• Live-blogging the IRE 2012 Conference in Boston: Resources that will help you be a better investigative journalist

    IRE 2012 Conference in BostonThe classic stereotype about journalists is that we’re all backstabbing vultures who would sell our mothers for a good story.

    Nothing could be further from the truth. First of all, we only sell our mothers for really, really good stories. But more importantly, we’re actually an amazingly friendly, collaborative bunch.

    I’m in Boston where more than 1,000 people are trading tips, offering advice and learning from the best journalists around at this year’s Investigative Reporters and Editors conference.

    This is the place to be if you’ve ever wondered, say, how Washington Post reporters figured out the complexities of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. You get to listen to the actual reporters who worked on the story. They’re essentially saying, “Here’s how we did it, and here are some tips we learned to help you work on the same kind of story.” It’s a goldmine for anyone who cares about journalism and wants to do it better.

  • Print ain’t dead: How an itty bitty news brief sparked dozens of phone calls from readers

    The historic Wesley Peacock House near Woodlawn Lake in San Antonio, Texas
    The historic Wesley Peacock House near Woodlawn Lake

    With all the talk about print being dead, you’d think no one actually picks up newspapers anymore to read the archaic things.

    Tell that to Elaine Austin Palmer.

    Palmer curates the Wesley Peacock House, a historic home built in 1890 near Woodlawn Lake that served as the headquarters of a military academy.

    I wrote a brief about the house for the Express-News’ weekly Cityscapes feature. It ran with a photo of the house on the bottom corner of page 2B of the Metro Section — about as hard to find as you can get.

    Yet after the little feature was published, the calls started pouring in at the Peacock House.

    Palmer emailed me a few days ago and wrote:

    For our corner of the paper in the Metro Section, the Peacock House has received over 50 calls, and some still coming in — with the comments ‘How nice to know it’s still in use, I attended the academy, or I remember coming to the House way back when for a tea, etc.!

    It’s good to remember the decline of print is primarily an advertising problem, not a readership problem. People still read the newspaper — even itty bitty news briefs.

  • A sliver of hope for the New Orleans Times-Picayune? Only if spin is true

    As corporate honchos try to paint a rosy picture about the New Orleans Times-Picayune downsizing and no longer publishing a daily print edition, I hope this nugget from the newspaper’s editor, Jim Amoss, is more than corporate spin:

    Plans call for the Wednesday, Friday and Sunday editions of The Times-Picayune to be in many ways more robust than each of the daily newspapers is currently. They will contain a richer and deeper news, sports and entertainment report, as well as a full week’s worth of features such as society coverage, puzzles and comics.

    Times-Picayune Newspaper, photo by CanadaGood on FlickrOne of the problems facing newspapers is that publishing every day is a blessing and a curse. If it’s a slow news day, you still have to go to press. The result: Some days, newspapers really shine. Other days, not so much. Readers have to decide whether that kind of inconsistency is worth the trouble — and money.

    So in an ideal world, shedding the demands of the daily news beast could result in print editions that consistently offer substance and depth, while the website would handle breaking news, blogging and everything else a newspaper should be doing online.

    I hope that happens. Talented journalists work at the Times-Picayune — it won a Pulitzer Prize for its important coverage of Hurricane Katrina. But the odds don’t look good.

    Micheline Maynard looked at what happened to the Ann Arbor, Mich paper that tried the same thing as the Times-Picayune and wasn’t impressed. John McQuaid examined the Times-Picayune’s suddenly very crucial website and found it wanting.

    I hope the corporate spin coming out of New Orleans becomes a reality. That city deserve no less.

    (Photo credit: CanadaGood on Flickr)

  • Long-form journalism project asks for money, raises $100,000 on Kickstarter

    This is pretty great.

    First, a new, in-depth journalism project called Matter set a fundraising goal of $50,000 on Kickstarter.

    They reached it in 38 hours.

    They set a new goal of $75,000.

    They reached it in four days.

    Long form journalism project asks for money  raises  100 000 on Kickstarter   John TedescoThey kept going. This time, the goal was $100,000.

    It took them nine days.

    Can we stop talking about how people don’t want long stories online? Some people obviously do.

    Let’s start talking about the best way to give them those stories.

  • Buy an online subscription, avoid being plagued by online ads

    advertisementLittle Green Footballs is making an interesting offer to its online community: Pay $10 a month as a subscriber, and you’ll get to visit a cleaner, faster, ad-free version of the blog:

    This isn’t just a cosmetic improvement; to display those ads from Google Adsense and Amazon, we have to make several calls to external web servers, which take quite a bit of time. And if those servers are slow or offline, it can cause the entire LGF page to load more slowly or even time out on rare occasions.

    When you view our site with advertisements turned off, every page loads more quickly; it’s a very noticeable speed boost. (And as the designer of this mess, I have to say it looks a lot nicer too without the visual clutter.)

    So, for the very low price of about 33 cents a day (less than the cheapest cup of Starbucks coffee), you can read LGF without the ads, at super-charged speed.

    Maybe newspaper websites, which are often bogged down with ads, could benefit from this kind of revenue model. If outright paywalls don’t work, give loyal readers a chance to pay for a premium service. Would you pay good money for the luxury of an ad-free newspaper website?

    I think I just might.

    (Photo credit: Pink Ponk)

  • The declining state of investigative journalism

    American Journalism Review delved into the declining state of investigative journalism last week with articles and videos that quantified what’s been lost — and what might be gained:


  • Investigative shortfall: “Kicked out, bought out or barely hanging on, investigative reporters are a vanishing species in the forests of dead tree media and missing in action on Action News. I-Teams are shrinking or, more often, disappearing altogether.”
  • The nonprofit explosion: Investigative nonprofit news organizations are sprouting up across the country. But there are pitfalls: “Whether carried out by a CEO or a development pro, fundraising is a consuming and never-ending quest at journalism nonprofits, as much a part of their business as advertising sales are to a publisher in the traditional media world. With the task come issues that are foreign to newsgatherers. Precisely what money to take under what conditions requires often thorny ethical decisions. Just because money comes from civic-minded foundations or deep-pocketed do-gooders does not mean it is free of strings or baggage.”
  • Living the Dream: A profile of the nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism: “These are not suits who ran newsrooms. Most of these people starting these are rank-and-file reporters. It’s like reporters and editors taking over the profession.”
  • Could a blog win a Pulitzer?

    After online publications won Pulitzer Prizes this year, Dennis Yang at Techdirt asks if a blog could ever win:

    Nothing about a physical newspaper inherently makes it better suited for doing great reporting. Print and online are just mediums, and as consumption patterns shift towards online, we should see more of this in the future.

    As Yang notes, it’s unclear whether blogs that aren’t affiliated with a newspaper would be eligible to win the prize under the current Pulitzer rules. But putting that issue aside, Yang is right — there’s nothing stopping a blog from producing top-notch journalism. All it has to do is generate enough money to produce top-notch journalism. And there’s the rub.

    It cost at least $100,000 for Sheri Fink’s prize-winning story about the life-and-death decisions at an isolated hospital in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Zachary M. Seward at Nieman Journalism Lab got the cost breakdown:

    Fink was paid $33,000 plus $10,000 in expenses for her Kaiser fellowship, according to Steve Engelberg, her editor at ProPublica, where she’s been for 14 months. Engelberg, who was kind enough to go through these figures with me, said, “Fourteen months of salary plus benefits for us easily gets you north of 100 plus, 100, 150 or something.” He threw in another $20,000 to $30,000 for travel expenses, in addition to three months of editing and lawyering at ProPublica and the Times, which also spent $25,000 to $30,000 on photographs, he said.

    Clay Shirky on Internet Issues Facing Newspapers   YouTubeThose sky-high expenses are simply out of reach for the majority of bloggers who care passionately about their niche, but who blog on a part-time basis, and often for little or no money. That doesn’t mean they can’t produce an interesting, valuable blog. But it does make it exceedingly difficult to devote the time and effort it takes to interview sources, unearth hard-to-find records, overcome legal hurdles, and tell compelling stories. That takes time — and money.

    Let’s say you care about local politics and you blog about your local city council. If you’re like most people, you’re blogging as a hobby and you have a full-time job. Right out of the gate, you’re at a disadvantage because you don’t have the luxury of attending the weekly city council meetings that usually last all day. Not to mention the countless subcommittees that meet every week. And you can’t capitalize on all the time spent hanging out at City Hall, where you meet sources, learn new things, get story ideas and tips, and start really understanding what makes City Hall tick.

    Newspapers have traditionally paid the most money in their communities for reporters to pay attention to what’s happening at City Hall. And the police department. And the local utility. And so on. That’s why the slow demise of newspapers worries people like Clay Shirky, who argues it could take a very, very long time until anyone figures out how to consistently produce the kind of expensive, accountability journalism that newspapers funded but are cutting back:

    Now this doesn’t mean that all newspapers go away. It does mean that a lot of them go away. … Which leaves us with a giant hole, and a very threatening one. And in the nightmare scenario that I’ve kind of been spinning at for the last couple years has been: Every town in this country of 500,000 or less just sinks into casual, endemic, civic corruption — that without somebody going down to the city council again today, just in case, that those places will simply revert to self-dealing. Not of epic, catastrophic sorts, but the sort that just takes five percent off the top. Newspapers have been our principal bulwark for that, and as they’re shrinking, that I think is where the threat is.

    This YouTube video features Shirky’s entire talk — it’s worth a listen.

    Shirky isn’t arguing that we need to save newspapers to preserve journalism — we just need to preserve journalism. And there’s the rub.

  • Readers aren’t getting the memo that no one reads newspapers

    Aaron Blanco, owner of Brown Coffee Co.
    Aaron Blanco, owner of Brown Coffee Co.

    With all the doom and gloom we keep hearing about newspapers, you’d think no one ever reads them. Tell that to Aaron Blanco.

    Six days ago, reporter Brian Chasnoff wrote a cool feature story about Blanco and his company, Brown Coffee Co., where Blanco roasts fresh coffee beans in small batches to unlock pungent, fruity flavors. I live in the neighborhood and have known Blanco for several years, and I volunteered to make an online video for the story. Photographer Lisa Krantz also stopped by the café to shoot some photos.

    The story, photos and video were published Sunday. And since then, Blanco said new customers keep walking in the door. Today, someone brought a copy of the article and asked for Blanco’s autograph.

    “It’s been great,” Blanco told me today when I bought a coffee — and later an espresso. “The article has drawn quite a bit of business my way.”

    With so many layoffs in the news business, many people assume that readers have abandoned newspapers in droves. While print circulation is certainly down, news stories still make the rounds in print and on the Web. We have a money problem, not a readership problem.

    Last year, I ran into another business owner who was profiled in the newspaper, and he had the same experience as Blanco. A talented intern at the San Antonio Express-News, Jaime Klein, wrote about an obscure barbershop downtown in the basement of the Sheraton Gunter Hotel. Here’s how the story started:

    The Gunter Hotel’s basement was once a men’s refuge. In the 1950s, a man could feast at Rathskeller’s buffet, get steamed in the Turkish bath and then talk shop while getting a shave, haircut and shoeshine at the hotel’s barbershop. Before venturing home, he could stop on the main level to buy jewelry for his wife.

    Most of the businesses closed in the 1960s, and the hotel’s housekeeping services now surround the barbershop — which turned 100 this year, the sole survivor of the “men’s center.”

    Lee Bosman, the shop’s owner, was lucky enough to see some of what he calls the “golden days.” At 27, after retiring from the Navy and a short stint with aviation company Swearingen, he graduated from barber college and started at the shop in 1975. He never left.

    I had never heard of the barbershop, so I stopped by for a shave and a shine. Bosman, the owner, was raving about the article. In fact, he had it framed. And, like Blanco, Bosman said new, curious customers visited the shop after the story was published.

    Bosman told me he had doubted, at first, that a young intern from the newspaper would “get” his business. But she did.

    “She did a really good job,” Bosman said.

    I don’t think newspapers are perfect. But clearly they’re still making a difference — even at small cafés and barbershops.

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