Eric Newton: 'How digital tools improve newspapers'

(Below are excerpts from an Oct. 14, 2011 talk in Vienna, Austria, by Eric Newton, Knight Foundation’s Senior Adviser to the President, before the World Editors Forum at the annual meeting of the World Association of Newspapers.)

Despite my appearance, please let me assure you: I am not Father Christmas.

Today I feel more like Father Time -- and the clock is ticking for all of us.

To improve print, we must think digital. We need to use the new tools, all of us, even and especially the reporters on the front lines, to better report the news in the world’s newspapers.

Digital tools make print reporters a hundred times more readable and relevant than they were in the last century. The editors at this conference are trying to do powerful things – you really need to use the most powerful tools you can.

We hear a lot about the digital delivery of news. Digital delivery is great: it allows multimedia, saves money, gives you infinite space and instant timing.

But I think digital journalism -- the digitization of the news process between the community and the newsroom -- is just as important as digitization from the newsroom to the delivery of the news to the community.

Digital journalism engages your newsroom and community to improve the content of journalism.

Today I’ll show you examples of new tools you can use as digital journalists.

Many of them come from the Knight News Challenge. You may remember, several years ago in South Africa, at this convention, I explained how my foundation was funding $25 million dollars worth of innovative journalism and media ideas from all around the world through an open contest called the Knight News Challenge.

Today, by the way, I can tell you we are going to continue the contest, not as an annual affair but with possibly as many as three contests each year. So if you have interesting innovation to propose, please look at the Knight Foundation’s web site and enter the contest.

My first digital tool today is called Spot.Us – the next evolution of crowd-sourcing. On this website, freelance journalists present the stories they would like to do. People actually pay small amounts of money to fund the stories they would like to see done. When those small amounts add up, the reporter does the story. If it’s good enough, with permission of the participating news organizations the story appears on line, on air or in print.

So why is this better? It engages your community in helping establish a news agenda. It doesn’t allow the community to drive the news, but it allows the community to at least get into the car.

The most famous example of the use of Spot.Us was when a journalist wanted to go to the Pacific Ocean to do a story on the gigantic patch of garbage that is floating around the Pacific. She was a regular professional freelancer. The New York Times said they would be happy to print the story. But times are tough and they didn’t want to pay the $10,000 she wanted to get into a 50-foot catamaran and sail around the world’s largest ocean looking for garbage.

So a hundred people used the Spot.Us software to donate to her story, all kinds of people, even well-known ones like Pierre Omidyar and Craig Newmark.

Freelancer Lindsey Hoshaw found she had enough money to go out and find the giant trash patch. The New York Times published a thousand of her words and many photos. Since then, hundreds of other stories that newspapers would not have been able to otherwise afford have been done through Spot.Us.  

The success of this approach has many implications. Think, for example, of how a Diaspora community in the west or north might pay for stories in the newspapers or web sites they count on from their home countries.

How many stories do you wish you could do, but can’t afford?

Next we have Ushahidi. That’s another news challenge winner developed in Kenya.  Ushahidi allows you to recruit the entire community. Citizens use their cell phones to text news to a digital site that collects and displays it. Say it’s an election day. You’re looking for problems at polling stations. You ask your readers to text in the problems they see. Their reports are collected on an interactive map. You can instantly see where your community is reporting problems.

These maps are now used in more than a hundred countries, for more almost anything you can think of, from reporting on disasters to on crime and corruption.

How many stories could you use your whole community to help you report?

A more complex kind of crowd sourcing can be done through a tool called Public Insight Journalism. It allows you to work with thousands of the members of your community who have expertise and local knowledge and want to be sources for your newspaper.

The Miami Herald, for example, has recruited more than 7,000 people to be in its Public Insight Journalism network. People give their contact information. There’s a data steward who takes care of the database and training the newsroom in its use.

If, for example, the Herald wanted to do a story on local doctors, the reporter can push a button and find 100 local doctors who have already volunteered to talk to the newspaper.

The managing editor told me recently that they were looking for a recording of a controversial political advertisement that had been delivered by telephone to voters. No one in the newsroom knew anyone who had a copy of the “robocall.”  The newsroom asked its public insight network if anyone had a copy. They had a recording of the controversial ad in 10 minutes.

How often could you use help from thousands of experts in your community on a story?

When I was a young print reporter, I carried a tape recorder to make sure my interviews were just right. Over my shoulder I also had a camera, because my weekly newspaper had only one editorial employee – me – and I had to do all the jobs.

Today I can tape record interviews, or take pictures or video of news events with this – my cell phone.

The group Mobile Active has produced a mobile media toolkit for both professional journalists and citizen journalists.

They say the pen is mightier than the sword. Well, if that’s true, what do you think this cell phone is capable of ?  

It’s a recording studio, a camera, a map, a library, a telephone, a telegraph – and a lot more – the history of journalism technology in the palm of your hand.

One example of that: Journalists are now learning how to tweet a meeting that they’re at. You tweet the notes and quotes. This generates interest in the story. You go back to the office, then use your own twitter feeds to write a story that gets more attention in print because you had first tweeted highlights.

How much greater would your reach be if you used social media as a reporting tool?

Speaking of research, one of the most popular new tools from the Knight News Challenge is called Document Cloud. It was developed by staff members of the New York Times and the new investigative nonprofit ProPublica.

It is software allows you to take a big stack of public documents, scan them and tame them.

You can organize, analyze, put notes on them, search them, zoom in on parts you want to publish in your newspaper. Showing people the underlying source documents obviously gives more credibility to your work.

This software is being used in newsrooms in the United States including the Associated Press and about three hundred of our better print newspapers.

So how many documents do you have that need to be tamed and made into great newspaper stories?

Today, rank-and-file journalists can even do their own charts and graphics suitable for publication. This is possible because of a new suite of data visualization tools.

Timelines, maps, motion charts, pie charts – all of these allow you to communicate a maximum amount of information in print in a minimum amount of time.

An open source version of this  type of software, Vidi, allows you to easily create these graphics. Like all the other pieces of software here, these are absolutely free. Open source pieces of technology designed by technologists, journalists and news organizations as a gift to the entire news community.

And finally, let me end with the greatest digital tool of all – education.

News University is the world’s most innovative online journalism school. It’s based at the Poynter Institute, which is the best journalism training organization in the United States. It has just about 200,000 registered users, and without any international promotion, a third of them are coming from all over the globe. Journalists in Asia, in the Americas, in Africa all want training so much they found News University.

There are classes there for everyone –  top managers, photographers, reporters, citizen journalists. They have classes in how to use digital tools, how to write leads, how to rewrite, how to interview, how to report on specialty beats. All the things you do.

And these classes also, are free.

So how many of the journalists in your newsroom need a little more training?

Education is really a key. If you take just one thing away from this conference, I hope it’s this: newspapers can’t improve their print products without going digital, and they can’t do that without establishing a culture of continuous change, a learning culture, in their newsrooms.

Saying we care about print does not allow us to ignore the new age we live in, the digital age.

We need to devote the same attention to our newsroom tools as we do to the delivery of news digitally.  If we spend just a little time every week mastering them, we’ll all be better journalists.

At this conference we’ve seen examples of immense courage. Reporters give their freedom and even their lives for an idea, the idea that the world can’t govern itself without its people being able to pursue a fair, accurate, contextual search for truth. That all human beings must have a right to know and a right to tell.  

So we need to take just a little of that courage and give ourselves permission to change much faster than we’re changing now.

Only by using these tools can we provide the kind of life rafts, life rafts of meaning, that humankind needs today as it struggles to deal with the rising tide of the information era.

Thank you.

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About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. We believe that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more, visit www.knightfoundation.org.