Is it just 8,000-word epics that make people hit “Read Later”?

In this week’s Monday Note, Frédéric Filloux wrote a piece on the ecosystem of “smart people curat[ing] long form journalism,” which he described as including Longreads, Longform, and Instapaper.

Which, if you think about it, is an interesting grouping. Longform and Longreads are both curators of excellent, long works of journalism and nonfiction; they identify long stories and link to them. They’re fundamentally editorial products. Instapaper (along with its competitor Read It Later) is a tool, a method for saying, “I don’t want to read this now — so save this article in a pleasing format offline, in a place where I can come back to it later.” It’s a technical product; it deals with raw gibberish and finely honed prose equally well.

Instapaper-like tools and Longreads-like services get lumped together a lot because, I’d argue, of a story we like to tell ourselves about long-form journalism, something I like to call the Long-Form Longing. People who care about journalism — particularly those of us who’ve shifted 95-percent-plus of our reading online — love to valorize long-form journalism. We root for efforts that seem to promote the kind of work we fear might be getting lost in a blizzard of tweets. Here’s one of my favorite short pieces by Internet superstar and ex-Harper’s editor Paul Ford:

I was out for a drink with a friend who works for a womens’ magazine. She does not love her job, mostly because she is in charge of compiling yoga recipes and candle news (a column called Candletips) for the front of the book. “I just commissioned a 2,200-word piece,” she said, “with the provisional title Hollywood’s Neti Nuts: Star Sinus Secrets.” She took a long draught of red wine and closed her eyes for a moment. “So, that. But if you look in the back of the book, we are still publishing long-form journalism.”

That was not the first time I’ve heard this argument. Long-form journalism can be an excuse for just about anything. You might work for Teen Violence Week, and your job might require compiling a photo collage of the week’s best dick punches, but you can still feel proud that your magazine publishes 5,000 words about a Los Angeles clinic that performs free abortions for tapirs, or a serious investigation into America’s declining sandpaper standards (True Grit: The death of smooth).

The popularity of tools like Instapaper and Read It Later give us comfort — because if people are using them to read things later, it stands to reason that those things must be the kind of long-form work that we admire.

The thing is: that comforting vision doesn’t seem to be particularly true.

Remember last week when Read It Later released that great dataset on which publications and authors were saved the most often in its system? We wrote about it and, like others, noted that the most-saved authors often worked at blogs like Lifehacker, Gizmodo, Mashable, and Techcrunch. Fine publications all, but John McPhee they ain’t. This seemed to surprise Filloux:

Great writers indeed, but hardly long form journalism. We would have expected a predominance of long feature stories, we get columnists and tech writers instead.

“We would have expected” is the Long-Form Longing in a nutshell — the idea that, now that we have the tools to shift reading from length-averse environments (sitting at your desk at 10:30 a.m., avoiding an Excel spreadsheet) to length-friendly environments (on your couch, sipping merlot, iPad in hand), people will want 8,000 words on the history of grains. Or at least a long New Yorker feature. But the data doesn’t, at first glance, seem to back that up.

Here’s another, more thorough dataset that illustrates the point even better. Back in September, I moderated a panel on new platforms for long-form journalism. I wanted to have some new data for the introduction, so I emailed the nice folks at Read It Later to see if they could share with me the range of word counts of articles saved using its tool. How many were short quick blog posts, and how many were Vollmanesque epics?

First, some details about the data they sent me. (Thanks again to Nate Weiner and Matt Koidin for their help with it.) This is data from articles saved using Read It Later from March to May of this year. It only includes articles — that is, YouTube videos and other non-article URLs are scrubbed out of the data. And it ignores articles that are either shorter than 100 words or longer than 10,000. Here’s the chart:

(Here’s that same chart, much bigger.)

The x-axis is word count — how long the articles were. The y-axis is the number of articles. The blue area represents how many articles were saved; the red area represents how many articles were actually read after they were saved. (And here “read” means “opened at some later point marked as read within Read It Later,” not “read all the way to the end.”)1

What you can see here is that, by far, the largest number of articles that are being saved are short — under 500 words. The number of articles saved drops off quickly at word counts higher than that.

(The jagged green line represents the ratio of read to saved — that is, at a given word length, how many of the saved articles later get read. As you can see, it’s lower for longer articles, but not remarkably so. The green line is the only one on the chart for which the percentages on the right side of the chart apply.)

Now, do more people read longer pieces because of tools like Instapaper and Read It Later than they would without them? Sure! I know I do. And while this chart seems heavily weighted toward shorter pieces, a chart showing the entire universe of save-able online content would no doubt be far more skewed toward brevity.

But the evidence seems to be that people find time-shifting useful regardless of length, and that using these tools for really long work is more of an edge case than common usage. It appears the user’s thought process is closer to “Let me read this later” than “Let me read this later because it’s really long and worthy.”

And that, to me, means that journalists should learn to separate the promotion of long-form from the promotion of time-shifting. Both are useful ideas, but the Venn diagram of the two is far from a perfect overlap.

Notes
  1. Update, 1:34 p.m.: I misspoke. “Read” on this chart doesn’t mean “opened at some later point,” as I originally had it. It means “marked as read within Read It Later,” which essentially means a user pressed a button saying “I read this.” In any event, it doesn’t mean that the article actually got read, in the sense that RIL tracks to make sure you got to the last paragraph. Thanks to RIL’s Nate Weiner for the correction.

A web-first politics site for NBC News: Vivian Schiller on the launch of NBCPolitics.com

NBC News keeps its political reporting in lots of different places. There’s Chuck Todd on Twitter, in the evening with Brian Williams and the Nightly News Crew, online at MSNBC’s First Read, or your Sunday morning coffee date with David Gregory on Meet the Press. That diffusion is part of why today they’re launching NBCPolitics.com, a site that brings all of that news under one digital roof.

NBCPolitics.com will be something of an NBC News aggregator, pulling together the work of on-air reporters like Kelly O’Donnell and Andrea Mitchell, as well as the mostly off-air types like the embedded reporters checking in from the campaign trail. They plan on offering video, directly from their family of shows as well as reports and interviews exclusive to the web. But the site will also see a new collection of social news, maps, and a one-of-a-kind candidate tracker via Foursquare.

As NBC News chief digital officer Vivian Schiller told me, unification is an important aim for NBC News, which feeds into a sometimes confusing collection of network, cable, and web properties. “It’s a way for people to have one destination, where they can get all the political coverage from all of our political reporters in one place, from all of the shows,” she said in a phone conversation. “One of the main impetuses [for the site] is we have so much strong politics coverage both on television and on the web, but you have to seek it out.”

It’s really a reflection of looking at the web as the web, as opposed to looking at the web as an extension of television only.

It’s also an acknowledgment that the division of coverage by TV show — Maddow here, Williams here, Morning Joe here — doesn’t line up perfectly with an online audience that isn’t bound by broadcast times. (“Pretty much most of what we have online has been organized around television shows,” Schiller said.)

If you like news with a side of features and celebrity interviews, here’s The Today Show. If you want inside politics with lawmakers, analysts and reporters debating each other, there’s Hardball. Looking for an overview of domestic and international news? Try NBCNightlyNews.com. Each site serves a purpose and reaches a specific audience, but function largely as a companion to what’s on TV.

“If someone is a political junkie, we don’t want them to necessarily have to think about what is the television show that I’m looking for,” she said. “We want them to have the full power of all the resources of NBC News available to them on politics in a way that is easy for them to find and easy for them to digest.” Schiller said they saw a need to step outside of the normal TV model and create something “webbier,” in her words. “It’s really a reflection of looking at the web as the web, as opposed to looking at the web as an extension of television only,” she said.

Video drives traffic

It’s been close to six months since Schiller joined NBC after parting ways with NPR, and she’s been busy at the Peacock Network, most recently beefing up her social media and engagement team. The development of NBC Politics marks her biggest project yet, and in many ways echoes some of her work at NPR, like investing in research, new technology, and a news platform separate from your primary channel.

But NBC Politics won’t move too far away from the bread and butter of broadcast. Schiller says there will be plenty of video, from reports from the road to interviews from TV programming. Video is what the audience expects from NBC News, she said. According to comScore the MSNBC Digital Network (which includes MSNBC.com, Today.com, NBCNightlyNews.com and more), saw more than 161 million video streams in October, putting it ahead of CNN and The Huffington Post for news videos. “Of course we’re competing with other news organizations around politics, but the strength that we have really above all others is the fact that we have video,” she said.

Making news social through partnerships

The network is trying to press its advantage through social media in reporting as well as connecting the audience, journalists and politicians. The NBC News embeds, a group of young reporters called on for on-air as well as online duties, are active on Twitter most days sending minute-by-minute dispatches from the different candidates. Next month NBC News is co-hosting a Republican presidential debate with Facebook, that will be broadcast on TV and online. And in one of the most interesting mashups, they’e partnering with Foursquare for a feature they’re calling Campaign Check-ins, where readers can follow candidates and reporters as they check in from the high school gyms, diners, and other obligatory locations of the primary season. Schiller said they also need to make themselves available through whatever platform the audience is using: “I’m a big believer in fishing where the fish are.”

That strategy seems to be the backbone of NBCPolitics.com, which Schiller ultimately believes can serve audiences across different platforms, as well as news preferences. If you’re a fan of Chuck Todd, there’s something for you on the site, and if you’re someone looking to stay current on the big themes in the news of the day, you’ll be covered there too. What they’re shooting for is NBCPolitics becoming a kind of audience multiplier for NBC News, a site that can draw in the preexisting audience loyal to shows and personalities, as well as the crowd looking for general election news and the political operatives.

“Our goal is to be the number one most valuable source for politics on the web, period. Not just among television news organizations, but among all news organizations, for Election 2012,” Schiller said.

12 reasons the Argo Project will sail on — and some things NPR learned from the pilot

Oil painting of Jason and the Argonauts, Lorenzo Costa

In part one of this story, we reported on the experience of a dozen NPR member stations who participated in the $3 million Argo Project. Today, we focus on what the network learned from the project.

Forgive the headline, but Matt Thompson made me write it.

NPR hired Thompson in 2010 to help guide 12 member stations through the Argo Project, and along the way he shared his bits of blogging wisdom with all of us — from using numbers in headlines to embracing the Wiccan Rule of Three. (“The energy you send into the world will be returned to you three times over.”)

The project winds down at the end of this month, and, as I wrote yesterday, NPR sees it as a success. Thompson and the Argonauts will keep their jobs at the network next year. “We have right now both the desire and the opportunity to formally take what we’ve done with this pilot set of stations and spread it out as widely as we can within the system,” Thompson said.

I talked to Thompson and his boss, project director Joel Sucherman, about what they learned from the two-year pilot. If Thompson coined the “Sully lead” — Andrew Sullivan’s noun-verb-blockquote style of bloggage — I shall present this article as a Thompsicle: a Matt Thompson listicle.1

1. Argo as network, not project

Soon after its inception in 2009, the Argo Project became the Argo Network.

“When we originally set out to do this, the notion of a network was not really part of it,” Sucherman said. “Fairly early in the process, I think it was a couple of months in, it became clear that there could really be potential for the network to be greater than the sum of its parts.”

Matt Thompson, NPRExternally, the Argo sites promote one another. The ever-present “Network Highlights” box in the sidebar promotes the kind of unexpected discovery you might find on Morning Edition or All Things Considered. “It’s that serendipitous aspect of, I might be listening to a health reform story right now, but if it’s of a certain voice or quality, I would be just has interested in the story coming up next about higher education.”

Internally, the network serves as a sort of support group for the reporters, none of whom had professional blogging experience before joining Argo. Many had limited web skills and no Twitter experience before the project started.

“It was as much a technical network, and a network of ideas, as it was a content network,” Thompson said. Despite widely disparate topics, “we found a lot of interesting crossovers. We had, for example, at one point three different sites covering secure communities from three different angles, but sharing coverage, sharing ideas, creating reporting plans together in several cases.”

NPR is bringing these lessons to projects like StateImpact, which resembles Argo on a grand scale. That project is a collaboration between the network and stations in all 50 states. So far eight states are up and running.

2. Argo as platform

All of the Argo sites run a modified version of WordPress which the NPR team built specially for the project. The platform includes tools to make life easier for bloggers, such as the link round-up tool we covered last year. All stations were required to use the Argo software, which meant the developers could push software updates to everyone at once. It also centralized the technical support.

The Argo team was not interested in building a new content-management system from scratch. As he wrote in June, Thompson says journalism is moving toward the content management ecosystem.

Digital news operations used to think of their CMS as their one-stop shop: a tool that would do everything one might want to do with one’s content…We’ve finally begun to accept that no single CMS can handle all of a digital news organization’s content functions. A good content management system today is designed to interact with lots of other software.

Sucherman said the Argo team will donate the platform to the open-source community as soon as they finish shoring up the code. Long-term technical support will move to NPR’s Digital Services division.

2. Communicating across time zones

Thompson has to communicate with 12 stations in three time zones, which is not easy. (“The Clay Shirky phrase totally holds true here,” he says. “Nothing will work, but everything might.”)

“All public radio stations are very different,” Thompson said. “It’s not really akin to a newspaper chain and affiliates. Newspapers can be very different, but chances are they have very similar structures and hierarchies and what have you, and that’s so not true in the public radio universe.”

Joel SuchermanHe continued: “That’s been interesting and valuable because…it feels like we’ve gotten sort of a microcosm of the broader universe of stations and the challenges they have to deal with.”

Thompson has laid out in detail the many tools and approaches he uses to communicate on a daily basis: Skype, PiratePad, Twitter, Go2Meeting, Basecamp, the telephone, and face-to-face communication when he can swing it.

When none of those tools suited a particular need, Argo created its own. Any news organization can do this: The team deployed OSQA, an open-source web app, for its technical support site. It’s like Stack Overflow for a niche group. Because it’s a question-and-answer site, not a discussion forum, threads are limited to questions of “How do I…” and not tangential debate. Like Stack Overflow, users can vote answers up or down, and a question is “closed” when answered.

3. Everyone is different

While Argo was pretty prescriptive about the daily workflow, encouraging exercises like the daily link round-up, a lot of differences emerged among the bloggers.

Two of the biggest sites in the network, KQED’s MindShift and WBUR’s CommonHealth, are different in many ways, Thompson said. “MindShift is a daily site, where the focus is on significant banner pieces each day, where it includes a lot of contributions from freelancers,” he said. “The storytelling is almost a bigger part of CommonHealth, it’s a very carefully crafted, almost long-form narrative.”

“Dropping a blogger into a traditional news organization and putting him or her in the last cubicle on the left, next to the kid with the Star Wars toys, is not the best way to do it.”

CommonHealth gained attention for its deeply personal reporting, such as Rachel Zimmerman’s account of having painful sex after childbirth. That was not the plan, but Zimmerman continued reporting it in response to a tremendous community response.

“As the project has gone on, I’ve actually defaulted to calling the bloggers reporter-editors, rather than reporter-bloggers, just because that subtle shift in language suggests something different to the folks that hear it,” Thompson said. “So much of what they do and so much of the skill set that they have, that they’ve developed over the year, is really as an assigning editor, too. It’s having the judgment, the news judgment, and the organizational capacity.”

At Oregon Public Broadcasting, Ecotrope originally was meant to cover the environment of the Pacific Northwest — a big topic. ”As spring really got underway, we started talking about, What within that is our domain, what within that do we want to own?” Thompson said. “And Cassandra [Profita, the site's reporter] had become much more interested in issues of the grid, the energy grid, and how Oregon was going to achieve the renewable energy standards that it set out for itself leading up to 2020.” Shortly thereafter, Profita caught an unusual story: The local utility was shutting down wind turbines because there was too much energy on the grid. That became a dominant story on the blog over several months.

4. Institutional support

Sucherman said Argo pushed bloggers to work with the radio journalists wherever possible. Zimmerman and CommonHealth co-host Carey Goldberg work closely with WBUR’s health care reporter, and they appear once a week on Radio Boston, the station’s local news show.

The most successful Argo blogs, he said, are those that enjoyed the most institutional support — and that’s unrelated to the size and wealth of a station. What Sucherman learned could serve as a manifesto for any digital journalist today:

“It’s very clear that dropping a blogger into a traditional news organization and putting him or her in the last cubicle on the left, next to the kid with the Star Wars toys, is not the best way to do it…I think it’s important the newsroom ultimately be a place where this person lives. This person needs to be of the newsroom. He or she should have support of an editor-level person. Also, you’ve got to have a buy-in from the executive team, as well. It can’t be something like, ‘Well, this is a newsroom experiment.’

“Ultimately, we all have to be looking at our futures. I come from the newspaper industry, and I don’t want to be in that position again where we’re staring into the abyss in the eleventh hour. I don’t think that’ll be the case for public radio, because public radio audiences keep growing. But I wouldn’t want to be in that situation.”

Notes
  1. Thompsicle is a portmanteau of a portmanteau.

From Nieman Reports: When deadlines are too tight for print, ebooks step in

Editor’s Note: Our sister publication Nieman Reports is out with their Winter 2011 issue,”Writing the Book,” which focuses on the new relationships between journalism and the evolving book publishing industry. Over the next few days, we’ll highlight a few stories from the issue — but go read the whole thing. In this piece, David Wolman writes about his experience publishing on the platform of The Atavist.

In the final days of Egypt’s revolution to overthrow President Hosni Mubarak, I was in the snowy mountains of Colorado for a vacation with the in-laws. There was no way I was going to unplug, though. Like most, I had been captivated by events in the Middle East. I also had something of an inside line. Every few days I received short correspondences via email or text message from two activists in Cairo I had gotten to know in 2008 while reporting a story for Wired about young people using social media to organize against Mubarak’s regime.

Two and a half years later I was stunned to learn that many of these same activists from the April 6 Youth Movement were now at the center of the revolution — organizing marches, coordinating efforts with other anti-Mubarak groups, and spearheading efforts to communicate a message of nonviolence. When the uprising began, I started contacting them to check that they were safe. By the second week I was writing a few short items for Wired.com and TheAtlantic.com.

On February 10 I received a text message from Ahmed Maher, cofounder of the April 6 Youth Movement: “Mubarak will go now. LOL.” By the next day Mubarak’s reign was finished. It was then that I knew I needed to go back to Cairo to write a fuller account of how Maher and his cohorts had transformed from rabble-rousers into full-fledged revolutionaries and chronicle what they had experienced in the lead-up to and during the uprising.

I banged out a pitch and sent it to editors at four or five prestigious magazines. The rejections came in rapid succession: “This is a great proposal, but unfortunately we already have some Egyptian coverage in the works.” “It sounds like a fascinating and timely story, but it’s not one we can use right now.” “Thanks for giving us a shot. Given other things in our lineup, turns out there’s no way.”

Digital publishing startup The Atavist had been on my radar; two of its founders are Wired alums, and I’d read a short piece about the project in Bloomberg BusinessWeek. The Atavist commissions and publishes long-form stories as ebooks for various devices — Kindle, iPad, Nook, etc. — or to be read on computers using e-reader software such as Kindle for PC. It’s strictly digital. No paper. If that fact makes you prickly, you should probably quit reading this essay.

Keep reading at Nieman Reports »

NPR stations see big growth for Argo blogs as the pilot winds down

How much of an impact can one blogger make?

A little more than a year ago, 12 public radio stations set a goal: Hire a reporter, teach him or her how to blog, and create the most authoritative local source of news on a single topic — a vertical.

Argo Gold Mine & Mill (Vilseskogen via Flickr)It was called the Argo Project, NPR’s $3 million experiment to expand the digital footprint of member stations. From nothing sprang blogs about health care reform in Massachusetts, education in San Francisco, immigration in Southern California, the environment in the Pacific Northwest, global health in Seattle. NPR provided the tools, training, and tech support.

As the project winds down this month, stations seem to have found the experience valuable — valuable enough that 10 of 12 are trying to keep their blogs alive (with the other two still trying to keep their bloggers employed), even though funding (from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Knight Foundation) dries up at the end of this year. NPR plans to continue supporting existing stations in the long term and find ways to expand the network.

And for some stations, it’s been an eye-opening experience in how original, web-native publishing can expand audiences in ways that repurposed radio content might not on its own. At four of the 12 stations, their Argo blog drew monthly audiences bigger than every other part of their news sites combined.

“Really, by hiring just one person, you can build an audience, build engagement, and demonstrate knowledge of a particular topic,” said Joel Sucherman, the project’s director at NPR. The first year of traffic for the whole Argo network surpassed published traffic numbers for startups such as the Texas Tribune and the Bay Citizen in their first years, he said.

Together, the dozen Argo sites attracted more than 400,000 visitors in a one-month stretch this fall, according to internal data furnished by a person who isn’t authorized to share it. KQED and KPBS were the top performers, each averaging more than 100,000 monthly visitors. Both stations have committed to keeping the blogs alive next year.

But there is more to success than pageviews. NPR’s Matt Thompson, Argo’s editorial product manager, said the primary measure of success was the impact and authority of the journalism. “And that, of course, is impossible to set one common metric for across all 12, but for each of the 12, I think we’ve got a pretty strong case to make,” he said.

Project ArgoAt San Francisco’s tiny KALW, for example, Rina Palta covers cops, courts, and communities for The Informant. Early on, Palta caught a good story: California was short on sodium thiopental, the lethal drug used for executions. She became a leading reporter on the story, not by writing one big investigative piece but by filing frequent, incremental updates, Thompson said. (Even Stephen Colbert cited her work.) Thompson calls it the quest: The body of work makes a bigger impact than any single post.

At Boston’s WBUR, CommonHealth has become a major driver of traffic to the station’s main site, said John Davidow, executive editor of new media (and my boss when I previously worked at the station). The two most viewed wbur.org stories of the past year both came from CommonHealth. One of those, “10 Things Not To Say To Parents Of Preemies,” got the attention of Brigham And Women’s Hospital, which asked to distribute a copy for staff. Davidow said CommonHealth gets an extra traffic bump from NPR.org, which features Argo blog posts on weekends.

Reaching new audiences

Another Argo goal was to help stations reach new and different audiences on the web. “For example,” Sucherman said, “at KPCC in Pasadena, Calif., with their site Multi-American, they’re able to reach an audience of 1.5- and second-generation Americans that might not be predisposed to listening to their radio programming currently.”

In San Diego, KPBS’ Home Post engages military families, an uncommon demographic for public radio, said News Director Suzanne Marmion.

Some of the largest stations saw the smallest growth over the year.

“We serve them with news and information, and our blogger can channel their comments and find good sources that then appear in our programming,” Marmion said. “It’s a dialogue with the military community that we would not otherwise have.”

At San Francisco’s KQED, MindShift attracted 125,000 visitors in October. KQED has since used Argo’s customized WordPress platform to build a new vertical covering the environment.

“Our criterion for picking a topic area for Argo was finding something is particularly reflective of, and somewhat unique to, the Bay Area, but that is having impact nationally,” said digital media VP Tim Olson. ”A topic that KQED is well positioned to cover given our geographic proximity to many of the players and events, but that would appeal to people across the country.”

That may explain part of the blog’s traffic success. Olson said the MindShift audience is evenly distributed across the United States, proportional to population.

The most trafficked Argo sites, yes, belong to big stations like KQED, stations that already have robust websites. But some large stations — WNYC, Minnesota Public Radio — showed the smallest or most erratic audience growth over the past year. That could be because those blogs cover highly local topics, such as New York state politics and higher education in Minnesota.

Searching for funding models

WIth the grant period over, Sucherman, Thompson, and designer Wes Lindamood will get to keep their jobs at NPR. (Developer Marc Lavallee has since taken a job at the New York Times.) The stations will have to find ways to keep their Argo bloggers employed, and not all of them have yet.

“I think that radio stations are still learning how to, ultimately, sustain digital successes from a financial perspective,” Sucherman said. “I think that’s something they need to continue to work at.” He said some stations have found support for the blog next year, others are adding it to the digital media budget to fundraise against.

At WXPN, a Triple A music station in Philadelphia, The Key figured out something novel. A popular feature on that blog is the Key Studio Sessions, a series of downloadable performances by local bands in XPN’s performance studio. In May, the Knight Foundation awarded the station a $50,000 grant to keep the Key sessions running next year.

Now the Argo team hopes to take the lessons of the project and provide training to more member stations. A perfect laboratory is the newly created State Impact project, which makes Argo look small — a partnership between NPR and stations to cover government in all 50 states.

In part two of this story, we focus on the lessons NPR learned from the Argo Project.

Photo by Vilseskogen used under a Creative Commons license

A Y Combinator for public media: PRX, Knight launch a $2.5 million accelerator

A new Public Media Accelerator, funded by $2.5 million from the Knight Foundation, will rapidly fund disruptive ideas in public media, PRX announced today.

Public Media Accelerator logoThe final details are still being worked out, but the accelerator is modeled on successful startup-focused initiatives like TechStars and Y Combinator. Technologists and digital storytellers will compete for cash to build their ideas. Winners will come to Cambridge for intensive, 12-week development cycles, under the guidance of mentors with deep experience in the field, all culminating in a demo day and the chance to win additional rounds of funding.

“In the digital domain we’re not setting the pace for innovation in the same way we did in the broadcast world,” said Jake Shapiro, the executive director of PRX. The accelerator is welcoming both nonprofit and for-profit ventures, unusual for public media. Shapiro said he wants to attract top talent, people who might never consider the field otherwise.

Last week, writing for Idea Lab, Shapiro said he observed a “worrisome gap” between coders and storytellers, estimating that fewer than 100 of the 15,000 people in public broadcasting are developers :

As public broadcasting goes through its own turbulent transition to a new Internet and mobile world, the technology talent gap is a risk that looms large. Yes, there are many other challenges…But the twin coins of the new digital realm are code and design, and with a few notable exceptions, public media is seriously lacking in both.

A shortage of innovation is not unique to public media, he told me. Nonprofits suffer constraints on financing ideas to scale, a lack of risk capital, and a lack of investment in deep R&D and technology, Shapiro said. The accelerator “gives license to risk in a more intentional way, and we definitely need more of that.”

The Public Media Accelerator is also another sign the Knight Foundation is taking cues from Silicon Valley’s startup culture. Knight will retain a financial stake in for-profit ventures that receive seed money, moving away from its traditional role as pure philanthropist. Earlier this year, Knight launched a venture-capital enterprise fund. And in October, senior adviser Eric Newton said the annual Knight News Challenge, a five-year experiment, will speed up to three times per year, starting in 2012.

“As we’ve started funding more smaller entities and startups, that model makes a lot more sense for us,” said Michael Maness, Knight’s vice president of journalism and media innovation. “That model allows us to go smaller, faster, more nimble.”

Even the program came together fast: Shapiro approached Maness and Knight’s John Bracken with the idea in July. Board approval came in September, and the project will formally get underway at SXSW Interactive in March.

So if for-profits are making public media and funders are buying stakes in startups, is it “public media” anymore? What is public media, anyway?

“It’s about intent and values and goals and impact,” Shapiro said. “I’ve been in endless philosophical conversations about ‘what is public media’ over the years, and in some cases there are examples of pub media that are completely outside our field. I think on good days The Daily Show is public media…I think Wikipedia is public media. I’d rather just claim them than have to reinvent them,” he said, half-joking.

The Public Media Accelerator immediately begins searching for a director to administer the fund and an advisory board. Shapiro, Manness, and Bracken will remain as advisers.