It’s people! Meet Soylent, the crowdsourced copy editor

The phrase “on-demand human computation” has a sinister tinge to it, if only because the idea of sucking the brain power out of a group of people is generally frowned upon. And yet, if you call it “crowdsourcing” everything sounds so much friendlier!

But calling Soylent “crowdsourced copy-editing” isn’t quite fair, since the system performs the type of jobs that are somewhere in the gray area between man and machine. More than a spell check, not quite the nightside copy editor versed in AP style, Soylent really is on-demand computation. It’s what all word processors need, the “Can you take a look at this?” button with a small workforce of people at your disposal.

Soylent is an add-in for Microsoft Word that uses Mechanical Turk as a distributed copy-editing system to perform tasks like proofreading and text-shortening, as well as a type of specialized edits its developers call “The Human Macro.” Currently in closed beta, Soylent was created by compsci students at MIT, Berkeley, and University of Michigan.

For those unfamiliar, Mechanical Turk is an Amazon service that makes it easier for small tasks (and the money to pay for them) to be distributed among a group of humans called Turkers. While savvy writers could already use MTurk to edit their work, the team at Soylent believes their system can produce better and more efficient results than would a writer working alone.

“The idea of Soylent is, what if we could embed human knowledge in the word processor?” MIT’s Michael Bernstein, the lead researcher on Soylent, told me.

That sounds technical, but as Bernstein explains, we all call on friends for help when writing. Research paper, essay, email, story, or blog post — most people rely on a second pair of eyeballs for help at least some of the time. And one thing Mechanical Turk has to offer is a lot of eyeballs.

Soylent’s three current features are called Shortn, Crowdproof, and the Human Macro:

Shortn: Ever write 1,700 words and blow right past your 1,200 word count? Shortn lets writers submit passages of text to MTurk for trimming. They can determine how much they want to cut with a handy slider tool.

Crowdproof: A superpowered, sophisticated spell, grammar and style check that provides suggestions as well as explanations why your choices are wrong.

The Human Macro: For more complicated changes — something like “change all verbs to past tense” — the Human Macro is, as Bernstein says, programming-as-craigslist-ad. The writer describes the changes she wants (capitalization of proper names, altering verb tense, annotating references with Creative Commons photos) in a request form, which humans then act on.

Bernstein argues that Soylent’s cold, detached eye is just what some writing needs. “It’s really hard to kill your own babies in your writing,” Bernstein said. “To be honest, another motivation for me is that it’s very time consuming to go and snip words and cut things from paragraphs an hour before deadline.”

But to writers already nervous about those babies being disappeared on the copy desk, handing over their copy to the faceless masses might not sound like a solution. In their research, Bernstein and his colleagues identified “lazy” and “overeager” individual Turkers, with the lazy ones doing the minimal amount of work and the overeager making wholesale changes. Bernstein said the distributed editing process behind Soylent eliminates this problem because no one Turker is working with whole passages of a document; the work is split among many.

Some in news circles are already experimenting with Mechanical Turk; ProPublica used it to identify companies getting stimulus dollars for the Recovery Tracker project. (Here at the Lab, we use it for the long transcripts we sometimes run of video or audio interviews.) MTurk could be used for any number of tasks that call for on-demand labor. But what makes Soylent different from using MTurk directly is a programming pattern Bernstein and his colleagues created called Find-Fix-Verify, which disseminates tasks across a large group of workers. The only thing required of writers is an Amazon account to pay Turkers; Soylent sets the payment rates.

Instead of one Turker reading over an entire page or paragraph, Soylent asks a group of workers to find areas that need fixing and make corrections. Those fixes are then filtered by other Turkers for inaccuracies, which produces a set of recommendations or an edited graph to a writer. Depending on the job and the document, it usually took Soylent around 40 minutes to complete a task.

To news traditionalists, Soylent may sound like the latest turn toward outsourcing in journalism that has sent copy editing jobs to places in India. It could also be akin to the automated journalism being tested by some companies or the Huffington Post’s real-time headline testing. And some day it may be. But Soylent is far from ready for the mainstream, thanks to the processing time and payment methods. Bernstein says they’re working towards having real-time edits and managing payment through Soylent, as well adapting the program to work on photo editing. Instead of outsourcing, think of Soylent as microsourcing.

And about that name: It comes from exactly what you’re thinking. Bernstein said they were looking for something familiar but also true to the idea of what they created. Soylent is made of people. It is indeed, people.

“The original name was Homunculus,” Bernstein said. “It didn’t have the same ring to it.”

Felix Salmon takes a blogging fellowship at CJR, has no problem annoying funder, Pete Peterson

Felix Salmon, who blogs on economics for Reuters, is heading to Columbia Journalism Review — sort of. Salmon has signed on to a part-time fellowship covering, as CJR puts it, “the media’s handling of the federal budget, unemployment, income disparities, the national debt, entitlement programs, taxes, and the other economic policy questions.” The fellowship is sponsored by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. Peterson is a former Nixon commerce secretary and fiscal conservative whose foundation takes a strong stance on the need to cut government spending. Peterson also funds The Fiscal Times, an online news outlet that covers much the same turf, and whose partnership with The Washington Post led to criticism from some corners, including our Jim Barnett.

We don’t wade into ethics-in-media-criticism debates much here at the Lab, but in this case we thought it might be worth a call to Salmon about the arrangement. As foundations — some of them with pet issues or agendas — emerge as major backers of the news we consume, what’s a healthy distance between the hand signing the check and the one taking it ensured? Salmon happily told me he isn’t worried about his work being unduly influenced: “Just as I have no fear of annoying other journalists, I have no fear of annoying Pete Peterson.”

I also spoke with Salmon about how the arrangement will work day-to-day. Salmon’s CJR posts will also appear on his blog at Reuters, so his regular readers will see all of the content and CJR readers who don’t follow his work will get a taste. The gig is only for a few months, as Salmon is finishing out the fellowship for Holly Yeager who recently jumped to the Washington Post (and is also a friend and former colleague of mine). The fellowship might renew in January. It’ll be interesting to watch Salmon work with CJR’s Dean Starkman, since Salmon has criticized him before on his blog. (Like here, last month: “Dean has a very old-fashioned view of what journalism is and should be…in fact Dean’s attitude is extremely elitist…But Dean doesn’t see it…”)

Here’s a lightly edited transcript of my conversation with Salmon:

LKM: Why did you take the gig at CJR? What do you hope to write about there?

FS: Well, I think it’s exactly what it says on the tin. Macro and fiscal policy, or rather the meta stuff — I’m going to be blogging about the press coverage of macro and fiscal policy.

LKM: How is that different from what you’re doing now on your Reuters blog?

FS: It will all appear on the Reuters blog. It’ll basically be cross-posted on the Reuters blog and CJR. The Reuters blog will get all the magic CJR fairy dust, insofar as there is any. So, there is no real difference. There is a bit of a narrower focus, and this will basically force me to do more of what I was doing when I first started out on my first full-time blogging gig in September 2006, sort of concentrating more on economics and less on — well, not less on, but it’ll help to force me to write more about economic and fiscal matters. It’s been something I’ve been wanting to do for a while, but I just you know, let fall through the cracks.

LKM: How was negotiating this between Reuters, your corporate boss, and CJR, this nonprofit? Was there any tension between the two organizations?

FS: I was not party to any tension there. Basically, this is a win-win for both. This is good for the blog because it means I get to benefit from Dean Starkman’s expertise and other people at CJR who will sort of help improve my media criticism. And it means that my stuff gets a certain amount of ratification by them and it means I get read by a certain number of people who wouldn’t read me otherwise. So that’s all good for Reuters and it’s obviously good for CJR too. I think one of the things they find difficult is finding people who are willing to be rude about fellow journalists, when I’ve never had much of a problem on that front.

LKM: Is Deak Starkman going to edit your stuff? In terms of it being a “blog,” how is it going to work — will you file and he’ll give you edits?

FS: I think it’s going to be more sort of a high-level conceptual editor position. Not disimilar to what I have with Jim Ledbetter here at Reuters. This isn’t going to be, “he sort of line-edits every piece before it goes out.” The details are a little bit TBD right now — I don’t even have my Moveable Type login yet or whatever it is they have. I’m sure I’ll simply be able to post these things. But at the same time, I’m equally sure I’ll be in contact with Dean and he’ll be giving me ideas and we’ll be talking about what I’ve been writing and that kind of thing.

LKM: How much do you think we’ll see of you on CJR’s site?

FS: That’s a really good question. I honestly don’t know the answer to that. It largely depends on how much various people send me stuff and engage with this whole new emphasis on an old beat. If I get a lot of emails from people, “look at this, isn’t this wonderful, isn’t this terrible” — from Dean, from readers, from anyone, then I might tend to be doing this quite a lot. Yes, please. If there’s coverage that merits me writing about it, either pro or con, send it to me. Send me an at-reply [on Twitter] or email it to me.

LKM: One thing we’re curious here about at the Lab is the fact that it’s a Pete Peterson fellowship. Is there a certain take that you’re expected to have?

FS: Thank you for asking that. The answer is, of course, no. There isn’t. Pete Peterson is well-known for his views on fiscal policies in particular. One of the reasons he set up this fellowship is because he wants people to really pay attention to what people are writing about fiscal policy. But this does not mean in any way that I am an austerean. There was no ideological litmus test here. No one at CJR asked me about fiscal policy at an ideological level. And although I’m absolutely going to be including my own opinions in these blog posts, I think most of it is going to be more my opinion of how these things are going to be how these things are reported — rather than in terms of what should be done about revamping Social Security, say, or something like that. Just as I have no fear of annoying other journalists, I have no fear of annoying Pete Peterson.

LKM: I am sure a lot of places would be happy to syndicate your work. What you sold you on this?

FS: The syndication question is an interesting one. There’s obviously some kind of value to what I do and Reuters is interested in syndicating my work generally. I think one of the reasons its not a problem from a business perspective is that it’s a very narrow subset of what I do. This isn’t sort of a full-rights syndication deal. It’s not like someone who would want to like to syndicate my stuff and say, look, CJR get’s all the stuff for free — it’s not even free — but, anyway. The main upside is that this isn’t a one-way thing where CJR gets content from me and I get nothing in return. I’m getting drawn into that little group there. I’m hoping that a little bit of editorial feedback and ideas for stories are going to come and it’s going to improve my blogging. Now, if I get syndicated to some random site that just copies and pastes what I do, that doesn’t really improve what I do in that sense. This, with any luck, if all goes according to plan, really will.

It’s election night: Here’s what some news orgs (old & new) have planned

It’s election day in the United States, and with election day comes election day coverage. With more media players than ever aiming for their own slice of the audience, here are a few highlights of what they’ve got planned to help you sort through the abundance:

The Washington Post is now the first news organization to purchase a “promoted trend” on Twitter, sponsoring the term #Election. The “promoted trend” will appear at the top of the list of current trends on Twitter with a yellow label clearly marking it as “promoted.” In addition, anyone who does a search for the hashtag will find a tweet from the Post attached to the top of the stream. This is an intriguing and aggressive move for a news organization and it’ll certainly be interesting to see if they can take advantage of the increased election conversation on Twitter to drive traffic.

Twitter is also encouraging its users to report their experience at the polls by using the hashtag #votereport or #NYCvotes for those in New York City. NYC had a lot of trouble in September with the new voting system they unveiled for the primary election. Twitter is pulling together all of this information at TwitterVoteReport.com.

In addition to using Twitter the news startup TBD.com is encouraging its users to help map voting problems by using a piece of software called Crowdmap, as well as through email or submitting a tip directly to their website.

Increasingly social networking sites are creating ways for users to make the act of voting a social activity. Foursquare is offering up an “I Voted” badge for those who check in at their polling place or “shout” that they voted. Foursquare is then visualizing the data in order to “encourage civic participation, increase transparency in the voting process and develop a replicable system for the 2012 Presidential Election.” Twitter is encouraging its users to use the hashtag #ivoted to remind their peers to vote.

Facebook is joining in on the fun as well, reminding users 18 and older to vote today by posting a note in their news feeds and offering a polling place locator.

As usual, The New York Times is going big: Its election maps and charts are elegant, intuitive, and work on the iPad. The Times has also created a neat visualization for exploring election traffic on Twitter. The addition of Nate Silver and his blog FiveThirtyEight to the Times’ politics coverage is sure to be an additional draw to those interested in making sense of all the polling data. Talking Points Memo also has an excellent election results app that’s also not dependent on Flash. This is fitting given that the number of TPM readers on mobile devices is growing.

The Los Angeles Times has an intriguing news application that lets you explore the campaign contributions affiliated with Proposition 19, an initiative in California that would legalize possession and cultivation of marijuana. The app lets you explore the over $4 million in donations and figure out where it all came from.

The Huffington Post is trying to make the midterms even more fun with a “Predict the News” challenge where users can make predictions race by race and then earn points for those they get correct. You can of course challenge your friends through Facebook and Twitter and compare results.

In addition to their homepage, The Wall Street Journal is offering six hours of live video coverage on election night starting at 8 p.m. EST. The coverage will include “real-time news and analysis, live reports from key race locations, interactive maps, and features” and integrate with their iPad app.

And as always there are a wealth of options for election night viewers, especially with many big cable channels and networks supplementing their broadcast coverage with online streaming.

What else is out there? If your news organization has something exciting planned for tonight, let us know about it in the comments.

Photo by John C. Abell used under a Creative Commons license.

ONA10 Rewind: Recapping Friday’s sessions through the lens of Twitter

It’s never easy to figure out what panel to attend at large conferences like the Online News Association’s confab in Washington last weekend. Programming has to be purposefully vague, enticing as well as diverse — and when it’s all said and done there’s always a few sessions you wish you had time to attend. (Not to mention the many folks who would have liked to attend, only to see the conference sell out quickly.)

But thanks to Twitter, not to mention livebloggers and streaming video, the panel experience can be recaptured and even expanded. For the second year in a row, we at the Lab thought it would be good to highlight the discussions, both from the front of the room and the audience. What follows is a tweet-by-tweet, panel-by-panel recreation of this year’s ONA, based on the online voices of those in the room.

Make sure to check out Friday’s schedule for links to presentations from the panels. We’ll recap Saturday’s panels tomorrow.

9 a.m.

Keynote: Starting from Scratch — TBD.com (#ONA10 #TBD)

Jim Brady, Erik Wemple, Mandy Jenkins, Steve Buttry, TBD
Moderator: Laura McGann, Nieman Journalism Lab

meg_e_martin: @jimbradysp @ #ona10 panel re: #tbd: “Our strategy was to build a regional site with local elements”

meg_e_martin: @jimbradysp re: local strategy/advertising/etc. “There’s no silver bullet, just shrapnel.” Amen, friend

emraguso: editorial vision for #tbd, 12 reporters on staff cover 5.3m people. editorial vision is “smoke and mirrors”

meg_e_martin: #ericwemple: “We want to be a place where, if you hear a siren, you go to #tbd and you find out what’s wrong.”

caitlindewey: #tbd panelists sparring: “if you’re running a website that doesn’t have something terrible on it, you’re not trying hard enough.

MiamiTheater: If you run a website where you don’t have something terrible you have #fail. Need to keep experimenting

meg_e_martin: #tbd social media prod.: “I want to make sure that we’re out there, talking to them, all the time.” Replies to every Q and critique.

emraguso: the heart of all this, still have to hire the best journalists you can. it’s not all abt gadgets, says #TBD #ona10

acarvin: Jim Brady: Twitter is the police scanner of the 21st century. There are always new stories breaking there.

emraguso: #TBD says things go thru a double filter and we don’t put up anything unconfirmed. wemple says lots of times officials get it wrong

meg_e_martin: @mjenkins: You have to treat #socialmedia like a tipline, not a source. Obvious, but: Check your sources

emraguso: why shld readers go to #tbd, not #patch #wapo? #TBD aggregates those other news media in town and has lots of blogs #ona10

10:15 a.m.

No Comment: Rethinking Online Commenting (#ONA10 #nocomment)

Alicia Shepard, NPR
Andrew Noyes, Facebook
Adam Clark Estes, Huffington Post

“With so much negativity and spam in comment sections, how are newsrooms tweaking their engagement policies? Should people be made to give their real names? Should discussions be moderated? How do we elevate the discussion without stifling it? What are we gaining with comment sections, Facebook and other platforms? Led by NPR’s ombudsman, this lively debate will help you navigate these tectonic shifts in the conversation around news.”

ianhillmedia: Good comments start with good content, followed by a clear TOS and active moderation.

JeremyLittau: Why are we so obsessed with moderating negative comments? Rather spend energy working for better comments

emraguso: how do we find editorial value in the comments? what are we hoping to get from the interaction? says #BBC

lheron: Here’s the obit sparked by a nasty comment that the St. Petersburg Times ran: bit.ly/9g12yA

assignmentdesk1: Problem with #nocomment panel is lack of solutions or ideas about how to handle web comments for news sites.

emraguso: #ona10 #nocomment failing a third-party solution, how do you get reporters to engage in comments? asks st. pete times

kimfox: Chilling effect on sources seems to be something we are all worried about at #nocomment #ona10 session

JeremyLittau: One takeaway of this session is it’s hard to engage a community if you distrust them at outset.

meg_e_martin: via #huffpo: Reward constructive commenters/frequent posters with badges. (a la vita.mn karma points, @mthomps!) #ona10 #nocomment

emraguso: rick times from charlotte observer: what do you think of crowdsourcing to get rid of the trolls?

bydanielvictor: @acarvin: We shouldn’t see commenters as “potentially evil people.” Love it.

emraguso: from shepard: #huffpost launched in april — awards badges to commenters who post frequently and moderate comments

chrisboutet: NPR’s @acarvin: By being part of the conversation, we can elevate the conversation. Mediation works better than moderation

emraguso: @acarvin we need to figure out ways of shifting away from siege mentality abt how to deal with comments

bydanielvictor: NPR’s @acarvin: We need to reward the 99% of online community members who behave. Great point..let’s give them incentive.

emraguso: tom mallory of san diego union tribute: a lot of us set up anonymous comments before: how do we close the barn door?

patbrannan2131: Following the 90-9-1 principle only 1 percent of a site’s total audience actually comments.

emraguso: @acarvin countless NPR reporters use things in comments to push reporting deeper

chrisboutet: @anoyes “Here’s the problem with Facebook’s ‘real-name’ comment culture: People lie.” Doesn’t stop trolls dead.

chrisboutet: Facebook’s @anoyes points out U.S. Army’s FB comment policy as an excellent model for all: on.fb.me/9xpVOR

jrstahl: We remind of our FB comments policy when people start to veer towards violating 1) respect 2) family-friendly 3) on topic

emraguso: 3.5m comments for #huffpo is “small potatoes” compared to what facebook gets says noyes

emraguso: Noyes: our big picture mission to make world more connected. comments are a huge part of that. real name culture is vital

notblue: Most comments are negative, attacking, cruel, “tone hijacks the conversation.” Knew a journ who called comments a cesspool

emraguso: “Real name culture” is important to create place where people are free to speak their minds more respectfully

JeremyLittau: Noyes: Real-name culture is backbone to comment system on Facebook.

meghannCIR: @NPR ombudsman says she often finds comments cruel. She asked staff if they needed comments on site.

emraguso: Shepard said NPR is having a rough time trying to keep up with comments — hired an outside moderation

kimfox: Sheaprd: Huffington Post gets 3.5 MM comments per month

emraguso: Alicia Shepard #NPR said 1% are online dominators, scare people away from wanting to comment

JeremyLittau: Shepard: Tension in online comments is between diatribe and dialogue.

emraguso: 99-1 principal — participation inequality for online — 90% are lurkers, 9% editors, 1% creators

dbronx: Shephard: Diatribe v. dialogue — guess which is winning?

Content Sharing Through API’s (#ONA10 #apis)

Daniel Jacobson, NPR
Delyn Simons, Mashery
Daniel Choi

“More and more newsrooms are opening their vaults and sharing their content. What can you do with other organizations’ content? Should your newsroom be thinking about creating its own APIs, too? Experts explore the operations, business models and more.”

dskok: Having a NYTimes open API provides unintended benefits that drive traffic and U/X. Simons

jrue: News organizations can use APIs to track who’s using their content much better than RSS. Many are delivering RSS over an AP

tmcenroe: USA Today considering feeding RSS through API, which then would allow tracking, metrics

dskok: It seems API’s are crucial for internal dev and future platform growth. Sharing those keys publicly is just a nice addition

cyhung: good API = 1, good documentation 2, developer support 3, terms of use for your API that are generous according to Choi

DanaChinn: APIs allow “tremendous speed to mkt” for local-social-mobile but do trad media orgs have the mindset?

sarahmorayati: #APIs are another way to make news organizations flexible; example: CNN’s use of Outside.in gives it an instant local presence

adamostrow: NPR has doubled page views in 12 months (as measured across platforms — iPhone, android, iPad, etc)

tmcenroe: NPR mobile apps drive almost half of all pageviews (nearly 40 mil/month), made poss by API developemn

richgor: Jacobson: real value of API at NPR was to accelerate internal development, partnerships — not help ind’t developers

dskok: Having a NYTimes open API provides unintended benefits that drive traffic and U/X. Simon

The New Investigative Journalism Ecosystem (#ONA10 #ecosystem)

Charles Lewis, Investigative Reporting Workshop
Lorie Hearn, Watchdog Institute
Kevin Davis, Investigative News Network
Raney Aronson-Rath, Frontline

“The number of global nonprofit reporting organizations has exploded — from three in 1990 to more than 30 today. Most have been created in the past three years. Panelists share which organizations are collaborating, which projects draw eyeballs and where this phenomenon is heading.”

RobinJP: Repeated theme at #ecosystem and #proam sessions: need to learn more about financial sustainability.

tgdavidson: Jay: Mtg crisis story was there to be spotted/collected LONG before it broke. “That’s where the real excitement lies.”

SuziSteffen: @jayrosen_nyu asks, “When will we start moving the needle on distributed reporting?”

jmestepa: Nonprofits are in competitive environment. Need to build trust for collaboration.

tgdavidson: Raney: Despite initial challenges, collab brought far more rptg to stories like Law & Disorder

tgdavidson: Davis: Among next steps for INN: Marketing and PR. Commercial syndication deals now, but ultimately want public support

jmestepa: Investigative News Network focuses on sustainability, training, back office resources, tech support, collaboration

tgdavidson: Davis: “What most of our members were doing was trapezee w/o a net. Very exciting, and very dangerous.”

digitalamysw: Investigative News Network’s membership now stands at 51 with 10 applications in process

tgdavidson: Lewis: What’s the effect of pub’ing some information earlier? His note — it builds audience. Raney: Yup.

Raney: “Law & Disorder” proj was 1st effort where used web to publish ongoing reporting, not svg all for film.

jmestepa: Lorie Hearn of Watchdog Institute: Nonprofits think they can just get grants and give content away. That’s the proble

jmestepa: Only half of nonprofit journalism organizations have ethics policies posted on their websites

tgdavidson: In aggregate, those orgs has op budgets of $80MM / yr.

digitalamysw: Ecosystem report: 23 out of 60 nonprofit news orgs are run by women

tgdavidson: 60 non-profit journo orgs with 600+ rptrs have risen from the ashes. But: Only 13 fully disclose their financial backers

wcochran: Charles Lewis: two-thirds of nonprofit news employees come from legacy medi

digitalamysw: New journalism ecosystem report — 60 nonprofit orgs comprise the ecosystem #ecosystem #ona10 bit.ly/aXbiwW

11:30 a.m.

DocumentCloud’s First Year (#ONA10 #dcloud)

Aron Pilhofer, The New York Times
Brian Boyer, Chicago Tribune
Jeremy Ashkenas, DocumentCloud

“DocumentCloud.org has impacted news stories big and small by making primary source materials easier to scour, annotate and share. A look at how the open-source project is solving journalistic and technological hurdles.”

chandlereclay: #ona10 #ona observer #dcloud wouldn’t let wikileaks in. Tries to keep the community of users focused and narrowed to newsroom docs

4GJournalist: #ona10 #dcloud will be able to tag private annotations eventually as tool for reporters working on large document piles

bydanielvictor: They want to make documents able to be publicly annotated as a crowdsourcing tool. Yes, please

jendorroh: When it comes to sharing its code, the mantra of @DocumentCloud is “release early and often.”

richgor: Phase2 Technologies about to release @DocumentCloud publishing module for Drupal.

ethanklapper: Ashkenas says you should always redact the source PDF — NOT in DcoumentCloud

chandlereclay: #ona10 #onaobserver #dcloud Document cloud is funny. Uncovered the blacked-out text in Blagojevich docs. Awesome

bydanielvictor: An expert on ballot design annotated image of a NY ballot for problem spots. No better way to tell that story.

chrisboutet: Document Cloud adds journalistic layer to open online documentation. Allows annotations. Makes docs searchable, collaborative

ethanklapper: @pilhofer: The tools reporters have used to do document-based reporting haven’t changed in forever

Forging Pro-Am Partnerships (#ONA10 #proam)

Joe Bergantino, New England Center for Investigative Reporting
Rich Jones, New York University, Arthur L. Carter Journalism Initiative
Josh Meyer, National Security Journalism Initiative, Medill School of Journalism

With newsrooms cutting staff and journalism schools booming, it was bound to happen — the news industry is collaborating with academe for content in brave new ways. The panel explores how the partnerships work and whether the model applies to your newsroom.

UOSOJC: A: Coach them, help them, throw them out of the nest and see how they do.

akrewson: Q. followup: How are you reaching audience beyond traditional media? A. Bergantino: Using social media, planning focus groups.

UOSOJC: Q: is it fair to send students out into hostile interview situations & how do you get folks to take the students seriously?

emraguso: Medill’s Josh Meyer says he’s “not at liberty to say” who their media partners are right now

akrewson: Meyer: “You’re standing on the shoulders of traditional journalism.”

lkelley10: Possible revenue streams to sustain pro-am partnerships: paid content, custom research, training

akrewson: Bergantino: Almost 60 academic centers around the country, an explosion. If all go to same foundations for $ … not enough.

emraguso: Bergatino: You can prove how valuable you are in the setting you’re in. You draw in students with investigative reporting.

akrewson: @WillMedia I’m curious about the “am” portion that can’t afford university tuition. Haven’t seen that addressed yet.

emraguso: it’s not really abt who publishes it first, it’s a force multiplier

Twheat: Jones: Shooting for %50 of @nytlev content from community. Developing journalism workshops

akrewson: Q: Why do you need pro media partners if you don’t need printing press? A. from Josh Meyer: Build community and audience

akrewson: Jones: No money has exchanged hands between @nytlev and @NYT

akrewson: Jones: Newsroom has developed a Wordpress plugin for assigning stories at @nytlev

emraguso: Local East Village: no money has changed hands between NYU and NYTimes

emraguso: Local East Village: looking at how we engage the community in posts, tips, comments

emraguso: Local East Village: we measure success by the success of our students. training students in multimedia

daileyl: Pro-am journalism partnerships: “This is a movement, this is a revolution” — Joe Bergantino

JeremyLittau: So far it seems like workload, logistics for #proam investigative journalism is made for bigger j-schools, not programs our size

emraguso: Local East Village: serves 70k people, partners with @nytimes for content, based out of NYU

emraguso: New England Ctr for Investigative Reporting: Focusing on training as a revenue generator. Esp. high school students

daileyl: Josh Meyer makes the point pro-am partnerships are not new. Many J-schools provide D.C. coverage bureaus, for example

emraguso: josh meyer: walls are crumbling between legacy media and new media, and that’s a good thing

From Earthquakes to Coups: Tools for Crisis Reporting (#ONA10 #crisis)

Solana Larsen, Global Voices Online
Mark Frohardt, Internews
Robert Soden, Development Seed
Robert Baker, Konpa Group (Ushahidi Haiti)

“Citizen, niche and traditional media are using social media and other tools to collaborate on covering international conflicts and disasters. This has made reporting from global hot spots more effective than ever. Learn what these panelists from around the world find work best.”

dskok: Engage with first responders before the crisis hits. Explain how your information will help their response

lheron: New version of @Ushahidi will be integrated w/ Facebook, YouTube. Coming out in next 2 months

andrewjpolk: While Ushahidi Haiti took a team of 170 to produce info, developers are working on automating and expanding their services

lheron: Baker of @Ushahidi: Accountability & storytelling are major pushes. Dots on a map not good enough anymore

digitalamysw: Universities 4 Ushahidi launches in June 2011 DC bit.ly/cMsAuH

andrewjpolk: Ushahidi is releasing several new programs/platforms, such as SwiftRiver, Ushahidi 2.0 and others, look at apps.ushahidi.com

lheron: In Haiti, critical info “I’m trapped, need help” was getting routed to Coast Guard before going to Ushahidi map

internews: Frohardt: in Kenya, we’re piloting @ushahidi platform in a non-crisis situation= local media building skills & sources

lheron: Mark Frohardt of @internews: Haiti earthquake had unprecedented use of new tech. But crisis not best moment to intro meg_e_martin: Frohardt: “Double info jeopardy” exists in #crisis situ: Dramatic incr. in need for info paired w/dramatic decrease in supply of info

publicinsight: @GlobalVoices asks journos to diversify sources abroad…so it’s not just aid workers and journalists painting the #crisis picture.

meg_e_martin: @solanasaurus: Journos’ challenge in a #crisis: Find a way to engage with ppl in the forums where they already exist and communicate

internews: Larsen: local blogs can provide a diversity of opinion on the ground for MSM

digitalamysw: Solana Larsen at Global Voices Online — helps reporters connect and collaborate during crisis coverage

Placecaster: Wow. @openstreetmap blows @GoogleMaps out of the water in places like Kinshasa and Mogadishu. Important for #crisis news and relief

digitalamysw: Soden: power of openstreetmap is its functionality that goes beyond the features of Google maps

12:45 p.m.

Keynote: A Conversation with Vivian Schiller of NPR and Tim Armstrong of AOL (#ONA10 #key)

Moderator: Kara Swisher, All Things Digital

richgor: Armstrong: If you think Patch is evil, ask yourself whether the sites in your community really meet your local info needs

kimfox: Armstrong to editors: ‘Cover straight up the middle, dnt go too far left or right. The country has enough of that at the moment’

emraguso: Armstrong: It’s highly likely where we will do more partnerships with local blogs (?) and #Patch

kimfox: LOL: Armstrong: ‘Press on press, you guys write more about each other then anything I’ve ever seen’

kimfox: Armstrong: ‘Our business plan is we’re going to go with whatever works’

tgdavidson: Armstrong: unifying strategy at aol: did we give consumer a magical experience? Did we curate it well?

emraguso: Armstrong: We’re laser focused on the consumer experience at Patch. Haven’t heard anything abt a pay wall

tgdavidson: Armstrong: Avg Patch hires has 6 yrs experience, 75 pct paid as much or more than they used to make.

rickhirsch: Q to Armstrong: Is Patch evil. Armstrong: Complete 3-leg stool of what is evil.

sgoldenberg: #ona10 #key AOLs Tim Armstrong: “Brands are powerful” from niche markets to tv devices

tgdavidson: Irony alert: Schiller talking abt soc media as a powerful tool, and NPR ombud trashing comments 2 hrs ago in same room

tgdavidson: Schiller: WRONGLY hyped — soc media. It’s NOT just a distribution tool, it’s a NEWSGATHERING tool.

emraguso: Armstrong: Consumers use 20 brands a month, flip flop out of 1-2 monthly.

richgor: Armstrong: To sell ads, you must have data to tell advertisers who your audience is

tgdavidson: Armstrong: you need to ask: how good is my product? Would *I* pay for it? How can I improve it? Need to constantly ask that.

emraguso: Armstrong: On direct monetization…. people will pay for info that’s valuable for them

rickhirsch: NPR’s Schiller: Success comes where you are niche (local) and mass at the same time.

emraguso: Armstrong: If you have a web page with 17 ads on it, not gonna work. One ad to one consumer, results are net positive

boyreporter: NPR, AOL can succeed b/c it’s both mass and niche at the same time. — Vivian Schiller

tgdavidson: Armstrong: whether it’s AOL or someone else, still huge biz opptys in content.

yaelgolan: AOL’s Tim Armstrong: “users want curated experiences”

tgdavidson: Armstrong: Patch got started not bec. of grand corp. strat, but because he cldn’t find great trusted local information.

rickhirsch: NPR’s Schiller: we have member stations in every town. Most disruption is in local media. need to partner to their future

rickhirsch: NPR’s Vivian Schiller: not moving away from radio, but IP radio is where growth is. Our job is not to pick the future.

EvanstonHost: RT @richgor: Armstrong: For longterm viability of a free press, good brands will stand out. E.g., AOL’s TechCrunch acquisition

2:15 p.m.

Go Niche (#ONA10 #Niche)

Andrew Geiger, SB Nation
Jonathan Kealing, LJWorld.com/Lawrence Journal-World, 6News
Matt Thompson, Project Argo, NPR

“Crackberry. Deadspin. The latest wave of media websites have one thing in common: they cover one topic, but do it hardcore. Hear innovators from niche sites across the country discuss what’s working, what’s not — and bring your own experiences to the discussion.”

akrewson: Thompson explaining “local focus, national resonance.” Local focus can illustrate abstract concepts like climate change.

akrewson: Q: Are you going beyond advertising for revenue? Kealing: event marketing, some paid groups within WellCommons.

eyeseast: Interesting that even LJ World (birthplace of Django) struggles to balance print and web. They go web first, then paper

christopherwink: “Niche sites do best when they are part of something,” says @jwkealing

eyeseast: @lavallee likes to talk about “solved problems.” That’s why the sites are mainly Wordpress, with Django as the glue.

eyeseast: The Argo model: Find the conversation, filter it, extend it.

mayerjoy: @mthomps says biggest flip when going #niche is to find the conversation first: go where people are

akrewson: “Local focus, national resonance.” That’s focus of Project Argo, Thompson says. Platforms are Wordpress/Django.

akrewson: Sites mentioned so far in #niche: wellcommons.com (uses Ellington), casualhoya.com (has integrated analytics)

Social Media Storytelling (#ONA10 #socialj)

Zach Seward, Wall Street Journal (formerly of the Nieman Journalism Lab)
Anna Robertson, Yahoo! News
Mathilde Piard, Cox Media Group

“These days the hip new job is social media editor. Learn how those in the hot seat use social media to break news, expand the brand, AND tunnel through pay walls. Insiders reveal how to balance competing strategic goals — successfully.”

andrewjpolk: Lot of localized media being discussed here today. Patch, EveryBlock, and now @WSJ w/ FourSquare to bring news where you are

megangarber: A bit of background on @WSJ’s Times Square breaking-news check-in, with smart thoughts from @zseward #ona10 #socialj bit.ly/bo6l0s

boyreporter: Adding tips to Foursquare allowed WSJ to give info at best time. i.e. knowing what to order when you check into a resto.

bydanielvictor: Here it is: The Benton Curve of Journalistic Interestingness: bit.ly/bSTir9

sarahmorayati: #socialj slide shows the “Benton Curve of Journalistic Interestingness.” Conventional reporting at bottom of parabola. Ouch.

tscurrie: Cox Media’s @MathildePiard: They’re using data from users’ social media streams to customize news content.

burtherman: Most people communicating with @wsj on Twitter point out typos and corrections, says @zseward

sarahmorayati: #socialj @zseward from Wall Street Journal: something as small as replying to tweets can make people appreciative

sarahmorayati: #socialj @MathildePiard: news organizations should both fish content out of the social-media stream and cast content into it

kimfox: @MathildePiard ‘We are focusing on where the media is going to be versus focusing on yesterday’s problems.’

boyreporter: Cox has created a “software innovation lab” based on Google’s 20% time. — @mathildepiard

andrewjpolk: “Customers now follow trusted information streams, not specific publications” Big question: what does it take to be trusted?

DigiChick: ‘If the news is that important, it will find me’ | ‘Consumers now follow trusted info streams, not specific publications

jrstahl: Create once, publish everywhere — does that limit tailoring for each platform/exploiting strengths of each platform?

emraguso: says @yahoonews future of news is creating hyper-personal social interactive news loop

kimfox: Roberston: In 6 wks over 7 MM votes and over 12 MM minutes spent on Ask America

kimfox: Robertson: Things are headed in the direction where the news story needs to be plugged into the social loop

mckennaewen: New multimedia journo name via @AnnaRobertson: Producer + Editor = Predator. Love it

burtherman: Yahoo News uses social media for distribution, voice and community, engagement and relevancy

kimfox: 230% increase in referrals since Yahoo invested in their facebook efforts

emraguso: Robertson: You can’t choose to be ignorant of social media anymore. Find users on Twitter and Facebook, don’t wait for them

3:30 p.m.

Coders Are from Mars, Designers Are from Venus (#ONA10 #marsvenus)

Tyson Evans, The New York Times
David Wright, NPR

“More than any other medium, the Web fuses together creative and technical processes. Learn strategies to inspire your right brain while exercising your left brain.”

meg_e_martin: And: When forming that common lang., learn a bit about the lang. of the other group (e.g. if a coder, learn about kerning)

meg_e_martin: More re: that relationships theme here @ #ona10: Find a proj w/ low stakes; build a common language b/w #coders & #designers.

chandlereclay: Designers attest that content is still most important. Without it you just have pretty designs

greglinch: “Code is really currency” — @davewrightjr. If you’re a design & know code, it can inform your decision and vice versa

yurivictor: Designer+coder+journalist: A good threesome. Quote of the day.

greglinch: “Create the thing itself, not the thing that represents it,” says @davewrightjr, citing principles of @37Signals & others

yurivictor: Stop talking about it (wireframes, documentation) and build it

alisonjk: designers vs. coders. appreciate each other’s OCD; know enough to criticize the other platform.

KDMCinfo: Sit together. Face time is important. Don’t be afraid to say I broke this. How do I fix it?

greglinch: “Remember that everyone is a journalist,” says @tysone. “Be willing to step back a couple of degrees.”

A_L: Literate programming! “A well-written piece of source code should read like an essay.” — Jeremy Ashkenas

greglinch: @davewrightjr: Communication vs. dismissiveness. Convert your shop into one of love and not “us vs. them”

yurivictor: When designers fail: It sucks. When programmers fail: It doesn’t work

jkandel: If the code fails, everyone’s going to know “500 Internal Server Error”

greglinch: @tysone: Coders live in a culture of FAIL. Most prog is failing, then succeeding. Then geting assigned another prob

denisereagan: Great slides & great ideas at @tysone & @davewrightjr’s #marsvenus session. Perfect metaphor for marriage of style & substance

eyeseast: What designers need to know. First, Version Control. Git, svn, Hg, whatever. Learn it. Use it. Love it.

greglinch: @davewrightjr: Since early PCs, designers have moved from aiming for a perfect design(?) to a perfect system.

jkandel: Differences between design and decoration — Punch it up a little — Can you make it pop!

yurivictor: Coders to designers: Use version control (Think photoshop history)

kev097: #marsvenus already the best session of #ONA10 so far, and that’s not just the beers they handed out talking.

alisonjk: Indeed. “Web design is 95% typography.” -@davewrightjr

boyreporter: “Great journalism is its own justification. But great j is no substitute for excellent user experience”

greglinch: From slide — Design: What you see. Code: That it works. Intersection: How it works.

What’s Next for Traffic and Search (#ONA10 #traffic)

Dana Chinn, University of Southern California
Liana Evans, LiBeck Integrated Marketing

“New paid-content strategies and traffic-based compensation for writers have put a renewed focus on understanding audience patterns. This session will go beyond counting page views and keywords to discuss how engagement can be more directly measured across the Web, mobile devices and social media platforms and also review best practices to increase traffic.”

Jeffhidek: “There’s a difference bewteen a report and analysis.” — Dana Chinn in the #traffic panel at #ONA10

stacyannj: Embed links out in content. Provides more value to your story & the person you’re linking to. — Li Evans

kimfox: If you write an article and #traffic does well, you should write a follow up article. RESPOND to audience

kimfox: Li: News orgs ask me shld I link to other places? YES. Shows that you don’t think you are the end all and be all

emraguso: Embed videos and transcribe a bit about what’s going on, so search engines will pick it up

momiperalta: your profiles in social sites should talk about what you do (journos) , so as to be found

Kimfox: ‘It’s about being found’ (Li) True, no mater how great your content is — if it’s not found, it’s nt read

dskok: SEO: Write for your audience, do keyword research, optimize titles and content, tag and categorize, optimize digital assets.

emraguso: Don’t get hooked on Digg traffic. Digg is bad for your bounce rate. And they’re mean to marketers

marykay7: Li Evans saying that succeeding in search engines is about giving value to your audience -Content your audience wants

jeremycaplan: Live #ONA10 Notes: 7 Key Metrics News Sites Should Focus on by @DanaChinn #traffic bit.ly/ona10metrics

emraguso: slideshare.net/danachinn — find the whole presentation on analytics and traffic

kimfox: ‘Don’t just settle for PVs, look at all the places your content is. Understand right metrics are which will gv you full pic

jsabbah: Klout, measures influence on Twitter. Topsy tracks tweets, RTs, traffic about specific page/topic.

kimfox: It’s not what you like abt the design — it’s whether the audience can FIND content

emraguso: Do your old-fashioned surveys and ask folks who aren’t coming to your site WHY? It’s expensive but it’s important

emraguso: You need to know WHY people are engaging, did they find what they needed or did they leave? Usability surveys are impt

sarahmorayati: another useful one: search terms used in *internal* search engines. specifically, which ones got few or no results

Jeffhidek: Dana Chinn is excited about metrics the way that dog in the Beggin’ Strips commercial is excited about bacon. Love it.

emraguso: For hyperlocal, you need to be able to show advertisers KIND of news are users are looking at, what neighborhood

meg_e_martin: Pay attention to the search terms people use, and note what stories/pages should be coming up when they use them. Act on it

emraguso: if you can explain people WHY you’re asking them for personal info, they’re going to be more likely to share

emraguso: If you’re only gonna use one metric, it’s gotta be the visit. Percentage of new visits shld be higher than returning

emraguso: it’s not like 100k people came to your site. it’s abt what percent of your target audience did you reach?

christopherwink: Very important in local sales: @danachinn at #ona10 #traffic says give advertisers only the data they need and nothing more (traffic trends)

tmcenroe: @danachinn says Paywalls have an upside — you can capture massive data from reg forms — non-pay sites can do this, too.

patbrannan2131: Visits is Key Performance Indicator No. 1

jsabbah: Number 1 way to indicate people are going to your site is page visits (if you’re only going to use 1 metric, use visits)

sacmcdonald: From Dana Chinn at #traffic: Do you have the type of content your audience would be willing to pay any amount of money for?

emraguso: to determine engagement, look at multiple computers, mobile devices, social media — at least 7 ways people get to your site

emraguso: we need to go way beyond page views, measure all the ways users can engage w/you. now we have to ask where is the audience?

sarahmorayati: it’s not enough to pay attention to one form of metrics — there are so many ways for people to find your work

Getting lapped by innovation abroad? Mario Garcia’s path to better designed newspapers

In seeking out inspiration for its print redesign, Canada’s Globe and Mail didn’t look south of the border, as one might expect. Instead, the national daily focused its gaze overseas, pilfering design tips from newspapers in southern Europe, Latin America and Asia. Editor-in-chief John Stackhouse went so far as to call the U.S. market “fairly depressed in terms of newspaper innovation.” It doesn’t get more blunt than that.

Not to flog a dead horse, but newspaper design guru Mario Garcia reported a similar sentiment back in 2008, this time from an anonymous Indian editor expecting to ooh and ah while touring American newsrooms. The editor was less than impressed.

“I am disappointed, to be honest,” he told Garcia. “I went to the U.S. to learn, to get ideas on how to improve our newspapers here, but in every case, I was faced with newspapers that are hardly innovative. Why are American newspapers less willing to experiment, to take that leap into the future, to analyze their products and to adapt them to the realities of a multi-platform world?”

To be fair, that was two years ago and major dailies are, slowly but surely, becoming multi-platform vehicles. Still, the disappointment expressed by Stackhouse and the Indian editor speaks to what Garcia calls the general dearth of innovation in American newspaper design. For whatever reason — financial difficulties, tradition, sacred cows — American design innovation has stagnated. (For the record, design consultant Ron Reason is more optimistic than Garcia on the point.)

“When you look at newspaper design overseas — like Spain and Latin America — they’re much more adventurous, much more interesting, much more magazine-like,” Newsonomics author (and Lab contributor) Ken Doctor says. “It’s all about presentation; there’s a visual surprise.”

The surprise, however, has more to do with information architecture — how papers structure headlines and sections — rather than color and typography. “Pure design is just cosmetic,” Garcia told me last week. “It’s not going to solve the problem.”

Garcia, a sort of newspaper-design Carmen Sandiego, has consulted newsrooms in over 96 countries, including Hong Kong, where he’s currently working with the South China Morning Post, and Colombia, where he recently helped re-launch the Bogotá-based El Tiempo, which he chronicles, step-by-step, on his blog in refreshing and lengthy detail.

Garcia readily admits the continued (and often growing) interest in print overseas has given foreign newspapers some of its room to innovate. American editors are “plagued by a sense of malaise, that print is going to die,” Garcia says. Foreign newspapers, on the other hand, take a more carefree approach: As circulation increases, why not take some risks? The outcome might be a fresher, more navigable newspaper. “American newspapers think of death and dying; foreign newspapers think of birth and renewal,” Garcia says.

Over the course of our interview, Garcia laid out some design innovations popping up in the foreign market, citing the United Arab Emirates’ Gulf News, which devotes an entire, editor-run page to online citizen journalism, and New Delhi’s Hindustan Times, which reaches its millions of readers by publishing nearly 20 regional editions. It’s as if The New York Times ran an edition for each of New York’s five boroughs.

Foreign newsrooms, he argues, are well attuned to the newspaper’s role in the online/mobile/print/tablet nexus. Papers are usually considered supplementary, rather than top-dog, all-that-matters news sources. Here are three ways Garcia sees international newspapers innovating design:

Information architecture comes before design

In its redesign, El Tiempo eschews traditional sections in favor of a more guided approach. The paper splits into three sections: Debes Saber (What you must know); Debes Leer (What you must read); Debes Hacer (What you must do).

Debes Saber covers local, national, world, sports, and business news. Garcia describes it as the “kitchen,” where you hastily gather news over your morning coffee. Debes Leer, the “living room,” provides opinion and analysis; it’s the newspaper’s salon, a more leisurely, end-of-the-day read. Debes Hacer, the “outdoors,” covers health, fitness, food, and fashion.

Garcia writes in his blog that he was “thinking like a reader” when he sat down to help overhaul El Tiempo. Indeed, El Tiempo’s compartmentalization gets to a news consumer’s most basic needs. “It’s about how you get the content flowing better for people who have less time,” Garcia says.

Respect the cult of personality

“People desire to hear the opinions of others, even if it’s nonsense,” Garcia says. Analysis should be on the front page, not reserved for back-page editorial sections. English-language weekly The Moscow News, which will be relaunched as a daily — under Garcia’s guidance — in early 2011, will publish celebrity journalist commentary on A1. Garcia concedes American papers might find this unseemly — where’s the objectivity? where’s the integrity? — but a newspaper, he says, should be the most obvious place to find must-read writers.

Sound like tomorrow, not yesterday

“To find your place, you need to relinquish your time advantage,” Garcia says. Online provides the five w’s as they happen; print needs to find, and accept, its place as an ancillary source of information.

Foreign newspapers are less afraid to publish “headlines in the future tense, running second-day headlines on the first day,” Garcia says, pointing to Spain’s El Pais, which routinely pushes stories forward by focusing on what comes next, not what happened yesterday. More recently, The Independent’s Metro-style i, the UK’s first new national daily in quite some time, scatters snappy news briefs around ideas-driven articles, refusing to dwell on yesterday’s news .

American newsrooms may be handcuffed by traditions and finances. Garcia thinks they see him as an “interior decorator,” which may explain why he hasn’t consulted stateside in three years. But American editors, like Stackhouse, may be wise to pay attention to design changes in the foreign market: Before long, they may be the ones globetrotting to international newsrooms.

Jim Hopkins’ Gannett Blog: a useful watchblog finds its niche; should others emulate its “water cooler”?

Last year in this space, I took a swipe at Gannett Blog, a “watchblog” published by ex-Gannett journalist Jim Hopkins of San Francisco in which he had been keeping an eye on the country’s largest newspaper company. At the time, Hopkins had announced the impending shutdown of the blog, so that he could regain his health, and was engaging in a self-indulgent countdown to oblivion. “Jumped the shark” was my judgment. I’ll stand by it, and I think Hopkins might agree.

But today, Gannett Blog is back in action, without the nonsense. Hopkins is running a tight ship, publishing a lively blog that’s serving a useful niche both for Gannett employees and Gannett watchers. It’s a niche filled for few other U.S. newspaper publishers, and certainly none do it as well as Hopkins.

Hopkins spent 20 years with Gannett, beginning with now-defunct Arkansas Gazette, and ending as business reporter for USA Today, from which he took a buyout in 2008. He had started Gannett Blog anonymously in mid-2006, and only added his name to it after leaving the company. A few months before that, he was writing “for maybe eight readers — on a good day.” But then he posted a breaking news piece on a major investment in Gannett by Brandes Investment Partners; Poynter’s Jim Romenesko linked to that post; and Gannett Blog’s traffic soared.

Hopkins’ July 2009 retirement from blogging was short-lived. After catching his breath, he engaged in an unsuccessful job search, during which, he says, “I kept being reminded of how much I missed traditional journalism.” At some point, he took a look at his blog’s Google Analytics, and was surprised to find that it was still drawing thousands of page views every month, even though nothing new was being posted. He posted a question: “Why did you come to this blog today?” Gannettoid, which Hopkins had endorsed as Gannett Blog’s replacement, mentioned the query; others posted it on Facebook and Twitter. Ultimately it drew 53 responses such as: “Because I never deleted Gannett Blog from my RSS reader, hoping that maybe, some magical day (like today), it would come back to life! Good to hear from you, Jim.”

And so, on Dec. 9, Hopkins resumed publication. Mindful of his yearning for a return to traditional journalism, this time he stuck to straight news, without the contentious tone of its earlier period. By setting a different tone on the news side, he felt that he could “dial down the volume of the anger” in the comments, and he has largely succeeded in this goal.

He has more actively monitored the comments, entering the threads himself to keep it focused, correct misinformation and prevent flame wars. “When people try to pick a fight, I don’t engage them. it’s tempting sometimes, but I think once, twice, and three times.” His personal life stays out of the blog these days. (You can find him on Facebook for that angle.)

Gannett, with its 80 dailies and 23 TV stations, “is like a small city,” Hopkins says, “and I’m a beat reporter. I can find things going on on a daily basis.” It’s a lively, engaging mix: In one recent stretch, there are posts on growth in Sunday home delivery being reported by Gannett (along with a report that the Detroit Free Press lost 9 percent in circulation), tips for employees on accessing a new health benefits site, a few public radio-type pitches for reader contributions, and a reproduction of a USA Today front page filled with content that would most appeal to a younger audience, topped by the question “Is this a front page for older readers?” — shortly after publisher David Hunke said the paper’s printed edition would be aimed for an older demographic.

An innovation on Gannett Blog, inspired by the fact that comments were getting more pageviews than anything else on the blog, is the open-ended “realtime comments” post that’s always at the top of the page. It simply says, “Can’t find the right spot for your comment? Post it here, in this open forum.” Hopkins refreshes that post once a week; it often garners more than 100 comments — far more than his typical posts do.

Hopkins calls this the “water cooler” — a place to “come and see what other people are thinking about.” Sometimes he kicks it off with a question (“How’s your week looking so far?”), sometimes not. Virtually all the comments are anonymous posts — most of them clearly from Gannett employees — that provide a window to at least a part of the company’s zeitgeist, and sometimes give Hopkins good leads. Despite the anonymity, and probably because of the collegiality, the tone is constructive and there are often useful discussions.

I can’t think of other blogs that have created this kind of open-ended forum within the blog, at least not within a simple Blogspot format. Is a “water cooler” spot something that other bloggers should try out?

Blogging not a lucrative proposition for Hopkins — between Google ads (the display format brings in much more than the AdWords did, he says) and reader contributions, he aims to make $4,000 per quarter, but in actuality he “might make” $10,000 this year. So Hopkins is to be commended for carrying on a useful labor of love.

But as I asked last year, where are the rest of the watchblogs (or watchdog blogs)? When he relaunched Gannett Blog, Hopkins also started up similar blogs focused on News Corp. and the New York Times Company. They’re still online, but Hopkins gave up on them when they failed to gain traction. (Both have “water cooler” threads, but nobody stops by, apparently.) Hopkins thinks the explanation lies in the fact that such a large fraction of the New York Times Company employees are based in New York and can trade information in the workplace, while News Corp. is such a diversified operation that its various film, television, publishing and other media enterprises have little in common.

Here’s a rundown on some other newspaper company watchblogs, current and former:

Toasted Posties: Perhaps the original watchblog, launched in 1995 (before the word “weblog” was invented) by the employees left out in the cold when MediaNews Group shut down the Houston Post. The original Toasted Posties was, simultaneously, a sort of Facebook for the Posties to keep in touch with each other and coordinate reunions, and a gatherer of news and gossip about MediaNews and particularly about its CEO Dean Singleton (to whom I had the pleasure of demonstrating the site in 1996). The site (which has not preserved its archival content, except for a nice photo collection worth visiting) now refers readers to a Toasted Posties blog, launched in 2005, which fizzled out in 2007.

The NYTPicker — Operated since 2008 by “a team of journalists who prefer to work in anonymity, the NYTPicker reports on the internal workings of the nation’s top newspaper, and comments on its content.” The “nyts” it picks are mostly concerned with with content — its first post, for example, quibbled with the use of “disgraced” in reference to Elliott Spitzer — and there’s actually not much about the “internal workings” of the paper and rarely anything about the company that owns it.

Hartford Courant Alumni Association and Refugee Camp — Run by 22-year Courant veteran Paul Stern, more as a networking site for Courant alums then as a source of news about the paper.

Gannettoid — Still posting an occasional Gannett news item, but nothing like the reborn Gannett Blog.

MediaNews Monitor — maintained by the Newspaper Guild for its members in several MediaNews clusters; has a mix of industry news, Guild news, and MediaNews updates, but no comments or discussions.

Lee Watch — an anonymously operated, reasonably active blog focused on Lee Enterprises.

McClatchy Watch — formerly CancelTheBee and still using that URL, but defunct as of December 2009.

TheLedgerisBurning — defunct since 2008; focused on Advance’s Star Ledger.

Tribune Watch — another Guild site, focused on the Tribune Company. It contains a link to Tribune Employees Talk, which has been defunct since December 2008. Also inactive in the Tribune space is Maria Padilla’s Sentinel Watch, which reported on Orlando Sentinel doings until May 2009. Ditto, The Amazing Shrinking Orlando Sentinel, and Tell Zell (What You Really Think).

Know of any others?

Center for Public Integrity’s HTML5 product aims to make long-form journalism readable on any device

Is it possible to enjoy long-form investigative journalism in a digital age without a fancy tablet? A 5,000-word piece can be tough to get through on an ad-supported website. And while the experience on iPad apps is promising, an app is a costly investment — or investments, in a world with multiple incompatible platforms — for a news organization to make.

The nonprofit news organization Center for Public Integrity is announcing an alternative today at the annual Online News Association conference. The Center wants to make reading its work more enjoyable for the user, and a smarter investment for an organization rethinking its online and mobile strategies. The Center has a new HTML5 product that gives users an app-like experience in a web browser. The project is part of a new digital initiative at the Center, funded by $1.5 million in grants from the Knight Foundation.

“We think we’ve created a better way to consume investigative reporting,” John Solomon, the chief digital officer told me, and at a much lower cost than developing apps for different devices.

Solomon gave me a demo yesterday, and I have to say, I was impressed. You can flip through stories from right to left the way you can on an iPad or an iPhone. Text and images resize easily for whatever screen you’re on, whether phone or desktop. It loads fast and smooth and has a clean, easy-on-the-eyes design. The impulse is to keep flipping through, from page to page or story to story.

The product was created with Treesaver, a platform specifically designed to make digital reading easier. It’s a project of, among others, the noted graphic designer Roger Black, whose famous three-color dictum — “the first color is white; the second is black; the third is red: the three together are the best” — is in evidence at Treesaver’s website (and the Lab’s). Treesaver is also working with Nomad, a startup that plans to put out paid electronic magazines.

I spoke with Filipe Fortes, the developer of Treesaver, about what his product means for long-form journalism. “The idea is to be reader friendly,” he said. As an example, he pulled up a website of a large regional newspaper and had me click on a story. (No need to name names — the experience would have been similar across most newspaper sites.) “It’s really kind of hostile to the reader, I feel,” he said, pointing out all the ads and social media boxes that distract from the text of the story. “I think that’s why people are loving the apps,” he said. “It’s just a chance to finally read again. There’s a lot of cool things happening on apps, but people on desktops are missing out.”

Those distractions Treesaver is trying to spare us from are also what monetize the content — but Fortes says he’s not against advertising, just how we display it with the content now. By lowering the bar to the content (as he puts it), by letting users easily flip along, fewer, cleaner ads can be monetized more effectively. He showed me a mockup of a Nomad magazine that runs full page ads between pages, similar to an iPad app. “If you can get people coming in from a blog or Google and you get them to read three stories [by flipping along],” he said, “Congratulations, you just tripled your revenue on that user.”

Fortes is presenting Treesaver at the ONA conference this afternoon. He says he’s eager to work with more news organizations, and is in talks with several.