The Great Debate on Micropayments and Paid Content, Part 2

In Part 1 of the great micropayments debate, David Carr tried valiantly to defend the idea of charging for heavy-hitting journalism online, while Mike Masnick disagreed vehemently, saying micropayments would seal the doom of newspaper companies. Can the two debaters be brought together to find some common ground? Read on for Part 2.

Major Media Without Walls

Mike Masnick: We absolutely agree that doing nothing is a death sentence. Great. Where we disagree, entirely, is on what to do. You claim they're looking at customer-pays options for survival, but that only works if customers will pay. And, to date, there's no evidence that they can get enough customers to pay to survive. I'm not saying to keep the status quo. I'm saying that putting up pay solutions that aren't based on scarce value won't last.

You say there are "fewer and fewer players" to compete with and I think you're defining the market incorrectly. All I see is more players popping up each and every day. Sure, some of the legacy newspapers who took on too much debt and were unable to adapt are having problems. But, that's the business cycle. I think you may be too narrowly defining the group of publications and that you're looking at "newspapers." The problem is that the person looking for news doesn't care whether it's from a newspaper, a TV station, a radio station, an online-only publication or some guy down the block. If it provides what they want, they're going to be happy with it. And, yes, there are a ton of those willing and waiting to step in should "newspapers" take themselves out of the market.

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NPR, now run by a former NYTsian, has said that it won't charge. In fact, it has beefed up its website, added more community features and is looking to leverage the fact that it has real feet on the ground in local communities all over the country. CNN is looking to expand its own online reporting, and has shown no sign of going behind a pay wall. Reuters has been beefing up its reporting, as well as its attempts to better connect with a community of readers. And then there are the startups. Many fail, but that's how the startup process works. Some are starting to break through and do really interesting reporting.

As for the market, you are again limiting yourself to "newspaper advertising." Yes, that's been a bad market lately, but not because of problems with advertising. It's [because of] the problems with newspapers. They've failed to build real community, so the community they used to "sell" to advertisers has gone elsewhere. Why aren't newspapers investing in real community tools? (And that means more than adding comments or tacking on a copycat social network.) It's about recognizing how people interact with news these days. They want to participate. They're not passive readers any more. They want to share the news. They want to comment on the news. They want to contribute to the news. They want to participate. A pay wall makes that almost impossible. It takes away from what people want to do, rather than enabling it.

So what should news organizations be doing? They should be enabling people to interact and participate in the news. They should be enabling their community and providing real value to the community. Not to toot our own horn, but we put together a system that pays our community to interact with companies that want their insight. We're not looking at our community as a cash register, but as an asset. And, yes, we do charge for some things -- but never for content. The model we structured was on providing scarce value...that helps enable the community, rather than limit them.

Finally, on the ability to sell the paid eyeballs -- yes, such people may be "more valuable," but it's a much smaller group, and newspapers will run into trouble if you squeeze them dry. People hate paying for something and then having to pay again with ads. Yes, they'll put up with it if there are no alternatives. But there are an increasing, not decreasing, number of alternatives.

I think that we agree that newspapers need to change. We just disagree on the right path for change. Putting up a pay wall or micropayments hastens the decline in my book. There are serious alternatives. They may not be as easy, but they're much more likely to be effective. To create a painfully strained analogy (sorry, sorry), your argument is that they're going over the cliff already, so why not try this. I just think that it's not a parachute you're opening, it's an anvil. I'm looking at ways that they should be deploying jetpacks to take them higher, rather than just looking to avoid crashing into the ground.

David Carr: Between all the talk of jetpacks, anvils and parachutes, I'd like to drop one more metaphor. The end of days. What newspapers have going is not sustainable and whether it is Steven Brill or Rupert Murdoch or the mad geniuses we have at the Times that crack the code on new, meaningful veins of revenue, I think something remarkable is at stake. And we can't wait for the web fairies to drop down and turn free into a business. Freemium, maybe, but you can't full-stop take paying digital consumers out of the equation. I think we should be clear about the fact that the current business model is not working and if we want to preserve newsgathering capacity, some things have to change. I agree that we are in agreement about that.

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But many folks, including you, want to take any charging for content off the table. Really? Does that mean the FT's metered model has no value, or that Rupert Murdoch's announcement that the Wall Street Journal will charge small money for a Blackberry app is a bad idea?

Certain content is far more expensive to produce and has a broader civic value. The community that you speak of is very powerful and can do amazing things, but it can't produce Walter Pincus' deconstruction of a new four-year national security plan in the Washington Post, or easily replicate David Leonhardt's relentless coverage of the meltdown and the aftermath at my shop. To refuse to innovate around the traditional business models that have sustained that kind of reporting is inviting a future of lesser ambitions and reduced accountability.

And although I am the MSM dad in the basement at the digital party in this argument, I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed kicking the ball back and forth. A pleasure to be talking about the future instead of moaning about the past.

Finding Some Agreement

Mike Masnick: I'm quite enjoying this as well...

Yes, we absolutely agree that the current model is unsustainable, but I think you're building up a strawman and projecting it on me. I don't want to take charging for content off the table. If you want to do it, go do it. I've said it before: go for it. My point, however, is that it's a bad idea and it will not do what you think it will do. It will not save newspapers. It won't even help them. It will hurt them. It will hasten their demise. Telling you something is a bad idea doesn't mean I'm taking it off the table or somehow trying to shut you down. It just means that I think it's a terrible idea, and there's an awful lot of economic history that supports that idea.

I think where we run into trouble is you seem to think that there are three options:

  1. Continue down the current path
  2. Charge users
  3. Wait for the web fairies (or perhaps that's in combination with number one)

We agree that number one makes no sense. We disagree on whether or not number two makes sense. And, most importantly, we totally disagree on number three. There are things that can be done today: It's called adding more value to your community, bringing in more users and providing them more direct value. But that's not what's being suggested. What we're hearing is that you'll just toss up a pay wall and the people will magically start paying. But they won't. At least not enough of them to matter, and certainly not enough to cover the loss in ad revenue.

We agree that today's model isn't sustainable. Done and done. But I fail to see how putting up a tollbooth and denying readers what they want is any better. I see it as significantly worse. You're shrinking your market and taking away value at the same time. I can't fathom how that is any better.

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The other point you make, which is not what I said, is that I'm taking paying consumers out of the equation. I'm not. But I am saying they won't pay for content in significant enough numbers to make it worthwhile. They may pay for other things. We just ran an experiment and got our readers to give us quite a nice chunk of money -- but it wasn't from selling our content. It was selling scarce goods -- things that can't be "copied" online, but that were made valuable thanks to our content. Those are things that can't be copied, and for which there is no real competition. Things that don't block what the consumer wants to do, but enables something else that they couldn't get or do elsewhere.

As for the FT and the WSJ model, I think both are long-term mistakes, and will eventually be looked upon as such. But, first, both are unique situations, where they're providing direct economic value to many readers who are willing to pay for it, because to them, having that information sooner can be directly translated into money. I think it highly unlikely most others will do well following their model.

That said, I believe that the fact that both lock up their content provides an excellent opportunity for newer players in the space to step in and offer similar content for free, and monetize it elsewhere. There are players who are beginning to enter that market who will cause both the WSJ and the FT a lot of trouble in the future.

Finally, I never said that "the community" would do all of the reporting. I was quite clear in stating that, while there is a role for participatory journalism in helping with the process, I am very much talking about professional journalists. I recognize that others in the space may talk of the community replacing journalists. I am not one of those people.

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But here's the thing, if you put up a pay wall, and very few people pay and it kills off whatever ad revenue you had left, then who's going to pay Walter Pincus? That's my question all along. You keep saying that the reporters need to get paid, and we agree. But putting up a pay wall doesn't do that. It does the opposite.

Mediator: This has been a great discussion. One thing I'd like to point out is that you both bring up valid points on each side of the argument, but you both also fall into the trap of making each other into caricatures. David says Mike is depending on "web fairies" for a new business model and says Mike is opposed to pay content; and Mike is saying David wants pay walls around all content.

Isn't it possible that our future content distribution models online will be as they've always been from the start: some paid content, some free content? Why does everything have to be all-pay or free? A hybrid business model seems like the real future for onilne content, including revenues from ads, from running online community sites, from running business directories, from doing web marketing for small businesses, plus specialized paid content or access to top-tier information (whether that's WSJ.com or ESPN Insider or The Packer Insider that's been sold for years by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel newspaper).

Can you guys break out of the old paradigm in this debate and find a center that includes free and paid content (and maybe even micropayments)?

Mike Masnick: Fair point -- though I really did not mean to imply that David supported putting pay walls around all content. I think he was quite clear of that at the beginning, and my apologies if I suggested that in my responses.

Now, in an attempt to find that middle ground, I will note a few things. I actually very much like the idea that the New York Times was apparently considering recently of offering value-added tiers that focused on scarce access, rather than content.

So, I think some of the debate comes down to a bit of semantics, but I think they're important. I'm not opposed to giving people a reason to buy things -- in fact, that's become something of a mantra on Techdirt. We highlight case study after case study of those embracing the digital era, while still giving people a reason to buy. The problem is in thinking that the content alone is a reason to buy. History has shown that it's just not a very compelling reason on its own to buy, and not very sustainable. That's because all it does is open up an opportunity for others to come in and provide similar content for free.

But there are things that the content itself makes much more valuable -- scarce things, such as access, events, convenience, tangible goods -- that can be offered. But to do that right, you want to make sure that the content itself works to make those things more valuable, and I believe you do that by freeing up the content itself, providing tools to build out the community, and then connecting that community to those scarce goods. That provided them with real reasons to pay. I thought the early New York Times proposal needed some work around the edges, but was a big step in the right direction.

But any proposal that focuses on blocking what users want to do, and making the content itself less valuable seems like a non-starter to me. Perhaps it works for a little while, but it only invites significant competition.

So, it's not that I think people won't pay for stuff. It's just that I think they won't pay (at least enough to matter) for content. And I think focusing on getting people to pay for content actually makes all those other business models more difficult.

David Carr: I love tiers of service, especially because it preserves a free product that is SEO-ed on the web and always allows a point of entry for new or casual readers. And sorry about the web fairies crack, which I didn't mean to aim at you, Mike. What I was trying to get at is while there is what one of my bosses Jon Landman has referred to as a spiritual or religious belief on the part of journalists that people are just dying to give us lots of yummy money for our work, they are not. There is also a kind of magical realism that infects always-free folks that suggests if we just continue to build audience, a business model will find us. It's a little like the nascent dot-com that is always going to go into the black "next year." Next year never comes.

I think much of what divides us is words rather than values, as Mark points out. Journalism is going to have a blended, hybrid future where the consumer assembles the content they need and then decides what is worth their hard-earned lucre, regardless of platform. My only hope is that the informational market they shop at is a robust and thriving one.

*****

Thus ends the Great Debate on Micropayments and Paid Content. If Masnick and Carr can agree that paid tiers might have a future, that some paid content can work (if scarce and unique enough) but other content should remain free, then maybe dogs and cats can lie down together, and the world will live as one. Or not. How do you see the future of content online? What content do you pay for, and what content would you not pay for? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

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Mainstream Media Miss the Point of Participatory Journalism

The ability of anyone to play an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analyzing and sharing news and information is seen as one of the big shifts in journalism over the past 10 years.

But a growing body of research suggests that the advent of participatory journalism, or user-generated content (UGC), has done little to change the way the media works.
At the recent Future of Journalism conference at Cardiff University, academics presented a series of studies that further illustrated how the mainstream media is trying to tame the phenomenon.

The research paints a global picture of how journalists are seeking to maintain their position of authority and power, rather than create a more open, transparent and accountable journalistic process that seeks to work with readers.

One of the studies looked at the BBC, which is considered a pioneer in the field of user-generated content. The BBC has 23 people working in its UGC hub, up from just three in 2005, and receives thousands of comments and emails every day along with hundreds of photos and videos.

Researchers Claire Wardle, Andrew Williams and Karin Wahl-Jorgensen interviewed BBC journalists in 2007. What they found was that BBC staff see UGC as a part of newsgathering operations; basically, it's a way of obtaining photos and video, eyewitness accounts or story tip.

The researchers concluded that UGC has become institutionalized at the BBC as a form of newsgathering, consolidating the existing relationship between journalists and the audience. They did find some examples of BBC journalists that view it as a way to collaborate on stories, or as a shift towards networked journalism. But these views existed at the edges.

This institutional approach towards UGC was reflected in the BBC course on the topic, entitled "Have They Got News for Us." This session at the conference focused on how to scour comments, pictures and video from the public in order to separate the wheat from the chaff, rather than on how to collaborate with the audience on stories.

No News in Comments

Finding newsworthy material in contributions from the public is a challenge. In his study about Dutch newspapers and UGC presented at the conference, Piet Bakker found that there was little news contained in comments on stories.

From the point of view of the traditional journalist, the amount of news in comments was minimal. Instead, comments were seen as a way to attract more visitors and increase loyalty, but these benefits were counterbalanced by problems with abusive comments, a lack of contributions, and the cost of moderation.

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This ties in to another conference paper that looked at the attitudes of journalists in the U.K. when it comes to user-generated content. In interviews with local journalists working for the Johnston Press, Jane Singer found that most see the public as complementing, rather than replacing, the work of professionals. The journalists saw themselves as UGC gatekeepers, citing concerns about the quality of contributions and legal liabilities.

This approach is understandable at a time when the local press in the U.K. is in trouble. Journalists may feel under even more pressure to justify why amateurs cannot replace them, or offer meaningful contributions.

Singer found that local journalists saw a theoretical value in participatory journalism in that it's a way to promote democratic discourse. But another paper presented by Marina Vujnovic on behalf of an international group of researchers that included myself found that this ideal did not figure highly in the minds of the online editors of newspaper websites. They instead look to UGC to drive traffic, increase loyalty, and provide free content for their sites.

The Audience as Audience

These were just a few of the more than 100 papers presented in Cardiff. But they illustrate how the mainstream media is attempting to limit and control how much the public can contribute to its journalism. These studies suggest that as far as journalists and editors are concerned, the people formerly known as the audience is still known as the audience.

The space for the audience to participate in journalism is, by and large, clearly delineated. The public can send in their news tips, photos and videos, but the journalist retains a traditional gatekeeper role, deciding what is newsworthy and what isn't. There is little room for the public to be involved in the actual making of the news -- in deciding whom to interview, how to frame the story and how to produce it. Once the story is complete and published, the audience can freely comment on the final product.

An international study published in Journalism Practice concluded mainstream media is eager to open comments and post-publication discussion to the public, as this fits in with their definition of the audience as audience. But forms of pro-am or networked journalism are rare.

Online journalism is still in its infancy and it will take time for journalistic attitudes to change. But there are very few signs that news organizations are reinventing their relationship with the audience and tapping into the participatory potential of the web to reimagine journalism.

Alfred Hermida is an online news pioneer and journalism educator. He is an assistant professor at the Graduate School of Journalism, the University of British Columbia, where he leads the integrated journalism program. He was a founding news editor of the BBC News website. He blogs at Reportr.net.

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Environmental Reporting Becomes Hazardous Work in Egypt, China

Since May 2009, Tamer Mabrouk has held one of the saddest records regarding human rights abuses in Egypt. He is the first blogger to receive a fine after a company sued him for having criticized its activities in Lake Manzala, which is connected to the Suez Canal. Mabrouk was fined $8,700, lost his job, and was forced to move out of Port Said where he had been leaving for years.

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Mabrouk's offense was that he blogged about the pollution the Trust Chemicals Company was dumping into Manzala Lake. Perhaps because they were afraid -- or corrupt -- the local authorities did not investigate the issue after Mabrouk brought it to light. So, with a few clicks, he decided to publish pictures proving the detrimental effect of the Trust Chemicals Company. In June 2008, the company sued him for defamation.

"I tried to sue the company myself to ask for its closure," Mabrouk said in a video posted on YouTube. "But the local court argued it did not have the jurisdiction to decide on that matter. Meanwhile, the Trust Chemicals Company was offering me money in return for my silence. I turned it down. Now, they want me to publish a denial."

(You can read more about Mabrouk's case at the Reporters Without Borders site.)

Environmental Writers Locked Up

Mabrouk is by no means the only person to suffer for reporting about environmental disasters. Reporters in different parts of the world deal with fines, jail and threats as a result of their work.

In China, for example, environmental activists often face repression after they gain the attention of international media. In July 2009, the anti-nuclear activist Sun Xiaodi and his daughter were sentenced to two years in a labor camp for "divulging state secrets abroad" and "publishing rumors." Their crime? Publishing information online about the contamination of inhabitants of Gansu Province, which was caused by a Uranium 792 mine. Sun Xiaodi also published articles on corrupt officials of the Diebu district. For more than 20 years, Sun Xiaodi, a former worker in the Uranium 792 mine, has been fighting to raise awareness about the contamination.

Another environmental activist, Wu Lihong, received a three-year prison sentence for warning Chinese and international media about pollution in Lake Taihu, which is the third largest lake in China.

Aside from punishing those who speak out, the government also attempts to restrict the flow of critical health information. In 2005, the Chinese Propaganda Department, the government body that is also in charge of censorship, waited 10 days before authorizing the press to report about the benzene pollution threatening the Songhua river in Northeast China, completely disregarding the millions of people who live there.

Threats and obstacles

The environment is one of the biggest issues of our time. In order to preserve nature, we must be able to evaluate the resources we have left, and examine how they are being used. This kind of data helps inform society and influence political leaders to create new standards. It's essential that specialists and environmental reporters are able to provide accurate information about the world around us. Unfortunately, journalists and bloggers are facing more and more obstacles and threats as they go about their work.

Sometimes, a single visit by a journalist at a sensitive location is enough to spark a crisis. As an example, Cambodia has lost half of its forests over the last 15 years. After the organization Global Witness released reports on the situation, three journalists investigated the issue and subsequently received death threats. Their reporting revealed unflattering details about the involvement of relatives of the head of the government, Hun Sen. His brother, Hun Neng, said if anyone from Global Witness came to Cambodia, he would "beat his head up until it breaks."

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Lem Piseth, a journalist from Radio Free Asia, also received death threats as a result of his work. "About the story of the forest; I want you to know that you won't find enough land there to bury you," he was told. Piseth was forced to flee the country.

In undemocratic countries, bloggers and reporters are often left to fend for themselves, which is why it's so important that their work is recognized and publicized.

Clothilde Le Coz has been working for Reporters Without Borders in Paris since 2007. She is now the Washington director for this organization, helping to promote press freedom and free speech around the world. In Paris, she was in charge of the Internet Freedom desk and worked especially on China, Iran, Egypt and Thailand. During the time she spent in Paris, she was also updating the "Handbook for Bloggers and Cyberdissidents," published in 2005. Her role is now to get the message out for readers and politicians to be aware of the constant threat journalists are submitted to in many countries.

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Can Allvoices Succeed as Citizen Journalism Platform?

With Examiner.com recently buying out citizen media site NowPublic for a reported $25 million, the attention turned to similar independent sites such as Allvoices. Would it now become buyout fodder for a mainstream media company, or would it suffer the fate of so many citizen journalism sites that came before it, shutting down before finding a successful business model?

To find out more, I went with videographer Charlotte Buchen to visit the Allvoices headquarters in downtown San Francisco yesterday. The office space alone mirrors the heights (and lows) that shadow the startup. Up on the 15th floor of the tony One Sansome building, Allvoices has about 10 people stuffed into a conference room, with the CEO Amra Tareen having her own office across a cubicle farm that sits largely empty due to failed startups having vacated the premises.

Allvoices received $4.5 million in funding in 2007, launched the site in 2008, and is now looking for another round of funding in a challenging climate. The site allows people around the world to submit stories, photos and video on what's happening around them, and then uses computer algorithms and the community to filter that content and surround it with relevant stories aggregated from mainstream news sources. So a story about the recent hijacking of an Aeromexico flight includes links to a San Jose Mercury News story, other posts on Allvoices, related tweets on Twitter, and comments from the community.

The site's traffic took off in early 2009, now averaging about 3 million unique visitors per month, according to Allvoices, with reports coming in from 167 countries (though 40% of visitors are from the U.S.). The site has an incentive program to pay contributors depending on their page views and fan loyalty, as well as a new syndication program that will compensate contributors for images or videos that are sold to media outlets.

Can the site survive and thrive in a tough economic climate for online advertising? Or will it become an adjunct for a mainstream media company? I met the Allvoices team, including charismatic CEO Amra Tareen, and the following is my video report from that meetup.

What do you think about the chances for Allvoices being profitable or bought out? Can standalone citizen media sites survive? How? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Videography and photos by Charlotte Buchen.

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In Search of the Perfect Skillset for a Programmer/Journalist

In my first post about programmer/journalists, I wrote about the "how computer-assisted reporting (CAR) evolved into this new role.

Although not all programmer/journalists started with CAR, that skillset is still the basis for any programmer/journalist. CAR skills start with obtaining data and public records. Knowing where to find this information, either online or by request, is the starting point for any project. The next step is organizing and making sense of the data using spreadsheets or databases.

Investigative Reporters and Editors, one of the biggest CAR groups, teaches those skills and more: ArcView mapping software, Geographic Information Science, SPSS statistical analysis software and social network analysis software.

Web development is probably the biggest distinction between CAR skills and programmer/journalist skills, though there aren't any hard-and-fast distinctions. To try and further define the skillset of the programmer/journalist, I posted this question on Twitter: "What skills does a programmer/journalist need?"

Brian Boyer, a graduate of Medill's journalism for programmers master's track and now News Applications Editor at the Chicago Tribune, responded with this list:

XHTML / CSS / JavaScript / jQuery / Python / Django / xml / regex / Postgres / PostGIS / QGIS

Holy alphabet soup!

Matt Wynn, a reporter at the Arizona Republic, replied that, "The ability and willingness to learn quickly trumps all, methinks. Who knows what tools there will be tomorrow?"

It's a valid point. For now, let's look at some cool projects and see which technologies were used to create them.

ChangeTracker

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ChangeTracker watches the White House's website so you don't have to. Whenever a page on whitehouse.gov changes, they let you know -- via email, Twitter, or RSS.

ChangeTracker wasn't built using any programming; it was designed so that it could be used by novices on any website. It's just a combination of some cheap web tools that already exist: Versionista and Yahoo Pipes.

Represent and Repsheet

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Represent and Repsheet are two applications that let you look up your elected representatives, view your local political districts, and track news about your government representatives.

Represent and its Chicago cousin, Repsheet, are Django applications. Represent is written in Python, but the geocoder was built using Perl. The app uses Postgres as the backend database, and the PostGIS spatial extensions to do the heavy-duty GIS work.

Investigate your MP's expenses

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"Join us in digging through the documents of MPs' expenses to identify individual claims, or documents that you think merit further investigation," reads an invitation from the Guardian. "You can work through your own MP's expenses, or just hit the button below to start reviewing."

The Investigate your MP's expenses project was built on Django, although other frameworks and languages would have worked, too.

"You absolutely could build this in Ruby on Rails or in PHP," Simon Willison, the developer of the project told the Nieman Journalism Lab. But "as far as I'm concerned, this is absolutely Django's sweet spot. This is absolutely what Django is designed to do..."

You can read about other cool journalism web apps in my Innovation Spotlight series from earlier this year. One thing that becomes clear for that series is that many programmer/journalists blog, use Twitter or otherwise write publicly about how they've built applications.

Other perspectives

Aside from the Twitter feedback I received, I also conducted instant messenger interviews with some of my favorite programmer/journos.

If Ryan Sholin, the director of news innovation at Publish2, was hiring a programmer/journalist for a news organization, he'd "be looking for someone who could work with maps, databases, and who knows enough about any one web framework to make that content visible and sortable." For example, he'd want someone who has experience with GIS, XML, Flash or PDFs, XML and Django.

Derek Willis of the New York Times would like programmer/journos to have all possible skills. But in a general sense, he breaks the skillsets down into three categories:

1. Experience with some dynamic language (Python, Ruby, PHP).
2. Experience with some data storage programs (RDBMS or the NoSQL stuff).

3. Curiosity, of course, being a prerequisite for all journalists.

Matt Waite of the St. Petersburg Times and PolitiFact focused on traits, rather than skills.

"I think you have to have an interest in the public good -- an overdeveloped sense of the public's right to know, and of what people need to know," he told me. "I think you correspondingly have to have a deep distrust of the notion that anyone knows what anyone else needs to know. Because who are you to know? Who are you to decide? Would you like other people to be in charge of what you know?"

As for computer skills, Waite said: "You need to know how the whole request-response cycle works. How the request comes into your server, what happens next, how the database does what it does, how caching works, how the code you have interacts with it all and how it gets presented to the browser -- each browser, which is different. So you need to know servers, you need to know databases, you need to know your framework or frameworks of choice, and you need to know what's going on the client side."

Waite clarified that a programmer/journalist is not expected to be "Computer Jesus." But "the more you know about the entire request-response cycle, the better off you are."

Megan Taylor is a web journalist whose work focuses on combining traditional and computer-assisted information-gathering with multimedia production to create news packages online. Megan tells stories in English, HTML/CSS/, ActionScript, PHP, photos, video and audio, and blogs at her personal site.

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Can Healthcare Blogs Fill the Gap Left by Mainstream News Coverage?

Paul Testa recently checked his voicemail and listened to a message from a hospice worker who lives in a conservative district of Ohio. He'd never met or spoken to this person before, but the worker reached out because Testa seemed like the right person to receive some important, inside information about the healthcare system.

Testa doesn't work for a health department, nor is he an investigative reporter. He and Joanne Kenen write theNew Health Dialogue Blog for the New America Foundation, a think tank.

"I think part of it, with the blogs, is that there is a much more targeted audience," he told me. "You have people who come in expecting health policy coverage, so you expect a certain level of knowledge that [is different] than you would get if you were dealing with broader print journalism with a focus on the kind of eye grabbing protests, rather than the policy coverage."

In August, the Kaiser Health Tracking Poll found that 53 percent of the public "believes that tackling health reform is more important than ever," a decline of almost 10 percent from the year before. Some have suggested that anti-health care reform advertisements and the media's fixation on town hall events played a major factor in this erosion. In fact, one survey found that the majority of recent mainstream news coverage of health care reform focused solely on the politics and protests of the debate, rather than specific policy. A survey from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that more than 70 percent of respondents thought that media had done either a poor or "only fair" job of explaining the current proposals making their way through Congress.

Back in the 90s, the last time the Democrats tried to push through health reform, health care professionals were forced to wait on the sidelines, or until a traditional news reporter called them for a quote. But during this current round of debate, many of them are running popular and vibrant blogs that dive deep into policy issues. The question is how much impact are they having on the national discourse, and is their coverage cutting through the horse race politics dominating cable news shows?

jane.jpgJane Sarasohn-Kahn is a health economist and has been a health care consultant to the industry for over 20 years. She launched her blog, Health Populi, almost two years ago. Thanks to increased interest in the health care debate, she now receives as many as 2,000 unique visitors a day. Sarasohn-Kahn focuses on health economics, policy, and technology; over the last decade, she has examined the role the Web in playing in helping patients take control of their own healthcare.

"My goal is to cover one data point every day that comes across my news stream through foundations, research papers, whatever," she told me during a phone interview. "I read everything in health and health care, because my range is broad, and my umbrella is broad. I decide either the night before or early -- like 5:30 in the morning -- 'what do I want my readers to know about today?' And I create a PowerPoint, a chart, or excerpt something ... I present the point, fair and balanced right up front, and then at the bottom I drive home the 'hot points,' which is through my lens as a health economist."

Like all the bloggers I interviewed for this piece, Sarasohn-Kahn agreed that health blogs offer more in-depth, thoughtful analysis than your typical cable news outlet. But she said there is still some "heavy lifting" to be done by the readers themselves.

"The fact of the matter is that most people blog to state their opinions up front, which is fine," she said. "What I think is really useful about the blogs is that all of us try to do what I do -- know a lot about a little piece of healthcare. So when you want to know how unemployment morphs to uninsurance, you go to my blog. And when you really want to get into some high powered wonkiness, you'll go to Matthew Holt's blog. If you want to know about health privacy, you better turn to Bob Coffield's Health Care Law Blog, because that's his schtick. We all have our specialties and our niches."

Testa and Kenen of theNew Health Dialogue Blog told me that health care coverage in the blogosphere is mixed, and that the range of blogs makes it easy for readers to only coalesce around blogs that promote their own particular point of view.

"I think it's mixed," Kenen said. "I think some of the blogs also do horse race and politics, and some are worse than the mainstream press because some of them are people who have never reported or worked in Washington. And some of the healthcare blogs are doing the same thing that the press is doing, and not necessarily as well. And to be fair, some of the reporters are not just doing horse race. Some of the reporters are doing very high quality work on what is our healthcare system, and getting beyond the town halls and politics."

Despite all this, she said that "the healthcare blogosphere does fill a gap."

"Healthcare is extremely complicated," Kenen said. "It's very technical and there is an amazing number of interconnected pieces. We try to be a bridge between the public and the wonk stuff. We're a think tank that blogs, we're not a think tank that's writing impenetrable economic analysis. We try to communicate policy in a political context. We're not grenade throwers. We don't think people come to us to watch us rant. We think people come to us to have things explained."

I asked Testa about the more shallow coverage of town hall events and whether this makes it difficult for Americans to understand what's in the proposals making their way through Congress.

"Being able to say what's in the bill is kind of important," he said. "Town halls are car wrecks and you can't take your eyes off of them. But the people who care about the policy and the issues, at the end of the day they've still got these unresolved questions and so we sort of tackle that. Issues like, 'well how do we cover all Americans?' What's important is that the conversation continues on even while there are all these political fireworks."

money driven medicine.jpgMaggie Mahar spent years as an economics reporter writing for news outlets like Barron's before she got a chance to write a book on healthcare, "Money-Driven Medicine." It aimed to tell "the real reason health care costs so much." The book was published in 2006, and she said it didn't get much traction because there wasn't a meaningful push for health reform at the time. The book was recently made into a documentary and the current debate has helped it receive favorable news coverage. In 2007, she received a call from the Century Foundation asking her to become a health care fellow. Not long after accepting the position, she began a blog, Healthbeatblog.org.

"At Barron's I had always written these relatively long, researched stories, and here I decided to write relatively long researched posts," Mahar told me. "I started to attract a real audience. The people who read it are quite knowledgeable, and they'll sometimes argue with each other. I comment too, and they'll just keep the discussion going, like a graduate seminar. I love that about it. But I will say that I'm not reaching the people out there who read the New York Times and know very little about healthcare, and I'm not being told much by the New York Times, and that drives me nuts."

Many of the healthcare bloggers I spoke to said they receive calls from reporters asking for quotes on healthcare reform, which indicates that their blogs are acting as gateways for wider coverage. Mahar was recently asked to join a healthcare panel at the Washington Post, and every week she fields questions on the issue from Post readers.

I pointed out recent polls show that support for health care reform is waning and asked whether this meant that healthcare reform opponents were winning the information war. Given that Mahar is pro healthcare reform, does that mean blogs like hers are failing to insert themselves into the dialog?

"It's easy to scare people about healthcare," she said. "It's very personal and people feel very vulnerable. If you tell them that they might not get as much as they've gotten in the past, they get very uptight. And we're also a nation that's terrified of death. You add all that together and it's incredibly hard to combat misinformation. We're not good at discussing ideas, we don't talk about ideas. We talk about personalities and politics, and that hurts. Because this is a very complicated subject and you have to dig in and contemplate the issue to understand it, and so much of it is counterintuitive."

Simon Owens is a social media consultant and an associate editor for MediaShift. You can read more of his writing at his blog or contact him at simon[.]bloggasm [at] gmail.com.

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Can Health Care Blogs Fill the Gap Left by Mainstream News Coverage?

Paul Testa recently checked his voicemail and listened to a message from a hospice worker who lives in a conservative district of Ohio. He'd never met or spoken to this person before, but the worker reached out because Testa seemed like the right person to receive some important, inside information about the health care system.

Testa doesn't work for a health department, nor is he an investigative reporter. He and Joanne Kenen write the New Health Dialogue Blog for the New America Foundation, a think tank.

"I think part of it, with the blogs, is that there is a much more targeted audience," he told me. "You have people who come in expecting health policy coverage, so you expect a certain level of knowledge that [is different] than you would get if you were dealing with broader print journalism with a focus on the kind of eye grabbing protests, rather than the policy coverage."

In August, the Kaiser Health Tracking Poll found that 53 percent of the public "believes that tackling health reform is more important than ever," a decline of almost 10 percent from the year before. Some have suggested that anti-health care reform advertisements and the media's fixation on town hall events played a major factor in this erosion. In fact, one survey found that the majority of recent mainstream news coverage of health care reform focused solely on the politics and protests of the debate, rather than specific policy. A survey from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that more than 70 percent of respondents thought that media had done either a poor or "only fair" job of explaining the current proposals making their way through Congress.

Moving from the sidelines to the blogosphere

Back in the 90s, the last time the Democrats tried to push through health reform, health care professionals were forced to wait on the sidelines, or until a traditional news reporter called them for a quote. But during this current round of debate, many of them are running popular and vibrant blogs that dive deep into policy issues. The question is how much impact are they having on the national discourse, and is their coverage cutting through the horse race politics dominating cable news shows?

jane.jpgJane Sarasohn-Kahn is a health economist and has been a health care consultant to the industry for over 20 years. She launched her blog, Health Populi, almost two years ago. Thanks to increased interest in the health care debate, she now receives as many as 2,000 unique visitors a day. Sarasohn-Kahn focuses on health economics, policy, and technology; over the last decade, she has examined the role the Web in playing in helping patients take control of their own health care.

"My goal is to cover one data point every day that comes across my news stream through foundations, research papers, whatever," she told me during a phone interview. "I read everything in health and health care, because my range is broad, and my umbrella is broad. I decide either the night before or early -- like 5:30 in the morning -- 'what do I want my readers to know about today?' And I create a PowerPoint, a chart, or excerpt something ... I present the point, fair and balanced right up front, and then at the bottom I drive home the 'hot points,' which is through my lens as a health economist."

Like all the bloggers I interviewed for this piece, Sarasohn-Kahn agreed that health blogs offer more in-depth, thoughtful analysis than your typical cable news outlet. But she said there is still some "heavy lifting" to be done by the readers themselves.

"The fact of the matter is that most people blog to state their opinions up front, which is fine," she said. "What I think is really useful about the blogs is that all of us try to do what I do -- know a lot about a little piece of health care. So when you want to know how unemployment morphs to uninsurance, you go to my blog. And when you really want to get into some high powered wonkiness, you'll go to Matthew Holt's blog. If you want to know about health privacy, you better turn to Bob Coffield's Health Care Law Blog, because that's his schtick. We all have our specialties and our niches."

Getitng beyond horse race coverage

Testa and Kenen of the New Health Dialogue Blog told me that health care coverage in the blogosphere is mixed, and that the range of blogs makes it easy for readers to only coalesce around blogs that promote their own particular point of view.

"I think it's mixed," Kenen said. "I think some of the blogs also do horse race and politics, and some are worse than the mainstream press because some of them are people who have never reported or worked in Washington. And some of the health care blogs are doing the same thing that the press is doing, and not necessarily as well. And to be fair, some of the reporters are not just doing horse race. Some of the reporters are doing very high quality work on what is our health care system, and getting beyond the town halls and politics."

Despite all this, she said that "the health care blogosphere does fill a gap."

"Health care is extremely complicated," Kenen said. "It's very technical and there is an amazing number of interconnected pieces. We try to be a bridge between the public and the wonk stuff. We're a think tank that blogs, we're not a think tank that's writing impenetrable economic analysis. We try to communicate policy in a political context. We're not grenade throwers. We don't think people come to us to watch us rant. We think people come to us to have things explained."

I asked Testa about the more shallow coverage of town hall events and whether this makes it difficult for Americans to understand what's in the proposals making their way through Congress.

"Being able to say what's in the bill is kind of important," he said. "Town halls are car wrecks and you can't take your eyes off of them. But the people who care about the policy and the issues, at the end of the day they've still got these unresolved questions and so we sort of tackle that. Issues like, 'well how do we cover all Americans?' What's important is that the conversation continues on even while there are all these political fireworks."

Who's winning the information war?

money driven medicine.jpgMaggie Mahar spent years as an economics reporter writing for news outlets like Barron's before she got a chance to write a book on health care, "Money-Driven Medicine." It aimed to tell "the real reason health care costs so much." The book was published in 2006, and she said it didn't get much traction because there wasn't a meaningful push for health reform at the time. The book was recently made into a documentary and the current debate has helped it receive favorable news coverage. In 2007, she received a call from the Century Foundation asking her to become a health care fellow. Not long after accepting the position, she began a blog, Healthbeatblog.org.

"At Barron's I had always written these relatively long, researched stories, and here I decided to write relatively long researched posts," Mahar told me. "I started to attract a real audience. The people who read it are quite knowledgeable, and they'll sometimes argue with each other. I comment too, and they'll just keep the discussion going, like a graduate seminar. I love that about it. But I will say that I'm not reaching the people out there who read the New York Times and know very little about health care, and I'm not being told much by the New York Times, and that drives me nuts."

Many of the health care bloggers I spoke to said they receive calls from reporters asking for quotes on health care reform, which indicates that their blogs are acting as gateways for wider coverage. Mahar was recently asked to join a health care panel at the Washington Post, and every week she fields questions on the issue from Post readers.

I pointed out recent polls show that support for health care reform is waning and asked whether this meant that health care reform opponents were winning the information war. Given that Mahar is pro health care reform, does that mean blogs like hers are failing to insert themselves into the dialog?

"It's easy to scare people about health care," she said. "It's very personal and people feel very vulnerable. If you tell them that they might not get as much as they've gotten in the past, they get very uptight. And we're also a nation that's terrified of death. You add all that together and it's incredibly hard to combat misinformation. We're not good at discussing ideas, we don't talk about ideas. We talk about personalities and politics, and that hurts. Because this is a very complicated subject and you have to dig in and contemplate the issue to understand it, and so much of it is counterintuitive."

Simon Owens is a social media consultant and an associate editor for MediaShift. You can read more of his writing at his blog or contact him at simon[.]bloggasm [at] gmail.com.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».