News Leadership 3.0

June 04, 2009

Foundations to the rescue as local news organizations diminish?

“New Media Makers” documents a growing role of foundations in supporting new community news outlets to fill information gaps and that holds promise for creating a new news ecosystem that is more diverse and more engaging to citizens as the news industry declines.

A new report pushes back at the notion that the decline of traditional news organizations will inevitably result in a vast wasteland of bloggers with agendas dominating the information stream.
Instead, the Knight Community News Network report finds that new structures for producing journalism are emerging to fill information gaps in local communities, often with support from foundations.
New Media Makers,” says 180 foundations have contributed $128 million to support 115 news projects in 17 states and the District of Columbia since 2005.
“Philanthropic foundations are increasingly embracing the idea that journalism projects can be a funding fit,” says Jan Schaffer, executive director of J-Lab, which operates the Knight Community News Network.
“These are not random acts of journalism, such as eyewitnesses uploading photos or videos of a major catastrophe. Nor are they the rants of Internet cowboys opining on the state of neighborhood affairs in their individual blogs,” the report says. “Rather, these new projects are often organized acts of journalism, constructed with an architecture and a mind-set to investigate discrete topics or cover geographic areas. The projects provide deliberate, accurate and fair accounts of day-to-day happenings in communities that nowadays have little or no daily news coverage.”
The report profiles four news organizations: New Haven Independent, PlanPhilly in Philadelphia., Voice of San Diego in California and the New Castle News & Opinion Weekly in Chappaqua, N.Y.
Perhaps of most interest to established news organizations is a database of foundation-assisted news organizations. Editors can use the database to discover sites in their areas that may be helping to fill coverage gaps.
These emerging organizations may not offer the complete, daily, fine-tuned packages that traditional journalists associate with quality news coverage. But their entry into what could be a more diverse and citizen-engaging news ecology is welcome.
(Disclosure: I coach community news startups as a consultant to the Knight Foundation, which is partnering with local community foundations to fund new initiatives through its Community Information Challenge. New Haven Independent and Voice of San Diego are among the projects receiving funding.)

March 31, 2009

Journalism as civic engagement

The digital revolution is remaking the idea of civic engagement and re-connecting journalism to community is both a challenge and a promise

Digital media provide exciting tools for connecting people and millions are online in social networks discussing matters both important and trivial. Being a link in the network, rather than owning it, challenges journalists and news organizations to re-establish community connections they severed long before the Internet grabbed center stage. Partnerships of journalists and citizens hold promise for the future of news. But rather than asking if citizens can learn journalism, why not ask if journalists can learn civic engagement?

David Stoeffler describes the decades old credibility gap in a recent speech:

“Where we see fairness, many see bias ... many readers believe that our editorial opinions and our own personal biases carry over into coverage. And if we are honest with ourselves, we know they are right - if nothing else it shows up in the stories we choose to cover and those we choose to ignore. ...

“Where we see the importance of getting the facts right, many see we are failing to get the right facts. Accuracy is not just about spelling the names correctly, it’s about talking to the right people, about providing context and perspective so the picture is more complete and the coverage “rings true” to readers.

“Where we hold ourselves out as the most credible sources of news, many see an aloof institution that often refuses to own up to its mistakes. Our newsrooms rarely reflect the diversity of the communities we serve. Our leadership is primarily still a club for white males. Too few journalists are willing to engage readers - still thinking of them in disdainful terms as uneducated or uninformed. ...

“These are challenges we must confront if we are to survive - if we are to get to the other side. ...”

Well said.

Now, we’re also hearing a lively debate about whether citizens can really perform journalism. How can citizens be objective? What about conflict of interest? How will they meet the professional standards of craft?  These and other questions about the ability of citizens to provide news coverage are valuable and necessary as society processes the tectonic shifts beneath the news landscape. Certainly, the broad debate about the value and ethics of independent journalism is important as the traditional financial base for news gathering diminishes.

Among the many things the Internet is remaking is the definition of credibility. Transparency and a willingness to engage are replacing authority and objectivity as top standards. I sometimes hear journalists wondering how citizens might be trained to be journalists. I always want to flip that—What will citizens teach journalists about community and civic engagement?

I hope that learning is already taking place at hundreds of community news sites. The broad debate often obscures what is happening on the ground: Citizens concerned about news in their communities and journalists recently forced out of their newsrooms are finding ways to make it work. Hybrid models that team professional journalists with citizens are emerging all over the United States. While often less complete, authoritative or sophisticated than traditional counterparts, these emergent partnerships spell a piece of a future for journalism, especially for journalism at the community and local level.

What if established news organizations partnered with the citizen sites to cover community news? One editor at a mid-sized newspaper recently told me she is considering asking a local non-profit to help with arts coverage the newspaper no longer has the staff to provide. The Oakland Tribune is partnering with Spot.Us to report on the deteriorating state of Oakland’s streets. A freelance reporter will be paid with micro-contributions from the public and Spot.Us will ask citizens to report potholes that will be mapped online.

These are a couple of small examples. But on the Internet, a lot of small can add up to something big.  Reliance on citizen contributors for micro-news might free up journalists for enterprise stories that citizens are less likely to be able to produce. I’d like to hear of other examples of established organizations reaching out for help from citizens. Please comment or e-mail me at michele dot mclellan at yahoo dot com.

If your organization is interested in working with community sites, J-Lab is looking for partners for a Networked Journalism project that will involve partnering a newspaper in five cities with five hyperlocal news projects in each of their communities. The project will provide micro grants for the hyper local sites and will fund a part-time coordinator at the newspaper. Contact Jan Schaffer via news at j-lab dot org.

December 05, 2008

Weekend reading

Links: Crowdsourcing, story sharing, linking and tips for new media newbies

Resource-strapped news organizations must get smarter about how they use their resources:
- Daniel Victor looks at how newsrooms can get help from the crowd (sources) in “Crowdsourcing can lead newspapers through buyout blues
- McClatchy and The Christian Science Monitor share stories.
- Three South Florida newspapers experiment with sharing stories, including student work. (Link via Poynter Online.)

Mark Luckie at 10000words offers “What is…?” a guide for new media novices, complete with a pdf you can hand out in your newsroom and links to more good stuff for newbies.

Matt Thompson at offers a good discussion of the challenges of engaging comments on news sites along with some suggested solutions.

Nieman Journalism Lab offers a take on the scarcity of outward links from stories on major newspaper sites—and the notable exception of columnist Frank Rich.

December 04, 2008

The newspaper is a means to transition. But it’s no longer an end unto itself

The printed newspaper isn’t going to vanish right away. But smart newsroom leaders need to shove it from the newsroom’s center stage

I confess I am befuddled when I hear suggestions that print newspapers should simply stop printing and build a new business online. I think a lot of editors would love the idea of a fresh start. But walking away form 90 percent of revenue—and the employees and reporting it still pays for—seems like a harsh course.
Still, the fundamental attitude in newsrooms about the print newspaper needs to change, and indications are it has not happened—is not happening—quickly enough.
What should that attitude be? Steve Outing offered a good compendium of action steps for newspapers (good ideas that have been aired before and, unfortunately, not vigorously followed). Here are Outing’s key points about print:

- Print edition: Don’t bother chasing young people
- Print edition: Focus on the core demographic
- Guide older print loyalists to a life online
- Reduce the number of print editions

As this list suggests, the place of the print product in the hearts and minds of established news organizations has to change radically—from one of where the printed newspaper is at the forefront to a model in which any print product serves an important but more limited role.

Here are my standards for a print newspaper:
1. Niche: It has a very specific role for a very specific audience.
2. Unique: It engages key audiences in ways that other platforms cannot, at least for the time being.
3. Resources: It pays for itself and then some so it helps fuel the transition.
4. Transition: It is a means to a new end, not an end it itself.

The last point may be the key for thinking in the newsroom: The print newspaper is a smaller and smaller piece of the action. Decisions about resources for the newspaper become less about how to make the product perfect and more about the effectiveness of the product either in driving revenue or transitioning the newsroom and the audience online. (Please don’t take this as suggesting the print product can be crappy. But it can be less labored.)

That attitudinal shift—fostered by smart leadership—could be a game-changer in newsrooms that are still more intensively focused on print than they are on the very different future that is already here for media consumers.

I’ve had conversations recently with newspaper editors who are testing different approaches to print that fit the new paradigm. One is The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which is experimenting with a new approach to its Sunday newspaper. The other is The Wichita Eagle, where the editor decided moving online was more important than a beloved daily print section. A third is The Tampa Tribune, where “audience editors” put platforms on an equal footing at the front end of the journalism. I’ll post about those approaches in the coming days.


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

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