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#jcarn question: Measuring meaningful journalism

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Boston Globe journalist Billy Baker told a story on Twitter about the impact of one of his stories.

Lots of very smart people are writing about metrics for measuring engagement with content, topics, brands and sites. I wanted to think about measuring meaning on a more intimate scale.

It seems counter-intuitive to evaluate longevity and meaningfulness by asking journalists about their own work. Yet journalists are the first ones to know what work is thin or contrived.

This isn’t about journalistic prizes or awards. It’s about what individual writers/producers/ creators experience personally and within their own networks as a result of a particular piece of work.

If we find journalists who are moved and excited by what they are doing, it’s likely they will be connected to subjects and communities that feel similarly. It’s another set of data points to help us define and measure what has lasting impact, what engages, what is meaningful.

If the role of a journalist is to be a neutral, dispassionate observer, this approach might not yield much of interest. But as journalists develop agency and autonomy to create content, tracking their work in terms of longevity could yield useful insights about what engages a creator as well as a participating audience.

Here are some (rough draft) types of questions researchers could ask journalists:

  1. In the past week, which story (video, dataset, interview, photo…) has meant the most to you personally? On a scale of one to five, how much did this particular story change your thinking or behavior?  (For an example of a “5” on this scale, see this story about Boston Globe reporter Billy Baker.)
  2. How many people from outside your organization or immediate circles contacted you this week about a story you wrote/edited/produced/shot? This could be face to face, email, text, phone. What stories did they contact you about? Why?
  3. Which story, to your knowledge, received the most interaction on social media this week? What kind of interaction did you notice? What was your role in it?
  4. Which story, to your knowledge, received the most online comments this week? What general themes did you see in the comments?

Other questions could be developed to draw out the impact of stories on anyone connected to a particular piece of content. Did their lives, experiences, judgments change as a result of a particular piece of journalism?

These questions could ask journalists to consider longer periods of time as well. If answers were collected by researchers in different communities, read carefully, organized into themes and insights, we could learn about the patterns of content/news/journalism that has meaning to the people most intimately connected to it, and potentially, has meaning to others as well. (Anyone up for a collaboration?)

Information/technology companies value human capital far more than many traditional news organizations. Paying attention to the judgments of the people who create the products we want to measure honors their role in the making of media and meaning. Other metrics are useful, too, but talking to the makers could enrich our understanding of value. Genuine engagement takes genuine commitment.

(This post is part of the Carnival of Journalism; many thanks to Jonathan Groves for the question!)

Written by Donica

June 27th, 2014 at 11:52 pm

Posted in journalism,Research

Moving from “story” to “asset”

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Two enlightening posts over the past couple of weeks:
— Jonathan Stray’s “What is it that journalists do?
— Jeff Jarvis’s News articles as assets and paths
clarify an urgent need in journalism education — to move beyond writing basic AP stories as the focus of our early training and socialization of young journalists.

Stray expands Barbie Zelizer’s argument that we need to open up what ‘counts’ as journalism (see Taking Journalism Seriously, 2004). Educators would do much to help the cause of journalism if we didn’t drill into young students a definition of journalism that makes it hard for them to consider anything other than traditional news stories as legitimate.

Teaching students how to define news and what counts and doesn’t count as “journalism” can take up a lot of energy in high school and college journalism curriculums. Minimal attention to community management, math skills, databases, Facebook, Twitter, advocacy, writing with voice, aggregation, curation, post-publication editing, citizen journalism and a host of new practices strain our own credibility as well as constrain the imagination of ourselves and students.

Form does not define journalism nor does the author. As Stray says:

There are a lot of different roles to play in the digital public sphere. A journalist might step into any or all of these roles. So might anyone else, as we are gradually figuring out.

But this, this broad view of all of the various important things that a journalist might do, this is not how the profession sees itself. And it’s not how newsrooms are built. “I’ll do a story” is a marvelous hammer, but it often leads to enormous duplication of effort and doesn’t necessarily best serve the user.

It’s the “do a story” reflex that is the heart of most journalism education programs. We pride ourselves on teaching the news story and we honor the students who do it well. But if the story is only a small part of the many things journalists do now and in the future, then focusing so much on this one thing is the wrong approach for most of our classes.

What if we took as a starting point all the activities that Stray lists as important activities of journalists and added the collection of assets that Jarvis lists — what kind of curriculum might we develop then?

We’ve made a first round attempt at this in our undergraduate curriculum, distilling “what journalists do” to three core activities:

  • Tell stories
  • Use data
  • Be social

We are expanding on these and developing course syllabi now. Stray and Jarvis and many others are helping us enlarge our definition of journalism so that our students will be prepared to contribute and change their communities, not just the industry.

Written by Donica

June 8th, 2012 at 3:27 am

News for a future

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Oldest astronomical clock still in operation, built in 1410, Prague. (Wikipedia, Creative Commons)

Oldest astronomical clock still in operation, built in 1410, Prague. (Wikipedia, Creative Commons)

I’ve been recently inspired by the work of the Long Now Foundation and a book by Stewart Brand about The Clock of the Long Now. It makes me think that one problem with the news is its relationship with time.

Whether you expected the Jetsons, Hal 9000 or the Singularity, there was a time when we had collective imagination about some kind of future. Now the future is like a parody of itself. Who has time to think about the future?

Michael Chabon‘s description of his son’s vision of the future reveals a bleakness once reserved for the most cynical old people: “If you ask my eight-year-old about the Future, he pretty much thinks the world is going to end, and that’s it. Most likely global warming, he says—floods, storms, desertification—but the possibility of viral pandemic, meteor impact, or some kind of nuclear exchange is not alien to his view of the days to come… My son seems to take the end of everything, of all human endeavor and creation, for granted. He sees himself as living on the last page, if not in the last paragraph, of a long, strange and bewildering book.”

News has a lot to do with this sense of impending disaster. We observe and record the disasters of the world in seconds and minutes. It exhausts our ability to think in months and years. We report as if the president of the United States should be able to reverse an economic disaster years in the making before the next poll. We are so busy recording hourly drama that we’re losing the capacity to prepare for the deep transformations necessary to sustain what we know and love. We’re not only exhausting ourselves, we are actively exhausting the imagination of everyone who comes in contact with the news.

Analog communication set rhythms that governed the producers and consumers of news. An hourly schedule, perhaps, for radio. A 24-hour period for early television news and newspapers. A weekly, biweekly or monthly cycle for magazines. Deadlines were incessant but still provided moments for reflection, release, escape. The news could be consumed over dinner and then life would resume.

Digital news imposes no deadlines. The only deadlines we live by are those we impose ourselves and we break those constantly. A friend told me about a reporter at The New York Times who pitched a story to his editor and discovered the Times had already published an identical story the month before. And he had written it. In the blur of reporting, writing, posting he had no memory of it whatsoever.

As journalists, we have no external deadlines with space between; just one long deadline with no relief. As consumers we have no break between breaking news.  News is now a river that rushes through every channel and vein in our lives; it binds the personal and private with the public and universal. It takes the rhythm of daily living and invades every moment. The pace is neither comprehendible or sustainable.

We need to create news that helps people order their thinking and understanding. We need a longer now for the news.

This doesn’t mean we give up on timely updates. Perhaps it means we isolate those updates to manageable spaces and create new spaces for context, longer views, reflection, and wisdom. A time-starved media narrative is robbing us of a sense of future possibility at the precise moment we most need it. (See Matt Thompson’s pleas for context.)

We also need a longer view for managing digital news organizations. John Kao (Innovation Nation) says it well:

“We need to see our work on innovation as involving disciplined practice, not the quest for short-term wins. This is an obvious problem in our instant-gratification, quarterly-earnings-based culture in which corporate managers (and politicians) are evaluated and rewarded based on their success at maintaining a continuous upward trend that produces immediate results. At times, it seems like the question ‘What have you done for me lately’ approaches the status of a business model. If resource allocation, decision-making processes, and career-path planning all obey a short-term logic, while the important challenges facing both organizations and society are mostly long term, isn’t the disconnect obvious?”

Most digital journalism resembles an endless billboard of digital clocks measuring only seconds. There are no minutes, no hours, no days, no weeks, no months, no years, no decades, no centuries.

This approach to the news is robbing our politicians of the time and patience needed to craft policy and for our citizens to understand it. It blurs the present and obliterates the future.

Communication technology may be driven by Moore’s Law but our minds and emotions do not have the flexibility of integrated circuits. Cramming more and more in a denser space and time will not end well. Our challenge is to create news that has context for longer time periods than a very short now.

In “The Clock of the Long Now,” Stewart Brand notes that the ancient Greeks had two kinds of time. He writes: “Kairos is the time of cleverness, chronos the time of wisdom.”

How might a newsroom with routines measured by chronos rather than kairos operate? What would news look like that assumes the well being of our children’s children’s children matters to the decisions we make today?

Imagine a journalism that defined value by its worth to future generations. That would be a very, very different front page.

Written by Donica

August 16th, 2011 at 11:24 pm

Posted in journalism,time

What is award winning journalism?

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What type of online journalism is worthy of an award? How should judges for the Online News Association assess the “best” of online journalism? These are the questions a group of blogging carnivalists are pondering this month.

Lisa William’s articulate epiphany about her experience in judging awards for ONA last year: “I realized as I was doing it that what “good” meant was changing” is also a way of saying “I realized that journalism itself and our expectations of it are changing...”

The diversity of opinion in responding to Lisa’s question illustrates as clearly as anything I’ve seen the explosion of what we now consider “journalism.” Deep investigative reporting, carefully crafted prose, expert editing and beautiful professional images now compete with crowdsourced breaking news, iPhone video, Twitter conversations, community partnerships and interactive databases for recognition as quality journalism.

We can’t separate tools and journalism in any meaningful way. It’s the product of the two that produces meaningful ideas and communicates in ways that matter to people in the here and now.

Recognizing “Big-J” journalism online was an important first step within ONA. But now we have many versions of journalism that are meeting needs in individual communities in ways that are imaginative, unconventional and engaging. (And we still have a lot of tone-deaf journalism, churned out through rote formulaic processes that fail to move the needle in any direction at all.)

Does the Online News Association represent all of journalism today? Is offline journalism such a specialized niche that it should have its own journalism awards and everything else be presumed to be online?

My students can’t afford multiple professional memberships. When they ask about SPJ, RTNDA, SND etc., I often recommend ONA. It’s the organization that embraces the future of journalism. It’s no longer an enclave of frustrated print journalists who have moved online. It is all of us doing the work of many journalisms.

Some of the responses about how to judge ONA nominations are as much about the categories of awards as the qualities by which they should be judged. Do the categories of small, medium and large sites still matter? Perhaps the categories should be new, growing and long term organizations. Or perhaps those types of categories should disappear entirely.

Perhaps innovative business models should be an entire section of the awards ceremony. Perhaps educators should get together and craft ONA awards for most effective partnerships. Social media managers could brainstorm ways to assess qualities of engagement and use those to recognize success.

Many people probably think ONA already has too many categories. Perhaps categories of technology (online video/multimedia) are too narrow, or better served by more informal subgroups with ONA. Or maybe distinguishing between blogging, topical and professional categories could be re-thought.

ONA is doing a good job of incorporating the shiny new tools of journalism to the structure and organization of ONA, but it could focus even more specifically on redesigning the awards ceremony to reflect the diversity of what journalism is becoming.

Understanding these changes are part of ONA’s promise and mandate. This isn’t just another niche journalism organization handing out awards in the same format as every other professional organization. It’s a place to reflect on how one of the most significant transformations in human communication affect the craft, art and profession we love.

Awards signal a form of consensus about what constitutes quality achievement. It’s not surprising that at a time of rapid change this consensus falls apart. The fun of today’s conversation is how to focus the uncertainty in ways that help us see the bigger questions.

Written by Donica

July 16th, 2011 at 3:33 am

Engaging the unengaged

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Woman in Sardinia reading obituary notices

Woman in Sardinia reading obituary notices

I just finished reading 75 Journalism 101 essays detailing student news consumption over a 24-hour period. Not one student asked for more news or more news sources. One student proudly reported her news sources: our weekly college newspaper and Jon Stewart. Another detailed her daily four hours spent with Perez Hilton and Entertainment Tonight. Two students out of 75 mentioned the local newspaper. Several watch local TV news. A number of students said they actively avoided contact with news because it is: “depressing…stressful…confusing…boring.”

Expanding the number of news sources that plug into existing journalism spaces isn’t going to change much for these students, or add significantly to the information capacity of our communities, unless we do a more radical redesign of what journalism is and how people get it.

Reading curated tweets is one great news model for some people in some circumstances. News apps for specific information is another great model under other circumstances. Telling more stories from more sources will humanize and expand some conversations. But how will more news sources engage the unengaged?

Some thoughts:

(1) Transmitting information is only the first step. No matter how accurate, well told, or hard hitting, stories alone aren’t enough to engage those who rarely see or hear or read the stories. Transmission doesn’t mean much where there’s no receiver.

(2) The critical step has to be organizing people around the stories, or better, organizing stories around the people in a group, a community, a place, an interest. We need to connect in far more fundamental ways with the people who have a stake in a particular issue/story, etc. We have to close the loop and pay as much attention to the receivers as the senders.

Involving people in telling their own stories, reporting and distributing their own news, will certainly engage those who choose to participate. But even more importantly is organizing people around the problems that journalism attempts to address.

In a networked communication structure (as opposed to a mass media structure) participation comes most naturally from within communities. Journalism produced from within networked communities can more easily incorporate multiple sources and distribution points because the journalist is transparently connected rather than being a detached observer.

This, of course, requires new practices. From the journalist as independent investigator to journalist as community organizer is a large leap.

Writing in response to this same question today, Dan Fenster wrote:

Jason Barnett wrote in the last carnival that “the most overlooked and generally dismissed skill (of journalists) is that of community organizer.” I would suggest that journalism—journalism schools in particular—learn to become community information organizers. Students should serve as the catalyst and curator of this new world of content.

It seems likely that journalism schools will begin to distinguish themselves by stressing different types of journalism. That’s a good thing. The emerging media ecosystem has plenty of room for species differentiation and unique conditions.

So the answer to the question of what will I do to increase the number of news sources in my community? I will commit to figuring out how to make my classes, and maybe even our j-school, a place where students learn to become “community information organizers.” We will spend as much time engaging with the receivers as we do crafting what we transmit. And that, no doubt, will fundamentally alter what we transmit and how.

Stay tuned!

With many thanks to David Cohn for initiating a great example of expanding news sources in a particular community and to everyone who wrote such smart and inspiring responses to the question (follow them on Twitter #jcarn).

Written by Donica

February 18th, 2011 at 2:25 am

Journalism as an assemblage

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Closeup of assemblage art in the Renwick Gallery, Washington, DC

Closeup of assemblage art in the Renwick Gallery, Washington, DC

Matthew Bernius, writing on his blog Waking-Dream, captures the transitional (cosmic) moment in journalism this way:

As an out­side to jour­nal­ism look­ing in (the job of the anthro­pol­o­gist), the Wik­ileaks dis­cus­sion is about a fun­da­men­tal change in jour­nal­ism from an insti­tu­tional model to an “assem­blage” model. By that I mean that instead of news being medi­ated by a sin­gle large insti­tu­tion (say the New York Times of old), the assem­blage model is one in which a net­work of actors, includ­ing media insti­tu­tions and new play­ers such as Wik­ileaks, col­lab­o­rate in releas­ing stories….

A range of social sci­en­tists and philoso­phers have argued that there are fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ences between the two forms. The insti­tu­tion is (some­what) fixed, cen­tral­ized, and last­ing, while the assem­blage is more fluid, dis­trib­uted, and ephemeral.

The implication for journalism education is that it gets bigger or smaller in an assemblage model. If journalists define themselves by what they aren’t, they risk shrinking their roles to occasional actors in information dramas. If they expand their definition of what constitutes journalism to include all the social activities implied in assemblage, they become essential connecting tissue.

Journalism professors constantly make choices about what and how they define journalism and what students need to know. Institutional work requires one set of skills and attitudes; assemblage requires a very different set. What we teach becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: we perpetuate one mind set or we work to create an entirely new one.

Written by Donica

December 10th, 2010 at 12:31 am

Posted in journalism,Research