THe Future of News and Civic Media: Digital story telling/complex investigative stories on the web session.

William Buzenberg, Center for Public Integrity honcho, is speaking at a “barcamp” at the FN+CM conference at MIT.  What follows is an attempt at a live-ish blog:

First up:  Bill talks about a computer/assisted reporting project on the subprime lenders, “The Subprime 25” — real story was that the banks we are bailing out invested in the big bad 25…all of which are now out of business.

He is going through the mechanics of reporting.  1)  took 3 months just to gather the data on the 25 lenders and the 7 million mortgages…and the SEC documents that helped uncover the underwriters, from Lehman on down.

William takes us through both the contents of the story(ies) — with material like heat maps to show where subprime was happening — and who was doing it…

At the same time he spends some time talking about how to get this stuff out in the web ecosystem…went too fast to capture, but the idea was to catch both traditional media and places like Huffington post.

Mostly, though, this is superstructure.  The story and the reporting he describes in tracking who did what to whom in a large and complex story are familiar…investigative reporting is investigative reporting; the value add of web-based distribution is clearly significant, but by far the larger and harder task is just working the story in the first place.

Now Bill is facing questions on the display and the penetration of the story and whether or not people will actually find the material.  One example Bill used as something that didn’t work as well as he hoped was this set of cards with a “more info” feature.

He did talk about the creation of an e-book available for five bucks or so through the site and Kindle — but it has not produced all that money.

More questions are coming about the searchability and linkability to parts of the story.  Basically it’s all or none.

William now wonders about whether the amount of work — fact checking thousands of words, triple editing and so on is overkill for a web in which folks want it right now…but that gets at the heart of the new v. old journalism debate.

Switch of story:  we’re now looking at the pentagon travel story…took him about a year to get all the information from initial FOIA, through students (i.e. free or v. cheap labor, I assume) working through the results, to final organziation and cleaning up of the information.

This is a very simple, clear story — but still a year in development.  Again, the story being told here is that the investigation is what makes investigative reporting work.

William now talks about the evolution fo the Center for Public Intregrity — began as an investigative service to the MSM, now with the emergence of the web, issue of getting platforms to use it.  This gets to the ecology/economy of news on the web. One point:  he wants to give his stuff to the places that will find audiences.  So bloggers — have at it.

One of the technical issues that Buzenberg is now focusing on is the future of journalism as the creation, manipulation and drilling down through large data bases.  For his organization…that means subcontracting to folks like Palantir to do the database infrastructure work.  Hence, he argues on some level (this is me) the argument about the economics of newspapers is secondary. The digital revolution is transforming the back rooms of journalism as well as the boardrooms — and getting that going requires matching old line investigative skills with data and digital distribution chops.

11:30:  A bit of unintended comedy — how to point the browser to another site.  This is MIT!  This is the future of journalism!  Be afraid!

Gregor Hackmack now takes the stage.  Hackmack is the co-founder of  He presents this as a tool being used to connect citizens and representatives, displaying crucial legislative data about German and now Europe-wide parliamentarians, allowing constituents to find their particular representatives, and then pose questions.  Both questions and answers are published.

Some of the issues are data display– parliamentarians are ranked by number of questions answered and (if I caught this right) by the amount of discussion on any given politician.  The site can also organize questions by theme rather than respondent.

Question:  how does the website get known?  One way is through a partnership w. Der Spiegel and a widget connecting Spiegel stories that have a political element and the Parlamentwatch website.

Conceived of as building a repository of voter memory — nice phrase.

For an English language versions, see Ireland’s Candidate Watch.

Again, the emphasis is on building a body of data that may satisfy an enduser need, but is really accumulating into a point of access into stories for journalists.  This, even more than Public Integrity’s project is a kind of middle-man in the new journalistic infrastructure:  if data will drive new journalism, this is a way to construct data as well as archive or organize it in a way that catalyzes stories.

11:45:  question time.  Hackmack is talking now about how a change in the electoral law in one state in Germany to allow voters to alter party lists of candidates created a need to provide information about the candidates and parliamentarians…and beginning in the Hamburg era in 2004, they moved the idea of Parlament Watch national in 2005.

Problem, as always:  where’s the money?  Offered profile upgrades to 2000 candidates — paid 100 euros to get picture up on the site.  They were able to raise about $25,000.  Hackmack and his colleague, two guys with computers, leveraged that to a larger donor base, advertising — with an ingenious opt out that tells a user how much money they cost the site by withholding one click (.o4 Euro in the demo presented here); and a kind of membership involvement — currently about 600 members, with a goal to reach 1,000.

In other words just about anything that works.

Now question comes up on multi skilled journalists:  Buzenberg wants reporters that can write, report, shoot and blog.

I’m dubious for certain applications at least.  ENG shooting is a real skill, and documentary work, especially: I’ve done enough documentary work to know that the skills required for visual story telling are not the same as those for the core journalistic practices that Buzenberg describes as the backbone of his center’s projects.  I’m a believer in a more team based approach, working a documentarian/video news person with an investigative person or team.

12:05  Buzenberg — there is a technological solution to everything that is wrong with journalism today; we should just go for it.  You don’t need to bat an eye at 350 million mortgages.  He’s working on a medicare/medicaid story with more technologies.  In this context Buzenberg walks back the claim that new hires need to do everything.  To get to computer-assisted journalism (his phrase, and another nice one) you need a team including traditional journalists — editors and the investigators — with web designers, coders, videographers, data base folks and so on.

Buzenberg — talks about the international network of investigative journalists….on a tobacco underground story — all be done, with just 30 folks in Washington, connecting virtually to “the jedi knights of journalism” for a story that has global reach.

The point — where I find a very familiar investigative journalistic approach in what’s been described here, Buzenberg and Hackmack both point to the extraordinary multiplier that the web allows for this work.  The key, I think, in this argument, is the degree to which the connectivity side of the web (as opposed to the distributive function) powers this extreme amplification of journalistic effort.  People and data are at a (clever) persons fingertips…thus permitting a different set of stories to be approached.

Buzenberg now talks about his location in the ecosystem:  if a newspaper does something, the center does not have to do it — but there is an enormous “middle ground” (his phrase) where an investigation can find plenty to sink its teeth into.  Watchdog role is available, e.g. (references the Pentagon travel story as an example).

Do people care about such transparency?  Does it matter if they do?  Buzenberg replies that watchdog journalism is about holding powerful transparent.  (All this in response to a rather defeatist question about whether or not people care about the stories that document official wrongdoing.)

ProPublica guy talks about the value of putting information people together with journalism.

Buzenberg talks about a concept called an impact grid as a tool of measuring how a project has penetrated the media space.  Traffic, hits, links and so on — wants to get his journalists thinking about that grid at the start of the project as well as the end.

The reach can be achieved in different ways:  briefings on the hill; ngos etc.  So one issue is what that community is interested in.  Did a pesticide story that took a year of FOIA stuff and a suit — but that is now valuable for an advocacy community (which the Center for Public Integrity is not.)

The question comes up again — is anyone reading the stuff?  Shouldn’t investigative journalists find out from the public what they want to have investigated?

Answers range from crowd sourcing is doing that, to the fact that folks respond to big investigations.

And with that, we’re done.

Explore posts in the same categories: Cool Tech, future of journalism, journalism

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