The Newsroom Inside Out at the MIT Knight Civic Media Conference


We’re here at the 2013 MIT-Knight Civic Media conference here at the MIT Media Lab, where the theme is Insiders/Outsiders. Across the next two days, we’re going to be looking at this theme of institutions and innovators across the areas of government, media, and disaster response. Across the event, speakers will be asking if it’s better to look for change inside institutions or try to transform things from the outside.

This session, The Newsroom, Inside Out, discusses the idea that technology and social media are starting to open up the old one-to-many model for news. How are newsrooms adapting to the many-to-many approach, and can they become drivers of civic engagement?

This post was liveblogged by Joanna Kao, Erhardt Graeff, and Charlie DeTar.

  • Moderator, Elise Hu, Digital Editorial Coordinator at NPR
  • Emily Bell, Director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University
  • Jennifer Brandel, Senior Producer of CuriousCity and Interactive at WBEZ
  • Laura Ramos, Vice President Innovation & Design at Gannett
  • Dan Schultz, Knight Mozilla Fellow

Emily Bell: This is more of an observation than a directive from reporting: resource is not the biggest issue. We have talked about journalism’s ability to be sustainable — and that’s important — but the essence of that is not resources but process. Future of news looked in 2006 like the newsroom of the The Daily Telegraph. Kind of a hub and spoke setup. Now it looks more like the image of Slugline from the Netflix series House of Cards. Out of the steels mills and into the beanbags.

Jennifer: At CuriousCity, they let people vote on issues that WBEZ should be investigating. They also try to show readers what reporters are doing and give them a chance to offer questions, etc… Blow up the publishing wall.

Laura: Laura has been thinking about ways of measuring things — pageviews, bylines, etc… don’t measure engagement, which is what Gannett wants to do. “Our counts are wrong.”

Dan: I suggest that you take all of your developers and a bunch of straws. Whoever gets the shortest straws is the only person responsible for the CMS. Everyone else should become a newsroom developer. Essentially, a huge amount of energy is put into supporting legacy. Instead of spending time maintaining this, people should focus person power on newsroom and working with journalists.

Elise: So if we’re blowing up everything, who is putting out the news? When we get excited about changing things, the resistance is that there is still a core product that we are responsible for.

Laura: What’s off is what we want in our products and what the consumers want in the products.

Emily Bell

Emily: You make a good point because the thing that journalists do that no one else does is report stories all the time. And to take journalists away form that is undermining what you can do that no one else does better. But that can become a default. As soon as something happens, it’s like watching six year olds play soccer — everybody just follows the ball — but eventually they learn to stand in different places on the pitch. The problem is about process: process fits the story-production cycle. Journalists will change the process if it gets them to the story quicker. What you do as a manager/editor is move things out of their way. It’s hard for managers to do. Tech struggle with this too because they’ve been told security is the most important thing. If you don’t do some of it and move it into the core, you will never change. We did it at the Guardian with Cricket.
Cricket is a great sport.

Elise: Jennifer, how did you innovate?

Jennifer: First in terms of insider/outsider theme: I’m not a journalist, I’ve conned my way into WBEZ pitching numerous stories. I also don’t consume a tone of news. I read a lot of longer pieces and things that interest me. The way I found my way into my current project, hacking the newsroom, is through AiR — — 10 projects incubated around the country — hacking newsrooms by placing independent reporters within them.

Elise: How do you give ideas like that room to be experimented with?

Dan: At the Globe when I was a fellow there, I rotated through different groups. You have CMS people, R&D, and news developers. People who were really able to innovate were the news developers — people sitting in the newsroom. People designing interactives that would go along with stories.

Elise: You bring up the point that everyone has roles in traditional newsrooms. What should today’s newsroom look like? Skill sets rather than roles?

Laura: At our center, our writers know the entire story. They do the art direction, the writing, etc… and the socializing of it. We hold them responsible for all pieces of the story process. They get all the hats — editor, publisher.

Emily: NPR just posted a job app that said “we don’t really know what exactly you will be doing, or what you should be called” but here is what we broadly want you to do. People like to know what they are supposed to do when they come in the morning. they like that structure. But on the other side there flexibility. How do you make flexibility part of the journalism process. And how do you give journalists the tools to do that?

Elise: How do you propose getting around those barriers?

Emily: It’s really hard. It looks more like a talent agency or studio model, rather than a factory. That’s why we called our post Industrial Journalism. It gets into what’s the structure of it. Have you seen the NYT building? It’s ridiculous. There is this scale that doesn’t seem to now fit.

Laura: We have notions of what a newspaper is or what a radio program is. People on the side without those notions… It goes back to how to make an impact on our communities. Weather, where to eat lunch, and what to do with a bad taxi driver were her news moments (needs) in the last 12 hours.

Jennifer: Give reporters time to pick up new skills and be mentored. Create a “risk fund” to support creative projects internally.

Emily: The R&D lab model is an interesting one. But you hit a hard wall of how do you take things in your R&D lab and tie it into your existing systems/product streams.

Laura: I don’t think it’s possible.

Dan Schultz

Dan: I think having an R&D lab is fine and important to a point. The tension here is that good technology needs planning. Having flexibility and making it customizable and maintainable is important. But in the newsroom, you don’t have 5 days to respond to the breaking news that happens. What I would suggest is that R&D is great for creative thought that doesnt’ have to worry about deadline development, and newsroom developers should innovate as much as possible. But there needs to be a third group — one that watches both of those parts and identifying patterns.

Emily: You just described an editor. Not even just a technology editor. An editor.

Dan: I am referring to: “here is a cool widget I built for this story.” The first time you build it that that’s where it stops. But the second time you build that widget, you want someone who can build it right. At some point, you need to have somebody or some team who has the resources and time to make it.

Laura: Gets back to you comment about roles in the newsroom. There needs to be an observer synthesizing what goes on around the newsroom from journalists to R&D to technologists and can say “What we need is this.”

Emily: Leadership. The most important thing, the reason why I got so much down at the Guardian was because management knew they had to adapt.

Elise: One thing constantly on the mind of newsroom leaders is the business imperative. How much should what we do be tied to some business objective?

Laura: I think you need to have business awareness but not business accountability in the beginning. Gannett thinks about the money first, but that shouldn’t be the way to go. But you need to have an idea of how to make money.

Emily: I teach a course where we ask students to think about what they want to innovate in journalism. We ask, “Do you know what you need to put into this?” “What would you look like if it’s successful rather than think about what you need to spend on it. If you don’t have people engaged with what you are doing it doesn’t matter what your business model is ; it’s going to fail. Are we doing this to grow an audience or engage a hardcore audience. Those are hardcore metrics. On the back end, You need to have symbiosis with the commercial people to figure out how to make money of it. It’s about getting flexibility and speed into journalism. Having a high level of engagement with your audience (outside in) is really important to the news process because it stimulates the civic activity that should be inherent to news.

Jennifer Brandel

Jennifer: Engagement has been our bread and butter. The stories that people suggest seem to be evergreen and make it it to the top of our content that are 2 or 3 months old. Public radio is slightly different than other media because we’re nonprofit. I wish we had an acquisitions manager though, who could look at these apps that people are building. Sometimes people have great ideas but not a platform to get it out. This would be a great way of getting good content without having to do it within the station.

Elise: Dan, I’m curious as someone who came from the outside, especially as an innovator: What limitations did you see when you came in that you were able to change?

Dan: The second part makes it much harder. When I came in, the biggest thing that I haven’t changed that could totally be done is that if you have an R&D lab, to do a really good job of creating a beta site where you can showcase your work and if it breaks, it’s not a big deal. From the less R&D side and more day to day side, trying to figure out a way to be flexible with the technologies your organization supports. For example, Opened Captions couldn’t be used on uses Node.js and the Globe didn’t support Node.js. The fact that the Globe couldn’t let me set that up anywhere is one of the reasons why we couldn’t create something that ended up being public facing.

Elise: Let’s reorient to something you see newsrooms doing positively that you want to see emulated. What are you watching out there? Which startups? Which businesses are doing things that you find inspiring, interesting?

Laura: I’m in love with the design centric startups. Look at AirBnB. There’s a storytelling wrapper to what is essentially a hotel site. Square will tell you a story about small businesses. Those are good places where design and storytelling intersect.

Emily: Two things. It’s not a startup, nor new. But seeing how many people read SCOTUSblog. It goes back to creating great content. And it’s about the process, about the scale of the operation. A set of sites around really specialist coverage that don’t get the day-to-day traffic. You can talk about any one of half a dozen topic-specific sites where meshing that together with the bigger projection is something you want to see more of. Hailo just launched in New York. If you can take the Taxi service (most inflexible type of shops — don’t tweet that :)) If you put a real-time layer of service on it, you can get ahead. The matching of service and need is the thing news organizations should be focused on all of the time.

Dan: This is going to sound fake, but the Mozilla Open News program. Source and what they’re doing, aggregating all the open experiments and toolsets, that is what the industry needs. They need a community of developers and open the community so we can learn from one another instead of reinventing the wheel each time. I talk about this in a blog post titled Why Journalism Tools Gather Dust Also, Source (Mozilla OpenNews) is a great resource.

Jennifer: I was working for a religion before being at WBEZ. I find that things that are highly visual get me sucked in. Symbolia magazine (comics journalism) integrates sound. Their average time on their app is something crazy like an hour. Zeega is awesome, a dopamine machine. This group called BlastTheory makes in person interactives, scavenger hunts on cell phones.


Ethan: I’m really interested in the transformation that we’ve seen happening in who newsrooms are paying attention to. We had bloggers vs. journalists debate. We hope that’s dead now. Newsrooms have realized that sometimes they have man on the street or expert commentators. What other groups do we still want to open up to? Especially advocacy journalism. I’m curious whether the answer to this to open our institutions up to outsiders. I want to ask the people from newsrooms: How should we handle advocacy organizations? Should we be frightened of them?

Emily: First, I come from the UK where these lines are more blurred. We would never have a debate about whether a blogger is a journalist. If they spout their opinion they’re a journalist. Advocacy organizations have gone much further and been better at finding ways of telling stories and connecting communities than news org’s have. It’s not just the UK; this is a very Amero-centric question. Transparency is all in this. It matters when someone asks a question that I know who they are, their background, their funders, and why they’re asking. We shouldn’t be scared of anyone who has things to tell us, to stimulate action off the back. Do people deserve to know who’s asking them questions and representing them? Absolutely they do.

Elise: Jennifer, how do you deal with that question, especially when you have people go out and do journalism with you?

Jennifer: We vet people beforehand. We google them, we do some cursory searches on them. We haven’t run into anything yet (knock on wood). Maybe advocacy organizations haven’t realized that they can pose questions like that to us yet. Editorially, our project has brought more changes to our newsroom than anything before.

Elise: And how transparent are you about the folks who are asking you questions?

Jennifer: We make everything as transparent as possible. We add photos of them, what they do, etc… we try not to put a veil over what they do.

Laura: I think local media has an obligation in our communities to stake stands for things that we want to make our communities better. It’s a huge disservice when we don’t do that. One of the memes that came out of our teamwork: let’s say there’s a couch on fire in the middle of Detroit, and we send out a reporter. If the reporter says “OK, I’m on this street, a couch is on fire, I don’t see the fire department, but here’s a hose, and I’ll wait around.” The team asks: Why don’t you just put the couch out? Grab the hose, and put it out! The objectivity lines in journalism tell you you’re not allowed to get involved. The things that everyone in the community can agree on — you do want to have a safe place for your kids. The Missouri chamber of commerce said, “You realize your building is downtown Springfield — why don’t you join us?” You need community folks telling you you’re not part, even though you live there, work there, pay taxes. We’ll die if we don’t join in.

Dan: We’re at the point where we can kind of have our cake and eat it too for advocacy journalism and credibility. We’re able to decentralize critical thought. We can do things like create interfaces that get the end user to think carefully. Just because you come with an idea to improve the situation doesn’t mean you’re manipulating everyone. RapGenius is an example of this: you can read something, and see deeper into what might be going on in the background. ShoutAbout is another example. Information alongside stuff that might have an angle somehow, but you’re able to differentiate the two.

Emily: It’s important that when the Journalism community extends the courtesies to other communities. The pressure on journalism and the freedom to report is great — and it’s great outside the states as well. We’re reaching a phase where a lot of what we do is on platforms that have hybrid interests. Connecting information to broader audiences is intrinsically journalistic regardless of platform. There’s a hard legal reason you shouldn’t differentiate — people who do that kind of work deserve 1st amendment protection.

Chris Marstall: A lot of the innovative websites in the new spaces, fall into the category of aggregation. You might also call it straight up stealing, depending on who you are. I was wondering if you guys in traditional newsrooms, thought about reversing that game like what they are doing on The Atlantic Wire, by being at the front of that click cycle.

Laura: I think so — markets are smaller. Quora, Yelp, any of these things in big metros don’t work in small towns. That’s where we can do tiny aggregation that big guys will never do.

Dan: It comes down to you wanting to create the best experience. If aggregation creates the best experience go for it. Twitter doesn’t succeed because I can read Boston’s info specifically, it’s because it creates an experience I seek out more than an RSS reader. What are the features that make your service more attractive than other options?

Emily: Really good aggregation is a really valuable information service. That’s the first thing. But bad aggregation, if you are just chasing clicks, that value is actually dropping, which is a good thing. Nothing works like breaking really good stories, whether that’s for your community or the world. Just chasing clicks and page views, we know those are inadequate metrics. People want the best information in a timely manner. This means getting really good at being quick, but it’s also about being really good at curation as well, sharing the most relevant links.

Ethan: Don’t knock the cat slideshows.

Micah Sifry: My question is about the future of local investigative reporting. I want to throw a concept at you that came to me from the folks at SignOn, MoveOn’s new distributed petition platform. They have about 6 million people using this platform, from the liberal side of the spectrum. One of the comments one of the organizers made was: While local journalism is dead, or nearly dead, they see people gathering in the same way around controversies, only through petitions instead of local newspapers. A small petition in a local town with a few hundred signatures is a big news story, locally. The conversation about the controversy now happens because the petition allows a few hundred people to aggregate the focus. Is that a model of journalism that makes any sense to you? What is the future of this, or where do you see prospects for strengthening local reporting?

Jennifer: The petition aspect, that’s a great thing for reporters to keep an eye on. In terms of local death of journalism, I’m so excited about local journalism. I think there are emergent beats that can bubble up if you give people a platform to tell people what they’re interested in. If I had to hire a new reporter tomorrow, I’d hire a new urban planning/infrastructure type person because those are the questions we’re getting.

Elise: Jennifer you speak to another area where we should be more flexible: the traditional beats system. How do we not lock journalists into a particular topic but allow them to be flexible to what is relevant at a particular moment?

Laura: Courts are a good example of why CMS’s are limiting. I remember discussions at USA TODAY about what the layers of your nav are — but our CMS’s force us to ask: does it go in News? or Sports? Twitter breaks that down.

Emily: What there is a lack of on local/regional sites because of process and things are hard to change in newsrooms… but something that can efficiently surface those concerns, especially when it comes to investigative beats. Having anything that shows you what local communities are thinking or talking about is very helpful. Be very aware of what’s going on out there and have tools out there to inform yourself.

Laura: It’s the thing we’ve talked about: if you’re not on Twitter, Facebook, Vine, Snapchat, Instagram, Kickstarter, etc., you’re not doing your job. That’s where the community is talking about this stuff. LinkedIn has now made all this investment in media.

Emily: It’s so much easier now than before. Everything about your job has become easier but speed of judgment and finding the stories has become no easier.

Elise: And since all of us are findable (quite findable) I will wrap up the session here, so you can find them online or offline to continue this discussion. Thanks again to Ethan and the Center for Civic Media, thanks to Knight and all of you for staying with us.