04/11/2012

Pre-TechRaking braindump

The concept of “measuring impact” in journalism is one that’s been on my mind a lot lately. I think about it daily in my role as a homepage producer at The Seattle Times,  it was the prompt from Greg Linch for this month’s Carnival of Journalism, and now as I prepare for tomorrow’s TechRaking conference: What’s a better metric for journalism? It’s the golden question.

I spend some of my time at The Seattle Times working as a homepage producer. This means that when I’m in the chair, it’s my job to find the best content on the site and from our partner sites (blog posts, wire stories, articles, photo galleries) to create the most interesting, diverse and useful mix on the homepage. Hundreds of pieces of content (and journalism) are being thrown my way, each vying for top real estate above the scroll.  But I only have roughly 10 spots to fill.  How I can I decide what goes where and for how long?

If I made my decisions based purely on metrics, the page would constantly be a combination of headlines about Amanda Knox and any/all sports. We don’t make editorial decisions based purely on metrics, because metrics don’t give  you the full picture. Yet, when it comes to monetizing journalism online, clicks and pageviews are the only metrics we use to make decisions. Our editorial values aren’t aligning with our business values — then we wonder why making money online is so difficult.

What we need to do is find a means of measurement that measures the impact of our journalism, empowers us to keep doing the journalism that creates said impact, and then monetize the journalism that has the most impact.

My handwritten brainstorm about quantifying impact for investigative journalism.

In the spirit of TechRaking, I’m going to focus here on investigative reporting: It’s the kind of reporting we do that has the most impact. It can lead us to public policy changes, resignation of top officials, the eventual saving of lives. The impact it has is far-reaching, but it’s not necessarily the kind of content that gets the most eyeballs. A reporter could spend years gathering data and records on a story like this, yet it’ll end up on the front page of Google News for a day or two, at absolute most, before it falls into the abyss of the web.

When I’m on the homepage or running The Seattle Times’ social channels, those investigations will get love while they’re fresh. Maybe a few days, or a week. Then we’ve moved on to the next thing. Is that OK? The purpose of this kind of journalism is to bring issues to light and create change, regardless of how many people see it, right?

A few questions worth exploring:

  • Why do we do the kinds of reporting that we think are meaningful?
  • Is the act of publishing enough?
  • What opportunities does the web provide beyond publishing and data display?
  • In reporting investigatively (i.e. the kind of reporting that has the most impact), we obviously have some kind of agenda, even if it’s a fact-based one. Do we take it too far if we become advocates?
  • Do we leave it to the public to be their own advocates?
  • Is it still considered “advocating” if we provide a platform for change?
  • What would that platform look like?

Now, to try to answer them one-by-one:

We do enterprise, investigative reporting to uncover the truth, bring about social change, reveal corruption, or make sense of mass amounts of data to reveal trends that otherwise would never be brought to light. This is the kind of reporting that could take years of someone’s life.

The act of publishing used to be the end of the story. With the web, commenting comes after publishing, and then comment threads close after 72 hours.  It shouldn’t start or end there (see Daniel Victor’s post about the reader contributions grid). Certain cases of investigative reporting require secrecy before publishing, but many types of reporting provide an opportunity to crowd source information and data. Post-publishing, we can continue engaging, which leads me to…

Do we take it too far if we have an agenda? We know that there’s an increase of methadone-related deaths in Washington state because we have the data. We know the increase in deaths is directly related to the state preferring the drug over other painkillers because of its cheap cost. We know the overdoses are accidental, not from addiction. We know deaths are more frequent in poor areas. We know this is bad and we know that publishing the facts can bring good, can bring change. We know there’s something we want to uncover. Is this an agenda? Some would say yes. Most would probably say that we let the public decide. Either way…

Can we provide our audience with a platform for seeing through the change we hoped to bring? A way to donate to a fund, or write a letter to a senator, or share the campaign on social media (think KONY 2012-esque movements, which newspapers haven’t been able to parallel). In the past, this would be something we leave for other, independent groups to take on — we’re completely unbiased, objective entities, after all. But think of the opportunities for creating an engaged community that you can steer. A community that keeps coming back to do good. A community that is well-informed and about to drive conversation around the issues you cover. A community that’s empowered.

What would that platform for empowerment look like?  Maybe something like Spot.us, where there is a specific call to action for each item, and a progress bar to show amount achieved until the change has been brought about. Maybe this aspect is led by an editorial board, making them relevant again.

And while we’re talking about UX/new functionality as a form of engagement… we should make investigations easier to digest. Walls of text are good, but with varying parts to different series, plus dumps of data and source documents and visualizations and interactives and social media and video, etc., it can sometimes be hard to just “jump into” an investigation after-the-fact. Imagine thinking beyond the 65-inch story that contains a few hyperlinks to other parts of the investigation.  A few ideas:

  • Include highlights, key findings and/or trends for investigations (idea stolen from State of the Media 2012
  • In fact, imagine if you could explore every investigation like you can explore State of the Media: as its own project, a standalone site. Not a news story shoved into a web format after-the-fact, but how you would tell a story if it were only web-based. If that was a 100-page PDF, I wouldn’t have read it all. But I delved into all elements of the State of the Media report because it was easy.
  • Each investigation is searchable — beyond the site-wide search
  • There’s an easy way of finding previous info and catching up if you missed the earlier part of a series or investigation. (If you took the standalone, project-based website approach, this is irrelevant. People just click the “home” button and can start their exploration there. No, putting it on a “project page” that links back to other various parts of the coverage is not the same thing).
  • Give people a way to “explore” beyond a list of links — let them filter down, see an overview where they can zoom in on various elements

If we want people to pay attention, show them how much time went into the journalism. It may seem like you’re tooting your own horn by doing this, but it’s a way of establishing your own credibility and the news organization’s. A few thoughts:

  • The hours spent reporting are made public and broken down to see which sources got more time than others.
  • All sources are publicly disclosed. Not just in the reporting itself with a paragraph or two about that person’s title, background, affiliation. Full profiles linked to each person’s name with previous employment, affiliations, published papers, etc.
  • All transcripts from on-the-record interviews are public, searchable
  • All raw data is public with an API for readers/general public to build their own apps/tools off if it, which the organization then republishes

And finally, just as we need to show how much time went into a series, we should also show what resulted. Newspapers sometimes write follow-up stories that reference some sort of legislation change that resulted from a particular piece of reporting, but there’s no way of integrating that back into the project as a whole as a way of showing the community our value. Imagine if, at a glance, the community could see all the change one newspaper has brought over hundreds of years, or the change that one online-only org has brought in a few years? Just one more way of getting communities to trust us.

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Of course, I opened this entire post talking about how measure impact, and the items above really only address how to more accurately and effectively show impact to the people who matter most – the people who read what we publish, the people who benefit (or don’t) from that impact, the people who can become more engaged to heighten that impact.

After we accomplish that, maybe measurement will be easier to come by. And maybe then people will be more interested in paying for that kind of journalism, because its valuable, reliable, easily-digestible, and very clear to see its value. Maybe.

***

I know I need to do mockups of all this to bring my ideas to life, and I promise to do it soon. Maybe on the plane ride back to Seattle. But, now, sleep. See you in the morning #techraking. As always, thoughts welcomed.

 

//end braindump

//p.s. though I’ve referenced Seattle Times investigations in this post, these are my own, personal ramblings and don’t represent the motivations behind The Seattle Times, editors, reporters, or in fact any relation to the actual reporting we’ve done. I’ve just drawn from those examples because I am familiar with them.