Had the pleasure of attending a thought-provoking journalism seminar last night, which was organized by the lovely crews of Samara & Massey College. The first in a series, the evening’s lecture featured Paul Steiger, former managing editor of the Wall Street Journal and current editor-in-chief, president & CEO of ProPublica.
What sets ProPublica apart from many up and coming online news outlets (or MSM using citizen journalists to round out their roster of writers), is its success rate partnering with mainstream media outlets (NYTimes, Washington Post, NPR, PBS, 60 minutes, etc) at the early stages of investigative journalism or at the final hand-off/distribution stage. They are able to undertake ambitious research from their “independent, non-profit newsroom” thanks to a foundation grant, which sustains the basic operating costs, and are now looking to create a more sustainable financing model with various funders and small individual donations.
For example, last summer ProPublica investigated the high rates of re-hires among negligent nurses in the state of California, and paired up with the LATimes to expose the lax oversight in tracking potentially (& often fatal) staffing decisions. Between the two outlets’ teams, they researched every Californian nurse disciplinary case from 2002-08 (over 2,000) and revealed that the average lag-time on action by the Board of Registered Nursing was over three years, & many cases were left forgotten. One day after the story was published, Governor Schwarzenegger replaced almost every member of the Board, citing the newspaper & online organization’s coverage as bringing the issue to light.
Examples abound of long-form investigative journalism affecting change by exposing negligence, corruption and fraud – so the question isn’t exist/disappear…but one wonders if only addressing the shrinking budgets/staff of MSM, a larger issue is unaddressed – our shrinking attention span. (Insert obligatory ‘Google makes us stupid‘ link, &/or pop-stat used by many UX’ers that the average user’s attention span is now whittled down to 5 seconds)
Encouragingly enough for online news outlets, yesterday the Pew Internet & American Life Project released new online news usage data with internet news listed above print and radio in popularity, with 61% of Americans reading news online vs. 50% reading a local paper & 17% reading a national paper. Of the online-ers 1/3 were reading on their mobile device. But when we say ‘reading’ are people really reading?
One ProPublica fact that threw me was the proud statement that they’d launched an iPhone app and had a Blackberry version in the wings. While I’m the first to strongly encourage clients to reach their audiences on as many platforms as possible, eschewing the ‘If you build it they will come’ attitude & instead respectfully joining communities that are interested in your offering, silver-bullet-izing the mobile platform for long-form journalism cannot jive without major mods.
In the same way we couldn’t create a hit radio programme walking into a studio & recording a ‘Simpsons’ script – reading a full-length long-form investigative piece on a 3”x2” screen is a tough slog for the online crew. Are there any online outlets doing a good job of serializing content so that it’s broken up into manageable mobile-friendly chunks, while also grabbing the audience’s attention with cliff-hanger-style endings every couple days, or embedding multi-media content to supplement the copy? Any way to use audio to create subscription-based podcast versions of the stories – if there was ever a sustainable online revenue model for journalism, it might be long-tail-able via iTunes – or at least worth a shot…