J-schools step up investigative reporting instruction with News21

Raise your hand if you remember the following assignments from journalism school: The obit. The neighborhood piece. The ten-week investigation into the Department of Homeland Security’s budget.

No? Last one wasn’t on your syllabus? For 44 student fellows in a journalism education project called News 21, it’s exactly the type of investigative journalism they’re working on this summer.

News 21 — short for News for the 21st Century — is a partnership among five universities (Columbia, Harvard, Northwestern, the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Southern California [publisher of OJR]) that’s sending its fellows across the country and the world to do investigate reporting on a series of complicated topics and long-term issues.

Funded by the Carnegie Corporation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the three-year project began this spring and recently sent fellows to Korea to report on the U.S. military, to Mexico and Arizona to report on immigration concerns, and to the offices and anterooms of Washington D.C. to investigate the Department of Homeland Security’s finances.

While the project’s short term goal is to publish fellows’ work in mainstream news outlets, News 21’s organizers hope that, long term, the project will do nothing less than revitalize the nation’s top journalism schools.

“In a world where large news organizations are shrinking and are certain to shrink further, in-depth stories like what we’re doing aren’t being done,” said Merrill Brown, former editor-in-chief of MSNBC.com and the project’s editorial director. “And they won’t get done in our view without new institutions jumping in and figuring out how to do them. That’s where News 21 comes in.”

Taking over where newsrooms leave off?

The project has four newsrooms on four campuses. (Harvard, which doesn’t have a graduate journalism program, does not have a newsroom, but contributes fellows to each of the campuses.) Each newsroom is led by a coordinator who has several years of reporting experience.

Students apply to News 21 during the school year, and chosen fellows attend a semester-long seminar on the topic they will be covering during the ensuing ten-week summer program. Each university focuses on a different topic: Columbia fellows cover the Department of Homeland Security; USC fellows cover the immigration debate; Berkeley students cover the U.S. military abroad; and Northwestern students cover privacy and national security.

“They’re not just diving into these things cold, they’re actually experts,” said Brown, referring to the seminar. “The point of that is to try and encourage universities to make the link between topics and coverage so that journalism school isn’t simply about the craft but about preparing people to do great reporting about complicated subjects.”

Those complicated subjects are exactly the ones getting passed over in newsrooms today, according to Brant Houston, director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. Houston said that every year, investigative reporting continues a downturn in prominence.

“Investigative reporting relies almost exclusively on the individuals putting in lots and lots of time and effort for which they’re usually not compensated, except to have the story done,” he said. “Any program that that promotes investigative reporting especially during this time of increased government secrecy is a good thing.”

Some of the fellows are determined to uncover those secrets.

Jeff Delviscio, who graduated from Columbia’s graduate journalism school in May, said that, in his experience, employers are looking for specialists. News 21 helps him to develop contacts in his topic area — how the Department of Homeland Security protects chemicals from tampering — and the time to do good work.

Vanessa Gregory, currently in South Korea investigating U.S. military conduct, said she joined News 21 because it gives her more experience with a subject on which she’s wanted to report for a while, and which she wouldn’t have been able to report otherwise.

Some fellows are already publishing their work in mainstream outlets. Fellows at USC recently completed a television package about how two cities are dealing with immigration issues. That package, called “A Tale of Two Cities: San Bernadino and Maywood” will be the first News 21 piece to publish, and will appear on July 21st on Los Angeles public television station KCET.

“Our charge at USC was to serve local TV mainly,” said Judy Muller, USC’s coordinator for the project. “And we consider KCET to be local television, even though it will be seen all over the state. We’re also working on getting some stories on ABC. We’ve got a cover story for LA Weekly coming up.”

Coordinators said that the initial focus was for each campus to publish to a specific medium. However, the unpredictable nature of working with the press has caused the coordinators to concentrate on online publishing as well.

“Everybody kind of realized that the partners who may match up with the schools, that’s a real variable,” said Adam Glenn, multimedia coordinator for the Columbia campus. “But the one thing we do own is the Web. Our website is something that all the projects can control. There’s been an evolving focus on how we can deliver this to our website.”

News 21 fellows have already taken their first steps online. A few of the fellows entered the project with experience reporting or working online, and each reporting team posts to a blog.

In May the students and coordinators gathered at Berkeley, where Berkeley multimedia coordinator Jane Ellen Stevens demonstrated several ways to produce reporting for an online audience. Stevens explained how they can combine still images, video, and non-linear storytelling methods to produce stories that are “contextually rich.”

Some fellows are learning how to use their video camera as a reporter’s notebook, Stevens said. Eventually, they may be able to use parts of that video for a podcast, or spin off copy for a print project.

Fellows are using other non-traditional reporting tools as well. Columbia fellow Kody Akhavi, who had some experience with Flash before the project, is studying how to use Flash’s scripting abilities to publish maps and timelines to complement online stories.

“Flash is just a vehicle for me to tell stories,” said Kody, who started experimenting with the animation tool to create a website for his former band. “There’s still a question whether investigative journalism is best expressed in new media. You can’t do it with everything, but the opportunity is there.”

Of course, a large project such as News 21 is bound to face some obstacles.

“I think the fellows get it,” Stevens said, when asked whether the educators were enthusiastic about the online media component.

But some coordinators, while enthusiastic about the project as a whole, expressed frustration with project’s online plans. And a few fellows are hesitant to fully endorse how the universities approach online media.

Rich Gordon, multimedia coordinator at the Medill School at Northwestern, said the universities were late to address the online component of the project.

“Carnegie has two goals for the program, though I’m not sure they’re equal,” he said. “One is to get stories delivered through traditional media. Two is experiment with innovative ways to do these stories. Each school is focusing first on the story problem. Only with the second it’s been like, uh-oh, we better figure out how to deliver this online.”

Hiring the multimedia coordinators and other support staff was one solution to that problem, Gordon said. All four of the multimedia coordinators have significant experience with producing work for the Web, or with converting non-Web pieces to work online.

The coordinators have to be mindful of what the students want to concentrate on as well. The fellows are enthusiastic about the possibilities of online journalism, though many say they’re mostly interested in reporting regardless of medium.

The program hopes to announce this month several partners in the press who will be publishing the fellows’ work.

“We want to demonstrate that a brand new institution with some resources can create something with meaning without necessarily having to have distribution capability of the New York Times or CBS news,” said Brown.

“I think it’s an exciting opportunity for the students and the faculty. It’s a process of all of us learning and teaching one another.”

[This version was corrected from the original to distinguish between coordinators and multimedia coordinators for each of the participating schools.]

Blogging for fun… then profit

[Version corrected, see first comment below.]

You can learn a lot from watching others.

Business journalist Om Malik had the good fortune to watch others in Silicon Valley during the dot-com boom and bust. He helped found and edit Forbes.com, served as an editor at Red Herring, and wrote a book, Broadbandits, about telecom industry malfeasance. At one point, he even worked for a venture capital firm. Along the way, Om starting writing a blog (monthly traffic: about 500,000 unique visitors) and developed a reputation as a thoughtful and insightful reporter who could easily navigate the techie warrens of Silicon Valley.

And then, during one soul-searching month this spring, the writer who writes about start-ups decided to stake his reputation and his income on starting one himself.

Or to put it another way: Open mouth, insert money.

The money in this case was a little less than $1 million from True Venture Partners. They’re betting that Malik can take his significant connections and experience and roll it into a profitable micropublishing venture based at gigaom.com. Malik’s new business will be called GigaOmniMedia Inc.

Malik is the latest in a string of bloggers who are finding financial backing for their news-oriented sites. Another daily news blog, Paidcontent.org, recently received modest funding, as did Christoper Carey of Sharesleuth.com.

The blog has been a tool of savvy journalists for years now. But these investments represent a vote of confidence in the technology community — which has long presaged the end of traditional journalism — that blogs can be used to support standalone journalism businesses.

Malik’s new blog-based business will begin July 1, one day after his job as senior writer at Business 2.0 magazine ends (he’ll stay on as a contributing editor).

He’s already received his first dose of competitive pressure. The announcement about his new business, which he planned to announce in private to friends and family first, was scooped by — wait for it — another blog.

We caught up with Malik to talk about blogs, business and the state of journalism.

OJR: Your blog is one of the more widely read in Silicon Valley, if not on the entire Web. What’s going to change on gigaom.com?

Malik: Well, there will be more features coming over the next 6-8 weeks. Some will be by contributors. The best thing about any of these niche sites like mine is that they’re so closely tied to what I wrote and what I say, so I have to balance out what others contribute. There will be one reporter joining me full time. There will be more details in July.

OJR: You’ll also be deploying certain “web services” to help your readers use the site, is that right?

Malik: Yes, a bunch of widgets to go with the way the site works. I don’t want to tip my hand too soon, but they will be enhancements to the site mainly.

OJR: But you’ll be writing about the same types of news, right?

Malik: Yes. My belief is that broadband is a platform and that you have to assume that going forward. Y’know a lot of things are built on top of that platform. Online gaming, MMOGs, wireless broadband, a lot of things. So what I write, it won’t just be about pipes anymore. Think of it as what I do now, but on a more expanded basis. It’ll be more focused on critical analysis than anything. A lot of people write about the iTunes store, but nobody’s writing about what powers the store, or the connection Apple needs to make it work, or the servers that power it. Just being able to do this full time is great. The ideal is that a tech leader or an ultra tech leader finds value in it. I’m a little nervous because it’s biting off a big chunk.

But I just love to write, this is what I’m made for. You can’t really lie to yourself and say you’re going to do something else. And I really think this move is in line with that.

OJR: How will the site make money? Will you continue your relationship with Federated Media? Any plans to do private analysis for individual companies?

Malik: Revenues will come from advertisements and yes, I will continue my relationship with FM. I would be looking at a sponsorship model as well. There are plans for a premium newsletter which will be delivered either as a PDF download or as a premium part of the site.

OJR: So where does Gigaom.com fit in the publishing ecosystem now? Are you a blog? A magazine site?

Malik: It’s an adjunct to whatever’s out there. It doesn’t displace anything. It only adds to what’s out there. What you’re really seeing develop online is highly focused niches. Mine is a tiny component of a very large domain, which is technology. It’s like one-tenth of news.com or one-tenth of some trade publication. But it’s basically what I know best. I think that’s why you see sites like paidcontent.org succeed, or sites like techcrunch.com succeed. They stick to one domain.

[Reporter’s note: Techcrunch was started one year ago by a venture capitalist who wanted to write about new Internet start-ups. The blog has since become one of the most popular blogs online, garnering millions of visitors and earning its writer, Michael Arrington, extensive ad revenue.]

OJR: So on the one hand you have niche sites, like yours, but on the other hand are the aggregators, like Digg.

Malik: Right. Digg is basically an aggregator of news. But when you look at it you see a lot of the info on Digg isn’t coming from traditional media, but niche media. Go take a look. Hundreds of stories are there from sites neither you nor I have heard of. You take one look at one tiny site that has one tiny audience and that’s what makes life interesting, right? And this phenomenon only gets bigger because you have places like Netscape and Reddit coming along. I get the feeling they’ll only be more aggregators around niches.

OJR: You mean like Techmeme and Tailrank?

Malik: Yes, exactly. Both of them drive traffic in equal amounts. At least 10 percent of my traffic every month comes from Techmeme and Tailrank in equal amounts.

OJR: But there’s a tension here, no? The authors of the 2006 state of the media report said that news aggregators are a threat to publications’ bottom lines.

Malik: I don’t think that is true. Not at all. I think the aggregators drive traffic to newspapers. The BBC, and I’m sure a few other publications, recently added a digg link to their stories. This is only going to drive traffic to the newspapers’ web sites. I mean, you’ve seen the bump that can come when a story in linked on Digg.

And I mean, one of the reasons the whole blog thing took off, to be quite honest, is that it’s easier to find things. Have you noticed that? When you go to a newspaper there’s so many layers and categories you have to get through. If you could build a professional blog that reported well and honestly, and the content was easy to find, you’ve got a business. Maybe.

OJR: So in your experience, what kind of posts work? What gets you the traffic that will keep coming back?

Malik: I haven’t a clue. Like yesterday I had this one little piece about something that was sold — some little thing, I really didn’t think too much of it — and it got such a bump. It’s so hit and miss on the Web. You never know what’s going to work. But this isn’t any different from the rest of journalism is it.

OJR: Well right now there are a lot of students going through journalism school who are seeing professional and amateur bloggers alike starting their own businesses. Any advice to those students, or anyone thinking of blogging as a business?

Malik: They just have to try it out, they have to do it. Everybody should be having a blog because it’s a showcase. Not only for your writing, but for your analytical skills. And that’s what’s really important isn’t it. You don’t have to have a high-powered blog, but you can still get traffic.

OJR: Well, you report on Silicon Valley and venture capitalists, so I have to ask you: What’s your business’ exit strategy?

Malik: I want to run this profitably. But why should I even be thinking about an exit strategy yet? This is the life we all dream of as a journalist, isn’t it? To be your own boss. This is pretty awesome. Every day I wake up and think I’m working for myself. I’m pretty happy about that.

What works in online video news?

How has online news video changed in recent months? Let us count the ways:

Since last November, NBC started streaming three of its news shows online. CNN launched a desktop application called Pipeline, which shows 24 hours of Web-only content. Reuters and the Associated Press launched affiliate video network programs that syndicate their content to other sites. And the New York Times, a newspaper with no great broadcast experience, made video an integral part of their redesigned Web site.

By all accounts, news consumers are eating it up. CNN.com, to take one example, only showed about 4 million streams per month last year on their Web site. Today, according to executives, they’re showing 11 million streams per week.

Other news organizations report steady traffic growth since last Fall as well. But despite all these online ventures, or perhaps because of them, publishers say they’re still experimenting with video to discover what works, and what flops.

And while most media companies are reticent to reveal exact traffic numbers for their video, they were willing to share evidence about what types of videos are popular with viewers, from breaking news to user-generated content to celebrities and sex.

The three types of popular videos

At first blush, the question of what’s popular online may seem simple. It’s the same as offline, right?

Not exactly. Media executives say yes, it’s true that you can, for the most part, map the popularity of online video to what’s popular on broadcast television. Live and late breaking coverage, celebrities and sex, and innately visual stories work very well.

Bart Feder, CEO of The FeedRoom, says that visual stories in particular are the ones that tend to be the most viral types of video. His company helps other companies and news organizations, including the New York Times and BusinessWeek, publish and monitor their online video.

“Call up the must-see-TV category,” Feder said. “It’s the car chase. It’s the guy who proposes to his girlfriend on the floor of the Philadelphia Spectrum and she runs away. Stories about the war. Any war or conflict. Stories like these don’t do as well as plain copy.”

But beyond the hurricanes, sex, and terrified would-be brides, broadcasters have discovered other types of content that work well. For example, evergreen content, or videos that aren’t pegged to a specific news event, can continue to draw traffic well beyond its air date. Over time, the residual interest can rack up large traffic numbers.

Broadcasters have also found success with exclusive, in-depth content. The Associated Press, which syndicates its video to about 1200 sites, says they’ve drawn traffic with interviews. An interview with the wife of the West Virginia coal mine collapse, and another with the wife of a Shuttle Challenger astronaut, did very well.

Jim Kathman, product manager for the AP’s online video network, said that a segment that summarizes the major news events of the day, called “One-Minute World,” has started to do very well. Reuters, which also syndicates its video, has found the same success with their “World Update” videos, and quirky segments called “Oddly Enough.”

Executives agree that site editors and producers need to strike a balance on what types of videos to surface. While big news events like Hurricane Katrina are of obvious interest to everyone, it’s important to understand the other types of news content your specific audience is looking for on your site. Play to your strengths, editors say, and you’ll do well.

Context is King

What’s popular on a site that syndicates video content may be different from what’s popular on a network’s site, or on a traditional print publication’s site, like the New York Times.

Nick Ascheim, product manager for the New York Times Online, said that their most popular content mirrored breaking news events. However, the paper also offers extensive entertainment and feature reporting, so they try to surface non-breaking news content as much as possible.

“In video right now we’re not focused on breaking news,” said Ascheim. “What we’re focusing on is something we’ve called breaking analysis. We’ll do a video piece a little while after the story breaks. This works really well for something like a Supreme Court decision.”

Also popular: Movie reviews and David Pogue. While the Times wouldn’t reveal traffic numbers, Ascheim said that Pogue’s videos about personal technology — often less than two minutes long and sometimes shot by Pogue himself in motel rooms — are very popular with consumers. That Pogue’s videos are not always high-quality productions speaks to consumer interest in highly-personal reporting experiences.

The AP’s Kathman reports a similar interest in reporting as storytelling. “We don’t typically do, like the New York Times does, a bunch of analysis,” said Kathman. “We don’t usually have a reporter with a mike talking for two minutes about a story. But there are a number of reporters who can give special insight into a story. So we’re selectively putting some of our reporters who have specific knowledge of a subject on camera.”

Site editors and producers agree that context is the most important element in drawing consumers in. Since news sites cover a wide range of topics, and because watching video is a relatively large time investment, its important to help the user identify exactly what she will be watching. Some services, like CNN’s Pipeline, aid the user by showing related videos and links to stories beside what’s currently streaming.

Ascheim said the Times’ staff was working on ways to better label videos that appear on the home page, since that video could point to content deep within another site section. Editors also have to consider the power of search in the mix.

“Before we had really good search, publishers were focused on the browser metaphor: tabs, contextual links, story packages,” said Stephen Smyth, Reuters vice president of media. “Now as search has become more popular, it’s more of a 50/50 proposition. It’s not just packaging the story right, it’s putting the right metadata in and making sure all the video search engines get the feed.”

Time Well Spent?

Executives and editors agree that short content, by and large works best on the Web. The short time period allows users to continue “leaning in” and interacting with the site.

ABC News Now, for example, streams about 14 hours a day of video. The average consumer spends 10-12 minutes on the site, but gets about 8 stories in that time as they click from video to video, according to Mike Clemente, executive producer. Compare that to broadcast television, where the audience watches no more than 5 or 6 stories in that time.

“We don’t just do straight TV on the Web. Why would you watch something in linear form when you could choose the order?” said Clemente. “If I have a VCR from 25 years ago I can do that too. I just don’t think doing straight TV on the Web makes sense.”

NBC might take issue with that. NBC was the first network to stream its nightly newscast online, and recently added “The Today Show” and “Meet the Press” to that online lineup as well. The network publishes the “netcasts” after the original broadcasts clear the West Coast.

Mark Lukasiewicz, NBC News vice president of digital media, acknowledges that NBC Nightly News streams about 250,000 times per month and generates far less traffic than shorter news clips on msnbc.com. But, Lukasiewicz argues, the online shows are an important part of the network’s news arsenal.

“There’s no question that news consumers prefer shorter content online,” he said. “But there’s a roll for time-shifting and a role for netcasting and a role for shorter clips. What we need to do is understand how each of these forms work and be where the consumer wants us to be.”

That was part of the strategy behind CNN’s launch of the Pipeline application, according to Sandy Malcolm, executive producer of CNN.com. Pipeline, which streams unique and sometimes unedited content 24 hours a day, complements CNN.com’s free video, which is shorter and freely accessible.

“I’d say one of the most popular Pipeline experiences so far was Coretta Scott King’s funeral,” said Malcolm. “We had multiple camera angles, it was commercial free, there were no reporters talking over it.”

Up Next: Pulling the Audience In

Traditional news isn’t the only type of video that’s booming on the Web, of course. Publishers say they’ve also taken note of the popularity of user-generated content on sites such as YouTube and MySpace.

But while they’re eager to jump on the user-generated content wagon, publishers have to ensure that type of content fits into their editorial vision and process.

YouTube, for example, can host any type of video without following an editorial directive. “But we cant just put on every Joe who says ‘let’s get out of Iraq, it sucks,'” said ABC’s Clemente. “We have to wait for someone who’s thoughtful, and we put that into an appropriate context.”

CNN’s Malcolm and NBC’s Lukasiewicz agreed. All news organizations have to judge whether user-generated content is accurate, vetted and real. That vetting process can remove the immediate feedback of seeing your video online that Web users are becoming used to.

Luckily for publishers, online video is in its nascent stages. The economics are still uncertain and the users still fickle. Unluckily, the challenge now is to be everywhere users want them to be.