Responsible Reporting Section 3 ‘What You Must Do’: Chapter VII

Nearly a month has passed still the last installment of my ebook Responsible Reporting: Field Guide for Bloggers, Journalists, and Other Online News Gatherers. I have been overwhelmingly busy with other projects, which is no excuse. My apologies, please. Over the next couple of Sundays, I will serialize the remaining few chapters before releasing the tome into the public domain.

This chapter, like most of the others in Section 3, is vital to your success, which means rising above the endless sea of sameness. You must be original, and produce original content that finds and builds audience. Today’s chapter gives varied examples of news organizations doing just that. 

The installment adds two additional journalisms, data and immersive, to the five that receive full chapters: Advocacy, contextual, conversational, mob, and process. Should I ever publish a new edition, all seven would be fully recognized and explored.

Some of the things changed since the book published in Spring 2014:

  • Tumblr blogs number 258.4 million, up from 175 million.
  • Vice News has gone from upstart to exciting mainstream.
  • Gawker struggles against weakening ad revenues the Google free economy generates.
  • BuzzFeed produces more real news content but remains addicted to pageviews generated by social shares

To name a few things.

Today’s installment is best understood in context of the others. To best follow the logical flow, you should start at the beginning: Foreward; Section 1, Chapters I and IIIII and IVV and VI; Section 2, Chapters IIIIIIIV, and V; Section 3, Chapters I and IIIIIIV, V, and VI.

With that introduction…


VII. Being Original

Some things read, just stick. I don’t forget them, even a half-decade later. In August 2009 New York Times Magazine story “What’s a Big City Without a Newspaper?”, writer Michael Sokolove quotes former Philadelphia Inquirer publisher Brian Tierney:

He banged a bagel on a conference table, which sounded like a rock as it hit. ‘You hear that?’ This bagel stinks, he said. ‘It’s got the same consistency inside and out, but if you went down to our cafeteria, it costs like $1.25. That’s what people pay for stuff like this, so you mean to tell me I can’t get them to pay that for online access to all the incredible stuff in The Inquirer and Daily News online? People who say that all this content wants to be free aren’t paying talented people to create it’.

What you write is valuable, particularly if someone pays you to produce it. But what will news consumers pay for, or what will advertising/sponsorships support, when so much is free? It’s original content, or nothing.

Two definitions fit: Content that sparks of originality or is originally gotten, such as unique stories coming from day-to-day news gathering, investigative reports, or “what does it mean” analyses.

To establish brand, to build audience, you must be original. Originality can be funny or furious; investigative or informative; scathing or soothing; stupid or sublime; topical or timeless. But something that makes your news reporting and writing stand apart from the sameness that defines the Google free economy.

Contextual Storytelling
One of originality’s defining characteristics is storytelling, which can be as little as a tweet, one word statement, or photo, and as much as a long-form story or video. Even 15-second Instagram or Vine videos can communicate much. Your content should span venues, as is appropriate reaching your audience whenever, wherever, and on whatever it may be. Remember, you must go to your audience for it to come to you.

You have to self-promote, and repeat. Your content competes with a thousand other bits—or more—your average audience member encounters in a single day. Competition is fierce. Facebook claims 1.23 billion active monthly users, 945 million of them from mobile devices. Tumblr claims more than 96 million daily posts across 175 million blogs. Your competition is bigger than other news gatherers (more reason why The Follow is pointless). Meanwhile, your audience spans time zones and continents. What you post, with whom you engage now will be someone else six hours later. Remember: Context. Conversation. Process.

A fascinating study unfolding at Missouri School of Journalism could reveal secrets to contextual storytelling. Six newsrooms are involved. Jim Fink, Newsy vice president, who consults on the project, explains:

Each newsroom has been assigned a small tactical team of vertically integrated, advanced students who have significant experience in multi-platform content gathering and distribution. Our hypothesis? Different content optimizes to different platforms at different points in a progressive storytelling process…

Believing journalists can no longer think of themselves as agenda-setters or gatekeepers, this class seeks to test new modes of content distribution which, in part, mirror consumer usage patterns. The goal? To create content that will result in replicable, sequential patterns of usage, from platform to platform, from mobile to social to web to core, all of which can be measured, quantified and potentially monetized over the longer-term.

Perhaps for a forthcoming Responsible Reporting update, the experiment’s results will be available. For now, let’s survey some original content producers. The three examples that follow demonstrate different ways to originality. Each has its place, and collectively they represent a range of original content creation. They aren’t chosen for comparison—I promote none as being better than another.

The first, Gawker Media, is more about style than substance and making news bits more interesting (and well-sourced) compared to competitors. Think originality.

The second, Vice News, practices “immersive journalism”, which seeks to make the audience feel like part of the story. The content is original in the sense it’s exclusive—bringing the video viewer right into the global conflict—and packs originality into the documentarian, being there style that presents a point of view.

The last, ProPublica, specializes in long-form investigative reports. The content is original by being exclusive and well-reported but lacks the originality of the other two while practicing as good, and some ways better, contextual journalism.

A fourth for the future: Buzzfeed, which is in the process of building a newsroom. But the site still is too much the aggregator to be highlighted in Responsible Reporting 1.0.

Gawker Media
I am reluctant to acknowledge that Gawker produces some swathy, original content—like admitting to eating chocolate fetishes. But the headlines and snarky synopses even make the aggregated stuff original. I write this subhead the evening of March 3, 2014; what has Gawker got for us today?

Valleywag. Sam Biddle posts a tweet screenshot from some woman wanting “Google to sponsor my trip to @sxsw”, so she can “educate the public about @googleglass”. He snarks:

It would be awesome, Sarah Slocum. Also awesome if Google could throw in a self-driving car, a Starbucks gift card, and maybe some of those cool shoes that have the wheels built in—you know, the ones kids scoot around on at the mall sometimes?

Sarcasm sells. Commenters extend the storytelling, with gusto.

A leftover post from Feb. 28, 2013, looks at Silicon Valley paid intern salaries—up to $7,000 a month.

Sploid. Jesus Diaz’s March 2nd “Ellen DeGeneres used an iPhone backstage instead of that Samsung” is a grabber for anyone who watched the 86th Academy Awards, where she shilled shamelessly for sponsor Samsung. The story is sourced from a Twitter photo that identifies iPhone as the camera.

Gawker. Sarah Hedgecock writes: “This Is the 161-Year-Old New York Times Article About ’12 Years a Slave’”. Sure enough, there’s a screenshot of the original Times piece, showing the movie really is based on a true story.

These three randomly-chosen stories share in common:

  • Headlines are highly clickable and beg to be socially shared.
  • Sourcing is clear and unambiguous for all three stories—photos or screenshots.
  • The writers clearly search across the Internet landscape for interesting content to turn into stories. Contextual services are the reporters’ newsroom.
  • The posts are timely, relating to other news now. SXSW starts March 7; Oscars concluded less than 24 hours earlier; and “12 Years a Slave” is Best Picture of the year.

The DeGeneres story is interesting to see span the web. The Register reports the news, but credits Marketing Land, which posted hours after Sploid, while AppleInsider gives appropriate nod.

Vice News
As I write this subhead, Russian troops push into the Crimea and possible fuller invasion of Ukraine. I click the trending topic on Twitter, and this provocative photo from @vicenews is minutes-ago posted. The tweet links to a video story on the main Vice News page that is posted to YouTube. The tweet cajoles: “Watch @SimonOstrovsky‘s first Dispatch from the standoff in Crimea”. Ostrovsky is a journalist filmmaker.

The story’s headline, “Russian Roulette: The Invasion of the Ukraine (Dispatch One)” is excellent, and the video is mesmerizing. You are there, immersed. While big broadcasters like CNN have stories about the United States cutting military ties with Russia, Vice News takes viewers right to the front lines. The four-and-a-half minute video is exceptional.

Seven minutes after the Ukraine tweet comes another: “Meanwhile, in Venezuela”, with link to the second dispatch looking at unrest in the country. Alex Miller reports, in an eight-and-half-minute clip that, again, immerses viewers into culture and conflict.

I am a bit embarrassed writing this book and being unfamiliar with Vice News, until realizing the site opened to the public a few days before. I do know Vice, the magazine. The news site started in beta during December 2013.

Vice News is among the purest examples of contextual journalism that I have seen. Besides presence on Twitter and YouTube, there are posts to Facebook, Google+; Instagram, Pinterest, and Tumblr—that I can find. I follow Vice News on them all.

Original and contextual news reporting is rarely as good as this. Then there is the other quality, the practice of immersive journalism, which makes the videography rare among broadcast news.

For the non-profit news organization, I step back from the sauce and look at the ingredients. ProPublica practices what is often referred to as “data journalism”. Coincidentally, Alex Howard explains earlier the same day:

The work incorporates statistics and social science and interrogates databases as sources along with humans. In its simplest form, that might be a figure with a box score comparing percentages of baseball players or a visualization showing employment rates and demographic information over time. In more advanced applications, journalists might use machine learning, powerful algorithms, and cloud computing to crunch through huge data sets, looking for patterns and connections between documents, contractors, or companies.

At JupiterResearch, when I worked there as analyst, we produced data-driven editorial reports. Analysts conducted surveys and other independent research that could be quantified and interpreted. Likewise, data analysis can hugely improve news gathering and responsible reporting.

On Feb. 26, 2014, ProPublica introduced the Data Store, demonstrating original reporting’s quantifiable value. The non-profit sells no advertising but now does sell data collected during the reporting process. News editor Scott Klein and data reporter Ryann Grochowski Jones explain:

Like most newsrooms, we make extensive use of government data—some downloaded from ‘open data’ sites and some obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests. But much of our data comes from our developers spending months scraping and assembling material from web sites and out of Acrobat documents. Some data requires months of labor to clean or requires combining datasets from different sources in a way that’s never been done before.

Premium datasets start at $200 for journalists and $2,000 for academics.

The datasets contain a wealth of information for researchers and journalists. The premium datasets are cleaned and ready for analysis. They will save you months of work preparing the data. Each one comes with documentation, including a data dictionary, a list of caveats, and details about how we have used the data here at ProPublica.

ProPublica calls Data Store an “experiment”, but it is one worthy of permanence. The news organization has the data, and should profit from it. Every media company looking for freedom from the Google god should closely watch the experiment—or repeat it. Something else: The datasets provide greater transparency into ProPublica’s news gathering and reporting processes.

Contextually, ProPublica provides dedicated smartphone and tablet apps and clearly promotes other editorial products from the home page—more visibly than many competitors. From a highlighted content box there are links to specific video, podcast, and ebook, rather than general destinations (e.g., ProPublica curates contextual content visible on the main landing page).

In conceptualizing this book, I strongly considered including data and immersive journalisms, with the other five. Perhaps I will in a future update. They are sidelined now, because more research is required but I set a firm publication deadline and refuse to give either practice diluted discussion.

In the age of context, original content builds audience and brand.