing to happen to book publishing, and I’m quite upset about that Doris Lessing quote [“… the Internet, which has seduced a whole generation with its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that, once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find a whole day has passed in blogging etc…”]. The younger generation does buy books and they buy books regularly. And they talk to each other. Everyone’s bemoaning the death of the book review. I feel like this generation — they’re all natural reviewers. They’ll start looking to each other more. It’s been so cool to watch it happen.

OJR: Do you think there is a lack of female voices in online journalism?

Goldwasser: The thing that really gets to me is the lack of female humor. There’s this idea that for women to be taken seriously they have to be serious.

OJR: Has the book been met with any negative reactions?

Goldwasser: People are uncomfortable with female sexuality. One girl, Eliza Appleton, wrote an essay on grinding [republished on Salon]. People got really upset with her. On the message boards they were saying where’s her mother, and things like that.

Another thing is adults really want to label the girls. We’ve gotten these false charges, like why are the girls from New York all white and liberal? That’s just unfounded. This book is as multi-anything as any collection. If a girl doesn’t write about race, people assume she’s white. It’s a weird reverse racism.