News Leadership 3.0

January 14, 2010

10 lessons from NPR’s digital transformation

Ellen Weiss, VP News at National Public Radio describes what she and her organization have learned about change in the past two years

(USC journalism graduate student Nikki Usher sat in on the Knight Digital Media Center’s Strategic Leadership Summit for Public Radio Stations, held last month in conjunction with National Public Radio and funded by Knight Foundation. I asked her to write about key takeaways.)

By Nikki Usher

National Public Radio is clearly an organization looking to make radical transformations as it moves from being a radio network to a multiplatform news provider.

What has NPR learned from trying to rethink its digital strategy? Ellen Weiss, Senior Vice President for News offered ten lessons from two years in the change trenches that may be useful to other news organizations:

1. There is no end state. The transition will take a long time and no one anywhere has figured this all out. For the transition to happen, managers have to be part of the conversation.

2. Be realistic about how much multimedia you can handle
and train for. Writing is multimedia when you are a broadcast organization.  NPR brought its training back to reality - away from video and to things people could take back to their jobs: how to take a good picture, what’s the mix of writing, blog writing, writing for the web vs. writing for print.

3. Communicate.Weiss held three Q&A sessions a month to help explain to staffers the plans and the process and to give staff a chance to ask questions.

4. Test and learn. Repeat.  Stop things that aren’t working. Realize that lots of people through the organization are going to do things differently and try new things in different ways. Don’t be afraid to reorganize the newsroom (NPR has done this - twice). Be strategic about every hire you have.

5. Do not play into Web versus radio competition.
(Or, to extend on Ellen’s thoughts, for other newsrooms, Web v. print, or web v. broadcast). Geography matters.  Seat people together. Bring digital and editorial staff together. Remind people they are delivering the audience, not one audience versus another audience.

6. Demonstrate your affection and enthusiasm for digital work. People will follow your lead, if you acknowledge the good work.

7. Make tough decisions about what you want to stop.
NPR stopped the Bryant Park Project, but started Planet Money. Planet Money, a big success, benefited from Weiss and others willingness to let the podcast/blog experiment and develop into what it is now.

8. Be transparent about metrics
and educate your staff. Counter the fear that work is going to be driven by getting the hottest number or different editorial standards.

9. Listen to people’s concerns
, don’t try to downplay them. Look for early adapters. Weiss won’t accept anyone not writing for web, but when it comes to social media, she trusts that buzz in the newsroom will build and grab people interested in it.

10. Have reasonable expectations
. You can’t do everything, pick a few things and try to do them well. Give people the support they need to do these things well.


Weiss and two other NPR executives, Kinsey Wilson, senior vice president and general manager for digital news, and Dick Meyer, NPR’s executive editor for news, shared some of their visions with the public radio group.

They stressed the importance of NPR being more than a destination site with multimedia like CNN or the Washington Post. NPR’s focus is on being a nimble site adapted to the new forms of the Internet that recognizes the advantages of audio, social media, niche sites/verticals and mobile platforms.

A big step for NPR has been to produce continuous news and information in what Kinsey Wilson called “real time” or the “price of information on the real clock not on programming time,” an effort which has taken 18 months of Knight training, retraining and hiring staff, and rethinking digital strategy. The goal is not to “match CNN” but to have NPR’s own sensibility and story selection to breaking news on internet time.

December 29, 2009

Government 2.0: What’s in it for local news?

The fast-growing Government 2.0 movement could create opportunities for news orgs to get more local news and engagement without necessarily having to write more traditional stories.

(This is the fourth in a series of guest posts by Amy Gahran about how news organizations and other institutions can implement the findings of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy.This joint project of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Aspen Institute Communications and Society program produced the report, “Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age”. Read more articles in this series.)

By Amy Gahran

Local governments are the source of much local news—yet often they do a notoriously poor job of communicating with community members and news organizations. This is starting to change as more governments become open to experimenting with new tools for sharing info and engaging community members. image

Monitoring and getting involved with these experiments can yield new opportunities to for local news. This content could be more engaging and less labor-intensive than traditional reporting.

The key to making this cooperation work is connecting with people in government who are eager and able to try new approaches to public transparency and engagement. The Government 2.0 (Gov2.0) movement is a great place to find allies for strengthening communities and local news.

Recommendation 4 in the Knight Commission Report is:

“Require government at all levels to operate transparently, facilitate easy and low-cost access to public records, and make civic and social data available in standardized formats that support the productive public use of such data.”

The Knight report suggests some ways to approach this by strengthening and more fully implementing public information rules, open meeting rules, and open courtrooms. These are also passions of government employees and officials involved in Gov2.0.

Gov2.0 is a movement among government employees, as well as other interested people, to apply the strengths of social networking and Web 2.0 tools to all levels of government. The goal is to create systems for public transparency, participation, and collaboration. Although Gov2.0 first gained momentum among federal employees, it’s quickly spreading through many state and local governments.

In fact, in coming years local government may be where much of the Gov2.0 action is. Mark Drapeau, a leading Gov2.0 practitioner, recently listed “local governments as experiments” as the first of his top five Gov2.0 predictions for 2010-12. Gartner analyst Andrea DiMaio agrees and notes:

“Indeed we have seen and will see the best from local authorities. Not because they are necessarily smarter or bolder, but because they are—by their nature—much closer to ‘real’ communities. The issues they deal with are local in nature and touch citizens more directly: parks, waste collection, traffic, environment, safety.”

ACTION STEPS: CONNECTING WITH GOV2.0 PEOPLE

1. Go where they are. The Gov2.0 community has some important gathering places online. Joining these communities, finding participants and projects near you, and getting involved in their conversations and events can help you find mutually beneficial opportunities to experiment.

GovLoop is your first stop to connect with the Government 2.0 crowd. This community includes people from all levels of government, so search it to find groups, blogs, and members from your region (or who are discussing larger issues that have strong local angles for you). To find local GovLoop members, try searching for your city and state in this format: Oakland, CA. Selectively friending local GovLoop members and asking about their current Government 2.0 projects or interests can be a good way to break the ice. This guide to searching GovLoop can help you find other useful info in GovLoop.

Also, GovFresh features the best of US Gov 2.0 news, TV, ideas, and live feeds of government social media activity.

2. Attend Gov2.0 events in person or online. CityCamp is a participant-organized “unconference” about practicing Gov 2.0 at the local level. It will be held Jan 23-24, 2010 in Chicago. Someone attending from a news org might volunteer to run a session on how local media can complement local Gov2.0 efforts. For discussion, this group has a forum/mailing list, in-progress agenda, Facebook Group, and GovLoop group. Also, on Twitter, you can follow @CityCamp or watch the hashtag #citycamp.

Similarly, Gov2.0 Expo 2010 will be held May 25-27 in Washington, DC. This is part of O’Reilly Media’s high-profile Gov2.0 Summit event series. This will probably have a heavy federal government focus, so it might be most appropriate for national or major metro daily news orgs to attend.

3. Build on existing efforts. Most people involved in Government 2.0 already have projects in mind or in progress: data or documents they’d like to improve access to, easier channels for public participation, etc. In general, it’s probably easiest to work with what they’re already doing, rather than invent projects from scratch.

Once you assess which Government 2.0 projects are already in the works in your region, consider opportunities where using your news site and/or social media presence as a platform could enhance these efforts—while also providing relevant newsworthy content, and building community loyalty to your brand.

Possible results. Cooperating on Gov2.0 projects might be as simple as selectively retweeting local government Twitter items, or periodically excerpting content from their Facebook fan page or group onto yours.

Or imagine a local government decides to set up a site like Manor Labs where community members can submit ideas, rate them, and be rewarded for innovation. A local news organization might run a regular feature highlighting the best-rated submissions—thus increasing participation by reaching more of the community, and spurring constructive local discussion. A more automated approach might be to embed on the news site a widget that provides some of the civic site’s functionality.

You’ll only really start to see the possibilities for collaborating with more open, engaged, online-savvy governments once you start talking with the Gov2.0 community. These are creative, friendly people, eager to engage. And in many cases, the prospect of cooperation with or support from local media could tip Gov2.0 projects from ideas into reality.

Previously:

Community info building blocks: What do you already have?

Teamwork: Collaborating to build a community dashboard

Civic topic pages: Boost local traffic, democracy

December 15, 2009

Teamwork: Collaborating to build a community dashboard

Driving is much easier—and safer—when you can see the dashboard. It helps to know how fast you’re going, whether your engine is overheating, and how much gas you have left. Plus, if you’re driving a newer car, your dashboard may show where you are, how to get where you want to go, and whether you’re using gas efficiently.

No driver ever watches the dashboard constantly. However, if those indicators weren’t there, you’d probably get pretty anxious behind the wheel.

Similarly, communities seeking to steer toward a healthy future need ongoing, easy access to relevant, structured, local information—a “community dashboard”...

(This is the second in a series of guest posts by Amy Gahran. Amy is looking how news organizations and other institutions can implement the findings of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, This joint project of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Aspen Institute Communications and Society program produced the report, “Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age”. Read more articles in this series.)

By Amy Gahran

Last week I wrote about how news organizations could help strengthen communities by presenting more structured information about vital community issues, as a complement to traditional news stories.

Structured information is organized consistently to make it easier to manipulate or reuse in a database, computer program, or web application. This, in turn, makes it easier for people to sort, search, trend, and compare that information. image

...In contrast, unstructured text (like most news stories) can be searched but not easily reused, analyzed, trended, or otherwise manipulated.

News organizations already publish many kinds of structured information: weather forecasts, sports scores, election results, stock prices, and more. They also publish many kinds of vital community information, such as local economic indicators—but typically in story format, such as: Denver home resales up 23% in November from 2008

News venues are an ideal place to display a community dashboard of local economic, civic, or quality-of-life indicators. The catch is: Developing indicators and compiling that data continuously is a big job—and not always a core strength of news organizations.

Fortunately, other community players are already doing a lot of this work. Finding and collaborating with them can help:

Researchers and officials: Academic researchers, government agencies, nonprofits, and social service organizations often are skilled at compiling structured community information—which is why the Knight Commission report listed some of them as vital community information intermediaries.

However, often these players’ efforts to share their information are not easy for community members to find, understand, and use.

For example, Temple University’s Metropolitan Philadelphia Metro Indicators Project has compiled and analyzed a wealth of information benchmarks to gauge the status of community issues such as civic participation, transportation, the regional economy, housing, education, and more in the 353 municipalities in and around Philadelphia. This information is gathered through rigorous surveys and analysis, but presented mainly via complex reports in pdf format on a web site that probably is not well known among community members.

A search of Philly.com, the leading metro daily news organization for the region, revealed only one story mentioning this project. More collaboration between the university and the news organization might go a long way toward helping people in the Philadelphia area understand their communities.

Librarians: These information professionals are skilled at sharing information (including structured information) with community members. Also, public libraries typically have a strong local focus and commitment to community service. Most importantly, librarians usually know what kinds of information community members seek or need.

The American Library Association’s Civic Engagement blog is a great resource for understanding what libraries have to offer on this front.

Other news organizations: It’s possible—and perhaps increasingly desirable—for local news organizations that once considered themselves competitors (or serving different audiences, like local ethnic, college, or business media) to collaborate to create community resources based on structured information.

Web application developers: These programmers (rather than web site designers) are skilled at making structured information user-friendly and engaging. However, few web application developers focus on local communities. The Knight News Challenge-funded startup Everyblock, recently acquired by MSNBC, is one example of how web applications can support community-level democracy and quality of life.

ACTION STEPS

Identify willing and able local information partners. Partnering is first and foremost about relationships—which means talking to (and collaborating with) people.

Look over the list of potential partners above. Your news organization probably already has many contacts in each category—probably as sources, but perhaps as partners in various community or publishing projects. List your best contacts in each category: Cooperative people who tend to know a lot of about who’s doing what in their organizations or fields.

Call some potential partners with whom your news organization has existing relationships. Tell them you’re considering publishing a community dashboard of important local indicators. Suggest weekly or biweekly to start. Ask them: What kind of indicators do you think should be on that community dashboard? And: Could you help supply information for our dashboard?

If people have trouble grasping the community dashboard concept, show them Temple University’s Metropolitan Philadelphia Metro Indicators Project. Then say: “We’re thinking of packaging a small-scale version of something like this in a format similar our weather forecast box. We’re not exactly sure what the final product would look like, but it would be more like an infographic than a story. And it would come out regularly, so people could track it easily.”

The web application developers represent a different type of partner. Ask them for their ideas about presentation and delivery of a community dashboard. But they may also have content ideas, too.

Once you’ve identified at least a few potential partners who are willing and able to help, get them together for a brainstorming session with the people on your staff most skilled at working with structured information. (Last week I suggested how to identify these valuable staffers). The goals of the brainstorming session would be:

  1. What kind of a community dashboard would we like to see? (Creativity)
  2. How could we start to create that dashboard? (Prioritize options)
  3. What are the first tasks to get started? (Commit to action)

If you can only get through the first two goals, that’s significant progress. It’s most important to build momentum and relationships, and to create opportunities for action (not just abstract discussions). Having such an action-focused base of collaboration can help move forward many of the Knight Commission report’s recommendations.

Also, from here, you can design small-scale pilot projects to introduce your community to the idea of a community dashboard.

December 08, 2009

Community info building blocks: What do you already have?

Communities need relevant, timely information in order to function well. Traditional narrative-format news is one way to package that information. News stories work great as snapshots, but generally not so well for gauging relevant issues on a daily basis. By publishing more structured information, news organizations might help people more clearly understand their world and make decisions about their lives and communities.

(I’m pleased to have digital provocateur extraordinaire Amy Gahran on board as a guest blogger. Today, Amy starts a series of weekly posts that look at how news organizations and other institutions can implement the findings of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, This joint project of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Aspen Institute Communications and Society program published its flagship report, “Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age” on Oct. 2. Read more articles in this series.)

By Amy Gahran

Knowledge is power—and knowledge springs from information. In any society, but especially in a democracy, people need current, relevant, and useful information in order to know how to exercise their power to make better decisions and build better, stronger communities.

imageThe Knight Commission report offered rich guidance for how news organizations, governments, schools, libraries, bloggers, and other leading players in the community information landscape could better manage the supply and flow of vital community information. The goal: to create robust local “information ecologies” that support local democracy and quality of community life.

In a new series of posts to the News Leadership 3.0 blog, we’ll explore opportunities to realize the Knight report’s recommendations—examples of what’s happening, what works (or not), and what’s possible. We’ll consider new kinds projects and collaboration, and suggest steps to take action.

Our starting point is the first question the report sought to answer: What are a community’s information needs?

The Knight report proposed 15 ways to to better manage the supply and flow of vital community information. However, it offered surprisingly little insight on which types of information communities need to support the goals outlined in the report: community coordination and problem-solving, public accountability, and a sense of connectedness.

According to the report, the tools to generate a specific list of vital community information types and measurements aren’t quite there yet. Information researchers are still working to develop them. But the executive summary did outline some general categories to consider:

“...In addition to the information necessary to participate in elections and civic affairs, people need access to information to better their lives. Where families struggle to make ends meet and many men and women work multiple jobs, free time is limited. Indeed the path to civic engagement may begin with fulfillment of basic information needs, including info about:

  • Jobs
  • Housing
  • Taxes
  • Safety
  • Education
  • Transportation
  • Recreation
  • Entertainment
  • Food and shopping
  • Utilities
  • Child care
  • Healthcare
  • Religious resources
  • Local news

News organizations traditionally have packaged these types of community and civic information in a narrative story format. In the narrative format, information is primarily communicated through a continuous flow of text, audio/video, or slideshow/photo gallery. Charts, interactive, or infographic components only play a supporting role.

Narrative news stories work great as snapshots—but they can be less helpful for ongoing public awareness, analysis, and decision making.

Fortunately, most of the vital community info types above already exist at least partly in the form of structured information (data sets, regularly compiled statistics, lists, surveys, forms, etc.) The strength of structured information is that it works more easily and flexibly as a kind of radar screen or dashboard. This helps people gauge on a daily basis the state of issues affecting their lives—and how they (or their communities) “measure up.”

Adopting a more structured approach to providing community information, delivered at least partly via news media, can complement traditional news stories in order to support community-level democracy. We’ll examine this strategy in the next post in this series.

ACTION STEP:

Before you start trying to do something new, it’s helpful to assess what you’re already doing. Your news organization may already have more structured information capacity than you realize.

So: Assess which types of information your news organization already publishes periodically in a structured format: tables, info graphics, charts, statistics, interactive tools, etc. Ideally this information is published daily or weekly—but don’t discount monthly, annual, or event-related reports.

Look for information that you publish primarily through tables, charts, form-style blurbs, or infographics (rather than stories).

This can include information with obvious civic or community impacts, such as election results and candidate positions, school report cards, water quality reports, sales tax receipts, crime rates, health statistics, housing or real estate statistics or transactions, unemployment figures, and more.

...But it also can include non-civic information such as weather forecasts, sports scores/statistics, death notices, or stock prices. Again, when compiling this list, pay attention to the format of reporting, not the substance of what’s reported.

Once you’ve created this list, consider: Which of your structured information reports are most popular with your community? You might gauge this through audience surveys. However, simply recalling the feedback you get about this information (especially when you move or change how or where it’s presented) can help you decide what’s working best.

Then consider: What are your existing resources and processes for publishing structured information? It can help to map out the basics of your processes with flow chart tool like Flowchart.com, or to draw it all on a huge brainstorming pad.

For instance: Newspapers often run a local “weather box” on the front page. Where does that information come from? How much time did it take do design that weather box? How much time and effort does it take each day to update it? Who’s involved with each part of the process?

Similarly, if your news organization publishes a form-style or tabular guide to candidates’ positions for local elections: What’s your process for deciding which questions to ask the candidates? How do you gather that information? What’s your process for compiling, editing, and presenting that information? How much time/effort does each part of the process take? Which parts of the process work well, and which are problematic? Who’s involved?

...Once you’ve mapped out some of those regular processes, look for patterns. Which people in your organization have a flair or affinity for any part of this work? Which tasks are streamlined, and which are vague or convoluted? Which of these efforts feel rewarding, and which make you groan?

Publishing more structured information can support healthier communities—but you don’t have to do it all at once. Clarifying your existing strengths and resources can help you decide where to start and set yourself up for easy “wins.”

Next week: How to adopt a more structured approach to providing community information

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ABOUT THIS BLOG

Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

Get in touch with Michele at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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