Danger of viral misinformation is painfully visible

Multiplying the dangers of Covid 19 is the viral misinformation infecting our news cycles. Today it is clear that our physical and mental health, and quality of information, are deeply interrelated. This crisis could be a tipping point where the harm of  viral misinformation is finally becoming visible to the public.

Credible sources of information
For the past decade, my passion has been reducing noise, increasing credible sources of information and adding value to our professional and community lives through digital newsrooms.

Having left business journalism in the 90’s to go into Chicago city government and later into mission-based community engagement, and development, I wasn’t sure that journalists were constitutionally suitable for the non-profit world.

This was heavy on my mind having been laid off by the Sun-Times in 2008. For years, I had worked with web entrepreneurs and mission -based businesses and non-profits to build the social good web. My background in journalism and the web seemed a perfect fit for the crusade to save journalism.

Program-related investments
When I learned about the L3C — an investment vehicle that encourages foundations to make program-related investments in mission-based businesses — I connected the dots between news and mission and saw a cause I could fully support.  I plugged into a colleague who ran HuffPost Chicago and he gave me a column, which was at the time a more scarce platform.

I started to write about the L3C Newsroom and began regularly delivering information about this idea and other emerging ideas  to foundation executives and others in the digital newsroom space. Ten years later, I have a backlog of information on the forward direction of newsrooms in the digital age.

During this time, I  also consulted with clients such as the  Better Government Association, when its new executive director was reframing the watchdog organization’s mission and structure. Understanding the vast news and information deserts in Chicago — from my time working in newsrooms and  in Chicago city government — I took on  multimedia consulting and project management  with LISC Chicago, bringing neighborhood voices into the mix through a series of  mobile neighborhood tours. As a community service, I produced a companion  Twitter feed and Facebook page.  Other clients from those years include the Chicago Tribune, the BlockbyBlockCommunityNewsNetwork  and Knight Digital Media Center.

Chicago’s independent news ecosystem
I carved out a small but passionate niche.  My most recent effort was a research project I did for the Chicago Community Trust on the Chicago Independent News ecosystem. Take a look, please.

Meanwhile, I am delighted to be teaching Business Communications at the University of Illinois Chicago and I hope to teach more courses in the future.

I am currently rebooting my consulting practice work after a leave of absence due to family matters and I look forward to continuing my work in the field of digital newsrooms.

Light will follow the darkness
Tracy Baim, Publisher, of the Chicago Reader, has taken the lead on the newsroom sustainability front here in Chicago and has gained the support of  The McCormick Foundation, Driehaus Foundation, Chicago Community Trust, Field Foundation, Polk Brothers Foundation and the  Democracy Fund, to support for the Chicago Independent Media Alliance (CIMA). I have been happy to attend a few of their meetings.

Solutions will emerge from this current darkness, and among them will be new ideas for slowing the pace of viral misinformation and creating sustainability for our mission-based newsrooms.  I look forward to being part of those solutions.

Here’s a great video from Neil DeGrasse Tyson on information literacy. Today we are awash in both disinformation and misinformation. I agree that our ability to fully process information and discern truth from lies is tied to our ability to understand context and learn how to ask good questions about whatever we are researching.   

Video here

The future of community news for Knight Digital Media Center.
Independent online news sites for BlockbyBlock.
Social media and advertising for the Chicago Tribune’s 435 Digital.

I discuss the future of newspapers in 2009 with Elizabeth Brackett, Howard Owen and Geoff Dougherty on WTTW Chicago Tonight.

Chicago Community Showcase for LISC Chicago.
This playlist is a series of audio slide shows I produced with community leaders to be delivered through an early Smartphone app. It is the core content of the Chicago Community Showcase YouTube and Facebook channels and continues as the ChiNeighbors  twitter feed, which I still run as a community service.

A video I recorded in 2010 on the idea of an L3C Newsroom, similar to the idea of a crowdfunded newsroom with a community foundation leading the way for smaller family foundations to provide core investments for local independent newsrooms.

Branding on the Web 101 for Working Journalists

savingsChicago journalists, join me for a conversation about practical ways to move your journalism career online by building a personal brand and using the social Web.
The first step to getting found on the Web is knowing who you are and what you have to offer that is unique to you. These days, this expression of our identity, this knowing who you are, is called our “personal brand.” It’s basically how the world experiences us. Visit our event page on Facebook. 

About Working Journalists

Working Journalists is a start up by the Chicago Newspaper Guild. Membership is Continue reading Branding on the Web 101 for Working Journalists

The future of news is a rainbow

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.”

Continue reading The future of news is a rainbow

Shop Local Chicago 2014

IMG_2815Shop 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’s Schaffer sees civic impulse driving journalism’s future

by: Sally Duros |

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

In terms of news ecosystem development, she sees the work of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation in New Jersey as a model for other 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.”

That means for members of the Investigative News Network, a budget less than $500,000 per year, and for members of the LION publishers, budgets less than $250,000 a year.

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.

Big newsrooms with $8 million to $10 million per year budgets, such as the Center for Investigative Reporting, ProPublica as Public Integrity, have “a lot of money to raise every year,” she 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.”

Code for America Fellows launch tools to inventory abandoned buildings

by: Sally Duros |

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.