Chicago Tribune Story Idea Survey: Good Idea, Poorly Executed

CHICAGO - DECEMBER 8:  Flags wave in the wind ...
(Image by Getty Images via Daylife)

The Chicago Tribune recently reported that it has halted a “short-lived research project in which the Chicago Tribune solicited responses from current and former subscribers to descriptions of Tribune stories before they had been published.”

The project — a collaboration between the paper’s editorial and marketing departments — was stopped because reporters raised journalistic concerns. Originally it had only surveyed selected “would-be readers” about general topics and previous Tribune coverage. But in the last two weeks, participants had begun being surveyed about their preferences on synopses of stories currently in the works.

In all, 55 reporters and editors voiced their complaint in a letter to Tribune editor Gerould Kern and managing editor Jane Hirt. The letter “expressed concern that providing story information to those outside the newsroom prior to publication seemed ‘to break the bond between reporters and editors in a fundamental way.'”

Here’s more detail about how the research was conducted: “Surveys were sent by e-mail to around 9,000 would-be readers on two occasions. About 500 responded to each, indicating which of 10 story ideas they preferred. Kern said the stories ‘tended to be news features,’ and the results never made it to him or had any impact in how stories were handled.”

I can understand the reporters’ complaint if their story ideas were shared outside the newsroom without their prior knowledge and consent. However, if that consent can be obtained, I personally think this type of research could be surprisingly useful. Especially if the people being surveyed truly represent younger people (i.e., the news organization’s future market) as well as demographics that historically have not been well served by the news organization…

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Everyblock’s New Geocoding Fixes

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Adrian Holovaty. (Image by Additive Theory via Flickr)

Recently I wrote about how a Los Angeles Police Dept. geocoding data glitch yielded inaccurate crime maps at LAPDcrimemaps.org and the database-powered network of hyperlocal sites, Everyblock.

On Apr. 8, Everyblock founder Adrian Holovaty blogged about the two ways his company is addressing the problem of inaccurate geodata.

  1. Latitude/longitude crosschecking. “From now on, rather than relying blindly on our data sources’ longitude/latitude points, we cross-check those points with our own geocoding of the address provided. If the LAPD’s geocoding for a particular crime is significantly off from our own geocoder’s results, then we won’t geocode that crime at all, and we publish a note on the crime page that explains why a map isn’t available. (If you’re curious, we’re using 375 meters as our threshold. That is, if our own geocoder comes up with a point more than 375 meters away from the point that LAPD provides, then we won’t place the crime on a map, or on block/neighborhood pages.)
  2. Surfacing ungeocoded data. “Starting today, wherever we have aggregate charts by neighborhood, ZIP or other boundary, we include the number, and percentage, of records that couldn’t be geocoded. Each location chart has a new “Unknown” row that provides these figures. Note that technically this figure includes more than nongeocodable records — it also includes any records that were successfully geocoded but don’t lie in any neighborhood. For example, in our Philadelphia crime section, you can see that one percent of crime reports in the last 30 days are in an ‘unknown’ neighborhood; this means those 35 records either couldn’t be geocoded or lie outside any of the Philadelphia neighborhood boundaries that we’ve compiled.”

These strategies could — and probably should — be employed by any organization publishing online maps that rely on government or third-party geodata.

Holovaty’s post also includes a great plain-language explanation of what geodata really is and how it works in practical terms. This is the kind of information that constitutes journalism 101 in the online age.

(NOTE: I originally published this post in Poynter’s E-Media Tidbits.)

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HuffPost’s citizen journalism standards: links required (News orgs, take a hint)

huffpostLast week the Huffington Post posted its standards for citizen journalism. It’s a pretty short, basic list — just six requirements — that reads like journalism 101.

However, many news organizations still could take a lesson from the second item on HuffPost‘s list:

2. Do research and include links to back it up. Whether you are referencing a quote, statistic, or specific event, you should include a link that supports your statement. If you’re not sure, it’s better to lean on the cautious side. More links enhance the piece and let readers know where you’re coming from.”

It amazes me how often I still see mainstream news stories which completely lack links, or which ghettoize links in a box in a sidebar or at the bottom of the story…

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What ABCnews.com got really wrong about social media and Mumbai attacks

On Nov. 28, ABCnews.com published a story by Ki Mae Huessner called Social Media a Lifeline, Also a Threat? about the role of Twitter and other social media in the coverage of, and public discourse about, last week’s terrorist attacks in Mumbai.

Huessner interviewed me for this story because I’ve been blogging about it on Contentious.com and on E-Media Tidbits. She chose to include a few highly edited and interpreted quotes from me that I think grossly misrepresent my own views and the character of our conversation.

Yeah, being a journalist, I know that no one is ever completely happy with their quotes. I’ve been misquoted plenty in the past, and normally I just roll with it. But this particular case is an especially teachable moment for my journalist colleagues in mainstream media about understanding and covering the role of social media in today’s media landscape.

Today’s a pretty busy day for me, but I didn’t want to let this go unsaid any longer. So I made a little Seesmic video response to this story. Here I am speaking strictly for myself — not on behalf of any of my clients or colleagues. Yes, I am very emphatic here and somewhat critical. Please understand that my frustration is borne of seeing this particular problem over and over again.

Tracking a Rumor: Indian Government, Twitter, and Common Sense

This morning, as I check in on the still-unfolding news about yesterday’s terrorist attacks in Mumbai, I noticed a widely repeated rumor: allegedly, the Indian government asked Twitter users to stop tweeting info about the location and activities of police and military, out of concern that this could aid the terrorists.

For example, see Inquisitr.com: Indian Government trying to block Twitter as Terrorists may be reading it.

Rumors — even fairly innocuous ones — really bug me. Mainly because they’re so easy to prevent!

I’m trying to track this particular rumor down, but haven’t been able to confirm anything yet. At this point I’m skeptical of this claim. Here’s what I’ve found so far…

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Press releases: If you use them, say so and LINK BACK!

Transparency is becoming at least as important as — or perhaps more important than — objectivity in news today. This means: If it’s possible to link to your source or provide source materials, people expect you to do so. Failing to offer source links is starting to look about as shifty or lazy as failing to name your source.

Yesterday I wrote about how the New York Times missed an obvious opportunity for transparency by failing to link to (or publish) source documents released during a court case.

But also, a recent flap in Columbia Journalism Review has got me thinking about transparency. This flap concerns the role of press releases in science journalism. Freelance journalist Christine Russell kicked it off with her Nov. 14 CJR article, Science Reporting by Press Release. There, she wrote:

“A dirty little secret of journalism has always been the degree to which some reporters rely on press releases and public relations offices as sources for stories. But recent newsroom cutbacks and increased pressure to churn out online news have given publicity operations even greater prominence in science coverage.

“‘What is distressing to me is that the number of science reporters and the variety of reporting is going down. What does come out is more and more the direct product of PR shops,’ said Charles Petit, a veteran science reporter and media critic, in an interview. Petit has been running MIT’s online Knight Science Journalism Tracker since 2006. …In some cases the line between news story and press release has become so blurred that reporters are using direct quotes from press releases in their stories without acknowledging the source.

“This week, Petit criticized a Salt Lake Tribune article for doing just that. In an article about skepticism surrounding the discovery of alleged dinosaur tracks in Arizona, the reporter had lifted one scientist’s quote verbatim from a University of Utah press release as if it had come from an interview. ‘This quote is not ID’d as, but is, provided by the press release,’ Petit wrote in his critique. ‘If a reporter doesn’t hear it with his or her own ears, or is merely confirming what somebody else reported first, a better practice is to say so.'” (Note: I added the direct links to the article and release here.)

In other words, Petit is arguing for transparency. He recommends using extra words as the vehicle for transparency (i.e., adding something like “according to a university press release”). That is indeed a useful tactic. But we have more tools than words — we have links…
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NYTimes.com: Source documents, please?

Today the New York Times published on its site this story by Gardiner Harris: Research Center Tied to Drug Company.

Public documents are the crux of this corruption story — specifically, “e-mails and internal documents from Johnson & Johnson made public in a court filing.”

The article included lots of detailed background on this complex case. However, it failed to supply or link to the source documents — or even cite the case (court, case name, docket number) in a way that would allow interested people to find the documents on their own.

I see this a lot, and it confounds me. Here, the New York Times evidently believes its readers are savvy enough to understand the risks of commercial interests undermining scientific research and — in this case — possibly putting kids’ physical and mental health at risk.

…But they expect me to just take their word about what those documents said? They don’t think I’d care to see the original context in which the statements they quoted were made? They don’t even think I might want to be able to look up the documents, or follow the case?

Obviously, the New York Times has these documents. Also, these documents are public information — so you don’t have to worry about breaking copyright or confidentiality. So why didn’t the Times simply present them?…

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Being a Citizen Shouldn’t Be So Hard! Part 2: Beyond Government

NOTE: This is part 2 of a multipart series. See the series intro. More to come over the next few days.

This series is a work in process. I’m counting on Contentious.com readers and others to help me sharpen this discussion so I can present it more formally for the Knight Commission to consider.

So please comment below or e-mail me to share your thoughts and questions. Thanks!

To compensate for our government’s human-unfriendly info systems, some people have developed civic info-filtering backup systems: news organizations, activists, advocacy groups, think tanks, etc.

In my opinion, ordinary Americans have come to rely too heavily on these third parties to function as our “democracy radar.” We’ve largely shifted to their shoulders most responsibility to clue us in when something is brewing in government, tell us how we can exercise influence (if at all), and gauge the results of civic and government action.

Taken together, these backup systems generally have worked well enough — but they also have significant (and occasional dangerous) flaws. They’ve got too many blind spots, too many hidden agendas, insufficient transparency, and too little support for timely, effective citizen participation…

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Geneva Overholser: Transparency Trumps Tradition

On Saturday I attended an event held by the Northern CA chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. I was covering the keynote panel, “New Money, New Media, New Hope,” live via my amylive Twitter account. Fellow journo and Twitter user Saleem Khan submitted a couple of questions for me to ask the panel. However, the panel ended before I got a chance to pose them.

Fortunately afterward I caught up with one of the panelists, Geneva Overholser, who’s about to take the helm at USC’s Annenberg School of Journalism. She was kind enough to offer some thoughtful answers to Khan. Here’s what she had to say.

(Note: My apologies for the different audio levels between the intro and the interview. I recorded on two different devices and edited in iMovie HD, which I don’t yet know very well, so it’s a little clunky. I’m still learning.)

Here’s more info about who was on this panel…

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Journalism: A Toxic Culture? (Or: Why Aren’t We Having More Fun?)

Despair, Inc.
Remind you of any journalists you know?…

(NOTE: I originally posted this article on Poynter’s E-Media Tidbits. But I thought Contentious readers might be interested in it, too.)

Most of what I do is help journalists and news orgs wrap their brains around the Internet. Generally I enjoy that work. Lately, though, I’ve been getting quite aggravated at the close-minded and helpless attitudes I’m *still* encountering from too many journalists about how the media landscape is changing. Those attitudes are revealed by statements, decisions, actions, and inaction which belie assumptions such as:

  • The only journalism that counts is that done by mainstream news orgs, especially in print or broadcast form. Alternative, independent, online, collaborative, community, and other approaches to news are assumed to be inferior or even dangerous.
  • Priesthood syndrome: Traditional journalists are the sole source of news that can and should be trusted — which gives them a privileged and sacred role that society is ethically obligated to support.
  • Journalists and journalism cannot survive without traditional news orgs, which offer the only reliable, ethical, and credible support for a journalistic career.
  • Real journalists *only* do journalism. They don’t dirty their hands or distract themselves with business and business models, learning new tools, building community, finding new approaches to defining and covering news, etc. As Louisville Courier-Journal staffer Mark Schaver said just this morning on Twitter, “[Now] is not a good time [for journalists] if you don’t want your journalism values infected with marketing values.”
  • Journalistic status and authority demands aloofness. This leads to myriad problems such as believing you’re smarter than most people in your community; refusing to “compromise” yourself professionally by engaging in frank public conversation with your community; and using objectivity as an excuse to be uncaring, cynical, or disdainful.
  • Good journalism doesn’t change much. So if it is changing significantly, it must be dying. Which in turn means the world is in big trouble, and probably deserves what it will get.

There’s a common problem with all these assumptions: They directly cut off options from consideration. This severely limits the ability of journalists and journalism to adapt and thrive…

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