Here’s a link to a WTTW clip from March 2009. Yeah – it’s almost five years old. In it, I, Owen Youngman, the Knight chair at Medill, and Geoff Dougherty, then the founder of Chi-Town Daily News, discuss the future of news. Owen is still teaching at Medill and is busy doing what tenured professors do – teaching, researching and advancing knowledge in his area of expertise. It looks like Geoff is successfully pivoting into the world of science. His linked in says, “I’m a social epidemiologist and PhD student in epidemiology at Johns Hopkins, with research interests in neighborhood-level determinants of cardiovascular disease, systems- and agent-based modeling and application of GIS to public health questions.”
Shop Local Chicago is gaining steam so I am reposting special events here with an active link for Unwrap Chicago this holiday season in support. Here’s a post I wrote in 2011 about the Buy Local movement and not much has changed except we need our local businesses more than ever and I share local information every day through my @ChiNeighbors Twitter feed and Chicago Community Showcase Facebook page. This Continue reading Shop Local Chicago 2014
J-Lab founder Jan Schaffer sees an emerging civic impulse driving the future of journalism. As part of that, she sees journalism outlets that are more catalyst than commodity.
Schaffer has been leading the edge of innovation in the news sphere for 20 years and most of her work has been enabling others to innovate. In late October, she wrote about her coming pivot where she’s taking J-Lab to a new chapter and concentrating on projects of her own.
Schaffer will still be around under the name J-Lab, since she owns it. She’s writing a book on Law for Media Start-ups for the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism, and teaching media entrepreneurship at American University. Beginning in January, Schaffer will have a one semester visiting professorship in Memphis teaching entrepreneurship and working with the start-up community there. And she has several other projects waiting to be born.
“My aspiration really is to spend more time writing stuff I want to write, and less time writing grant proposals,” Schaffer says.
She and I discussed the trends she’s observed over the past 20 years and what important trends she sees emerging.
Become a cause
Any conversation about the future of news revolves around issues of sustainability. As part of that, Schaffer sees a redefinition of what journalism is.
“I do believe that people will be less successful asking stakeholders to pay for journalism, and more successful when they ask them to pay for a cause. And what do I mean by a cause? Well, a cause may just be disseminating news and information,” Schaffer says. “But, it’s like the Guardian’s model. People will pay for the Guardian because it’s something they believe in, they don’t necessarily pay for it to get stories.”
If community stewardship is the newsroom’s core value, then that could be cause enough.
“I think that we already are seeing new taxonomies of journalism emerging that have more of a civic impulse then the kind of journalism I grew up with,” Schaffer says. “So, what does that mean? Well, it means that some of the people who are getting involved in community news and information really want to build community, and not just cover it. That doesn’t mean build it with one agenda, but instead be stewards of good community life. And that’s a different mind set.”
In the past many professional journalists would have squirmed at that idea. Schaffer says that in that past, she would have as well, but she doesn’t anymore.
“In fact, I find the kind of journalism I like to consume right now has a little bit more of a civic impulse,” Schaffer says.
This brand of journalism is evident in a range of online reporting — from the work of journalist Glenn Greenwald — which Schaffer labels as anti-government — to the social justice reporting by The Marshall Project.
Spotlighting problems that can have solutions
“While it’s not actively campaigning, it is, by force of it’s journalism, spot-lighting problems that can have solutions,” she says.
As another example, she cites Catalyst Chicago, a long-standing publication — now online —founded by Linda Lenz to report on education.
“Catalyst is very much covering public schools. But they’re unabashedly doing it from a lens that says ‘We care about good public schools.'”
Schaffer did a case study of a Catalyst’s program, through which the publication held community meetings to educate the public about preschools.
“Well, you know, that’s not a classic kind of activity that a standard journalist would be comfortable with,” Schaffer says. “But again, for the mission of the Catalyst it was fine. (Lenz) felt comfortable doing it. And it worked out pretty well. … (The program) got a lot more enrollment as a result of informing the community face to face instead of just writing a story.”
The kind of function Schaffer describes used to be the work of intermediaries, non-profits, often service providers, who were subject matter experts and had long reach into their communities. They’d have held the meetings and Catalyst would instead have reported on them.
In the case Schaffer describes, the intermediary party has been replaced with a newsroom.
“Just like a lot of non-profits are creating their own media. I think a lot of journalism outlets are becoming less of a commodity, and more of a catalyst,” Schaffer says.
That’s not a bad thing. Although in this scenario, newsrooms have to be careful that they’re not banging the drum for something with a hidden agenda or that the community would not support.
The changing definition of pure journalism
“But I think you could still be pure, in the journalists definition of pure. But also catalyze some community conversations, and brainstorming around problems and issues and solutions,” Schaffer says.
What’s considered “pure” is being redefined.
“The definition of pure is changing. And I think a lot of where it’s changing, and a lot of the drive for change, is happening with entrepreneurial news start-ups who don’t feel quite as constrained by the do’s and don’ts of the old rules,” Schaffer says.
She sees evidence of that in her students who are less resistant to the idea of advocating for an outcome.
In one example, a news site run by volunteers in Milwaukee ran a series on a run-down section of town, with a photo of the existing streetscape. They then hired a graphic artist to draw an improved streetscape, with street lights, trees, new curbs and bike lanes. The site ran the before and after pictures side-by-side. Once shown the possibilities, the community and the alderman jumped on board and made it happen.
“I’ll show that example to some journalists and they’ll say, ‘Oh, well, we don’t do that.’ Then I’ll show it to some students in my classes, and they’re kind of scratching their heads and saying, ‘What’s wrong with that?’ You know? So there’s really different mindsets emerging,” she says.
As the ground shifts, what is allowable shifts as well. But for the new ground rules to work ethically, transparency is essential. There’s also the fact that “If people don’t agree with what you’re doing they’re not going to read you,” Schaffer says.
N.J. model for community foundations
“To me, it’s a classic example of building capacity and infrastructure, not just funding individual sites as commodities,” Schaffer says. “The foundation is really building an ecosystem for the state that feels good. There’s a lot of collaboration. There’s training. There are some small grants for seed funding.”
“New Jersey is a densely populated state with a thin sprinkling of major media. If if gets major commercial television coverage, it comes episodically from stations based in New York City or Philadelphia. Its largest newspapers, the Newark Star Ledger and the Asbury Park Press, have dramatically downsized.
What is emerging is a media ecosystem of independent startups — NJSpotlight to cover the state legislature and scores of local and niche-topic sites. Dodge, with some Knight Foundation funding, is helping to build both a support network and some connective tissue among both new startups and legacy news outlets. I think they are doing that to a greater degree in an individual state than anyone else I know of,” she says.
“Dodge funds NJNewsCommons, which is really acting as a robust hub for the new landscape, providing training, brainstorming, consulting, seed funding and even a place to work from at Montclair State, if you need a desk to sit at. I think there are some 50-60 partners or more, now that are part of the Commons,” she says.
They share story, tech ideas and revenue ideas to try to achieve sustainability.
Newsrooms must find appropriate scale
At the newsroom level, Schaffer says sustainability is all about finding he appropriate scale.
“I think the sustainable model is not to scale up too quickly. Stay small.”
The key is to work backward from your aspirational budget — and determine what’s possible.
“I think there’s a finite amount of income you’re going to get from advertising in any small community. So you figure out what that is, and what your penetration can be for that,” she says. “There’s a small amount of income that you can get from donors or members. And then at that point, you have to just decide what you can do, and what you can’t. ”
Some newsrooms have grown accustomed to paying for operations with large multimillion grants.
“Really, funders are not looking to pay operating costs,” Schaffer says.
Schaffer sees micro-streams of revenue as the key to sustainability.
“I think there’s not a sustainable model, I think there are models, plural. And I think they’re all based on micro-streams of revenue,” Schaffer says.
Micro-streams include some advertising, events and consulting as well as members, donors, or subscribers. She also thinks running press releases could become a lucrative stream.
What’s ahead for the J-Lab founder?
“I feel excited about it, I feel very energized, and I’m happy for the change. The exception is, of course the Baby Boomer Grant program. But I think that’s going to be my swan song. That’s going to be the last one I launch.”
J-Lab’s Baby Boomer Grant program has been christened “Geezer Grants” by some. It will offer $12,000 in startup funding to people age 50-plus who want to launch a news project. Learn more and apply now. Deadline: Dec. 15. (Download a preview application.)
“(In the boomers) you have a cohort of people who often can bootstrap some of the stuff themselves. They have skills. They have a network. They have experience in the community. They have people that they can tap to help with the effort. So I think there are robust opportunities there, if somebody wants to dive in.”
The way we appear to the world is an expression of our identity that some call our “personal brand.” Our brand is how the world experiences us. When we show up for a job interview it’s important that we present ourselves in a professional, appropriate manner. The same is true of our online identity. If we don’t show people who we are by what we say and do, they’ll make up a story about who we seem to be – that story could be way off from who you are.
The story of you
Both online and in real life, its important to express positive universal values while telling the true story of who you are. This is especially true online because your online presence will create a global impression that can last for a very long time.
In my first session talking with soon-to-be health care grads of Rush University here in Chicago, I discussed the concept of personal branding. A simple approach to this is to choose one word that expresses a trait that tells the world something important and positive about you. Because graduates in health care have very specific knowledge and use particular technologies, keywords in a resume or LinkedIn profile tend to be identifiable and universal. Although you want to make sure that you capture the correct keywords, an added way to stand out is to deeply understand your values and choose a word that embodies what you admire and aspire to professionally.
This will take some reflection and self exploration. In your professional life, remember your word, whatever it is, be it “compassionate,” “efficient,” “friendly” or all three and adhere to its standards as best you can as you go through your every day life.
Our brand is how the world experiences us.
Just as Starbucks IS good coffee. You ARE what you ARE to people. This has everything to do with the impression you leave people with. It is deeper than image. It emerges from your core. To understand the story of you, explore these “W’s.”
Who are you as you know you? What happened to bring you to this work — it can involve professional and personal inspiration. Where are you from and how did that affect your choices? What do you most look forward to experiencing in your new work?
The answers you come up with are unique to you. Understanding that story has nothing to do with being phony or deceitful and everything to do with knowing your strengths and working to them.
In recently considering my personal branding word, I asked a friend. She said “I see you as an Illuminator.” I liked that. So here’s my draft story of Sally as the Illuminator.
“I’m an illuminator. All of my life, my curiosity has taken me behind the scenes to learn and more deeply understand how things work. I am also drawn to understand solutions so that I can be part of making the world a better place. My findings often feel golden to me, so I am greatly motivated to share my happy discoveries with the world. I share through writings, photographs and multimedia. As important, I learn and share perspectives and insights through personal meetings.”
Once you’ve found your word or words, it’s time to combine that with your resume and create a branded profile online and use it for building your career. The first step is to understand and build your network. For this, I favor LinkedIn. As your network of professionals, it is the hub in a wheel of your career search. In my next post, I’ll explore how to use Linked In.
Useful Links about online privacy
An article from Wired about LinkedIn’s recruiter program
How online social behavior can work against your career
Links from the Wall Street Journal on online privacy.
Nothing is private online, especially messaging apps.
Civic Insight and LocalData are bookends for making information about the built environment of a place accessible to the public and easy to use. The major difference is one start-up collects data from inside the municipal bureaucracy and the other collects it from the outside, from the sidewalks of neighborhoods.
Civic Insight’s tool makes existing hard-to-find government data sets easier to access and understand. LocalData’s makes it efficient for residents to collect data and create new datasets useful to both residents and government.
Both start-ups got their beginnings during 2012 Code for America Fellows projects and both are funded in part by the Knight foundation.
Both Civic Insight and LocalAccess are being used to help municipalities and residents address blight and vacancy that remains in the aftermath of the disastrous housing bubble. Both products improve the quality of municipal data and make it visually more intuitive and seamlessly interactive. They are flexible enough that they can be used for a range of projects and they are open source.
Civic Insight was born from a CFA project in New Orleans called “Blight Status,” says Alex Pandel, a CFA Fellow and co-founder. (Watch a PBS video about Civic Insight.)
With the mission of co-creating technologies that would help their host municipality, the CFA team took a deep dive into the New Orleans civic landscape. The Fellows met with city employees, community groups, residents and non-profits to understand the information needs of residents and how the team could help. In addition, they tapped into the expertise of The Greater New Orleans Community Data Center which does mapping and Who Data at the University of New Orleans run by Michelle Thompson.
“We were able to identify that there was this information gap between what citizens knew was going on with abandoned properties and what the city was doing, “ Pandel says. “We asked, ‘What do citizens know ?’ and ‘Why are they not getting the whole picture?’”
What the team discovered is that in New Orleans – as in most municipalities — the data was managed by multiple agencies.
“It was a case of decentralized information that made it difficult for everyone to be on the same page,” Pandel says. “I thought, we can do something about that.”
The team took on a role that in the past might have been contracted out to a team of blue-suit IT or management consultants.
“We went from department to department and found where all the data was living and brought it all together so we could have a “live” connection with it,” she said.
Data is the lifeblood of decision-making in many government agencies, but the problem is that data constantly changes so it is “dead” almost as soon as it is collected. The “live” connection was essential. Although the ideal way to capture data live is through APIs, they also wrote custom importers for some data sources that didn’t have APIs. “Whatever our city customers have, we try to accommodate,” she says.
A designer by training, Pandel worked on user interface. “I was working from the heart of the community to understand how the community understands the process and how does that match up to what the process is really like and how do we communicate that process out,” she says.
Civic Insight has found its next customer in Palo Alto.
Since the company’s core offering is accessing opaque city data sets and making them easy to understand, their product can work with any data. Palo Alto has hired them to simplify permit data so construction companies and architects can have a better feed back loop with the city on their projects.
Pandel and her colleagues thought their product would resonate only with the community and have been surprised by the numbers of inquiries they’ve had.
“We did not want to charge users for access and we want it to be equally accessible for everybody,” Pandel says. “Cities pay a small subscrition fee annually for access to the site. It is publicly available to the residents.”
“We’re different from LocalData because we need to have an established relationship with whomever is holding data” she says. “Our goal is to reduce duplicate work. Our goal is to go to the source so that we are saving everybody else time.”
Pandel says she doesn’t view this work as journalism exactly.
“I like to think of it as promoting government transparency,” she says. “We take it from being data to being information that could be understood by a regular person an dthat coiuld be a journalist.”
“The Code for America position is this is a public data. It should be public data. It should be easy to access. Keep it public. Keep it free,” she says.
The biggest pushback they felt on the project was from city worker who feared that making the data available would make the municipality look bad, but it actually worked in the reverse.
“There was an increase in empathy once residents were able to understand the magnitude of the problem,” Pandel says.
The Greater New Orleans Foundation helped pay for the team’s initial work. The Knight Foundation made a program related investment of $220,000 — technically a convertible note — through the Knight News Challenge to support Civic Insight’s launch as a company.
In Detroit, a different group of CFA Fellows created the tool LocalData to be used on smartphones and tablets.
“LocalData believes better data helps cities and organizations make better decisions,” says Matt Hampel, a former CFA Fellow who co-founded LocalData.
“The City of Detroit had a huge problem of foreclosure and blight,” Hampel says. “We talked to a number of groups doing important work, walking their streets with printed maps and clipboards, trying to figure out where the abandoned buildings were.“
The Fellows partnered with the City of Detroit and Wayne State University to do a survey of all the commercial corridors in Detroit in record time. The CLICS survey as it is called, was the first comprehensive survey of Detroit’s commercial properties in 28 years. Using the LocalData tool on Smart Phones, they surveyed 9,538 commercial properties, recording a range of information about their occupation and condition.
“With support from the Knight Founation we expanded nationwide and are providing the toolsets for cities and organizations around the country,” Hampel says.
LocalData builds off the city’s existing geodata. They have a record of where every property is. “If you have geocodes you can see what has been covered so far, unlike when you drop points on a map,” he says.
“Cities are increasingly seeing the value of opening up their data,” Hampel says. “That leads to support for the goals they want to achieve.”
LocalData has projects under way nationwide – one of the latest is with the SouthWest Organizing Project on Chicago’s SouthWest side. “Residents will be able to collect the data to rehab dozens of properties in their neighborhood,” he says.
Knight is supporting LocalData with $300,000 from the Knight News Challenge.
Hampel says organizations will pay a fee to use LocalData and they own the data that is collected.“You can have 100 people or 1 person out collecting data,” using the LocalData tools. “You can do your entire neighborhood or just a few blocks,” he says.
In his blog today, Steve Buttry asks
“What are today’s historic stories that we will look back on and say that we missed the real story or the importance of the story?”
Buttry cites Robert G. Kaiser’s story in the Washington Post Sunday: The Post nearly ignored Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech and his historic “I have a dream …” theme in its coverage of the march on Washington 50 years ago.
My answer to a big historic story we’re missing? The death of the public schools. Reporting is in the weeds on government subsidy of big money’s goal of replacing public schools with charters and schools run as for-profit businesses. A story here, a story there is lifting the veil on the role of big money — businesses like Pearson and philanthropies like the Broad Foundation — in “education reform.” There’s plenty of string to follow in the blogs of Diane Ravitch and countless others and articles like this one by Joanne Barkan that follows private philantropies involvment in K-12 education:
Hundreds of private philanthropies together spend almost $4 billion annually to support or transform K–12 education, most of it directed to schools that serve low-income children (only religious organizations receive more money). But three funders—the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad (rhymes with road) Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation—working in sync, command the field.
“(Investment banker Michael) Moe ticked through the various reasons education is the next big “undercapitalized” sector of the economy, like healthcare in the 1990s, he also read through a list of notable venture investment firms that recently completed deals relating to the education-technology sector, including Sequoia and Benchmark Capital. Kleiner Perkins, a major venture capital firm and one of the first to back Amazon.com and Google, is now investing in education technology, Moe noted.
Like the subprime mortgage/Wall Street CDO scam, this Big Money story is complicated, serpentine systemic effort that could use an army of full-time reporters working it.
The big question for me is: Where’s the public dialogue? While cutbacks in schools nationwide send parents and teachers onto the streets to protest, our politicians and public officials are mum on the big picture of how they are working with big money on education reform.
It’s big stories like these that are so expensive to follow and to report that we are missing and will continue to miss until we find a way to pay more reporters a living wage telling the stories that are at the core of our Democracy. It won’t be historic until we look back and say, “Gee! Where did the public schools go?”