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April 24, 2012, 9:57 a.m.

Human-assisted reporting, mass intelligence, and mobile mobile mobile: What we learned at ISOJ

Nieman Lab attended the International Symposium on Online Journalism in Austin, a conference that brings together the academic and the practical, the domestic and the international. Here are some of the highlights.

After attending a conference like the International Symposium on Online Journalism, it can be hard to pinpoint just one major takeaway. ISOJ features a mix of quantitative academic research, practical insights, and data from media companies like CNN, The Los Angeles Times, The Dallas Morning News, and Google News — all assembled by the ace team of Rosental Alves and Amy Schmitz Weiss.

You can check out our complete liveblog from the event; ISOJ has posted recaps of the symposium’s sessions; and Alf Hermida did his usual stellar job blogging everything in sight. But we also wanted to distill some of what got us thinking.

A future of focused brands

What will newspapers and media companies look like in the future? Richard Gingras of Google News said news outlets will continue to move away from being general-interest publications and become more of a “stable of focused brands.” As alternative news channels like Twitter and Facebook continue to grow, and as more and more people get their information on-the-go, Gingras said news companies spend too much time worrying about their home pages and not enough about their article pages. He said he wouldn’t be surprised if there comes a time when a media company opts not to have a homepage at all. (Gingras’ comments echoed the themes in his TechRaking speech, which we shared on April 12.)

Embrace human-assisted reporting

Ben Welsh, who mans the Data Desk at The Los Angeles Times, is a big proponent of using computing power to make reporters’ lives easier. That includes letting robots do some of the writing. (Here’s an example of the kind of stories that algorithms write for the Times.) He also gave one of the most succinct and passionate calls to action of the conference. You can watch his talk here.

Appeal to “mass intelligence”

The Dallas Morning News is shifting the focus of its reporting to appeal to a “mass intelligence” audience rather than a general one, according to publisher Jim Moroney: “When I say a mass intelligence audience I don’t mean elite,” but instead a readership that wants daily intelligence about the community that fits specific interests. (Moroney credits this Economist article for the term.) The Morning News is trying to differentiate itself in two ways: By shifting its production to fit devices like tablets, and by shifting its reporting with a plan they call “PICA,” which stands for Perspective, Interpretation, Context and Analysis.

Take time to play in the news sandbox

Louis Gump, vice president for CNN Mobile, said the company was slow to launch its iPhone and iPad apps because it wanted to figure out the right way to use its vast collection of video and images. CNN provides widely differentiated experiences; consider how different the iPad app looks from the iPhone app from the mobile site from the desktop site. CNN’s iPad app is among the top 10 free downloaded apps, with more than 19.5 million U.S. users in February 2012. Even with that success, Gump said CNN sees the iPad app and other mobile apps as a “sandbox” to test how the audience responds: “You can’t choose between mobile web and apps — like two wheels on a bike, you need both.”

“Survival is success” in online news startups

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, who coauthored a report on the climate of online news startups in France, Germany, and Italy, found a culture similar to its U.S. equivalent. He said former reporters are trying to address perceived gaps in traditional media coverage but struggling to find and grow niche audiences, let alone generating enough revenue to thrive. For the companies he studied, the majority are not breaking even, and most operate at a loss. (Download the report, which goes deep on nine case studies, here.)

The Carvin Factor

In analyzing the tweets of NPR’s Andy Carvin during the Arab Spring, University of British Columbia professor Alfred Hermida found that Carvin overwhelmingly quoted activists, bloggers, and alternative voices. While almost half of Carvin’s tweets and retweets came from people on the ground, they made up just about a quarter of his sources, with the rest being mainstream media and official institutions. In other words, his tweets served as a major amplifier of lesser-known sources. Hermida questioned how this sourcing structure could have influenced the framing and coverage of the events of the Arab Spring.

Build something beautiful

Creating a tablet app is not just a box for news organizations to check. Many of the panelists at ISOJ talked about resisting the urge to transfer web-based design principles to smartphones and tablets. Pedro Doria, digital platforms editor at O Globo (Brazil), showed us how the paper reintroduced the concept of an “evening edition,” providing an update to tablet readers at the end of the day. It’s rich with videos and photos — that what tablets are good at, Doria said — which keeps people in the app longer, and it features content specially designed for a lean-back evening mode of reading. Since the launch of the p.m. edition, Doria said the average time spent daily in the O Globo iPad app jumped from 26 minutes to a staggering 77 minutes.

Don’t just build something beautiful

ISOJ’s all-star data panel made clear there’s a distinction between art and data that sometimes gets blurred at the expense of user experience. Pretty graphics must provide context and useful information to be journalism. Here’s an example that University of Miami lecturer Alberto Cairo gave of data that’s lovely but ultimately not useful.

Execution is key

It takes more than a killer idea to achieve greatness in the newsroom. As Moroney argued, “culture eats strategy,” and he acknowledged it as an area where his paper still had plenty of room for progress. Moroney said that means filling a newsroom with more Tiggers than Eeyores. That drew laughs and tons of retweets, although some said that wasn’t fair to Eeyore.

Mobile will just keep getting bigger

Okay, so we didn’t need a conference to tell us that. Just today we learned more than half of Facebook’s 901 million monthly active users uses it on a mobile device. The Dallas Morning News will shift more of its development resources to tablets, promising a groundbreaking app within a year. And while News Corp. was criticized for its single-platform strategy with The Daily, William Hurley — whose company helped design the iPad newspaper — said someone had to go first. Last year, The Daily was No. 3 on Apple’s list of top grossing apps, behind Smurfs’ Village and Angry Birds. Before diving into mobile, Hurley said, news organizations should consider their audience’s needs. Start with looking at access logs to see what devices people are most commonly using to visit a website.

There’s a big world out there

Conferences like ISOJ are a good reminder to sometimes-gloomy U.S. journalists that journalism is well, even thriving, in other markets. Globally, journalists face a slew of different challenges — fellow attendees from places like Argentina and the Philippines reminded us that FOIA protections aren’t universal. But it’s also an environment where international news companies with a bit of money to spare are doing interesting things — which means there’ll be interesting lessons for American companies to bring back from abroad.

POSTED     April 24, 2012, 9:57 a.m.
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