Wednesday, July 4, 2012

ProPublica: Bright Future For Online News

Amanda Lima /
Youth Journalism International Brazilian reporter 
Thomas Mayer Rieger interviews ProPublica
Senior Editor Robin Fields in New York

By Thomas Mayer Rieger
Junior Reporter
NEW YORK, New York, U.S.A. – With apps, data bases, dialog with readers the other possibilities that publishing online offers, serious journalism has an excellent future, a reporter and editor from ProPublica said.
Senior Editor Robin Fields and reporter Kim Barker spoke recently with Brazilian journalism students about their organization’s work, the future of journalism and data driven reporting.
“There is so much innovation going on,” said Barker, who joined ProPublica two years ago after a long journalism career, including a posting as the Chicago Tribune’s South Asian bureau chief. “I don’t think anybody can’t help but be hopeful about the future of journalism.”
Working at ProPublica, a nonprofit news organization that produces investigative reporting, has made her believe that whatever else is going on, they’re doing journalism better than she’s ever had the chance to do so before.
“For one thing, the entire production team is something that would’ve been so far beyond anything that we would have ever imagined doing,” said Fields, who joined ProPublica in 2008 after working as an investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times. “I think that what we’re doing is better than it’s ever been.”
ProPublica has already made a mark in the journalism world. Since it was established in 2008, the organization won several major awards, including Pulitzer Prizes in 2010 and 2011.
One of the biggest changes with an online journalism format, both women said, is that it has become a two-way dialog between news organizations and readers.
While news used to be a one-way pipeline with the reporter talking to readers through the newspaper, media now is a conversation, Barker said.
In the past, readers pretty much had to take what the paper said, and could comment through a letter to the editor or an email.
But today, said Barker, people are able to come back to a reporter right away and say, “Well, actually, perhaps you are missing this.”
The news cycle – and the feedback on it – is much quicker today than before, Barker said, and tips come faster, too.
“I think it leads to better journalism, but it can also lead to a much sloppier journalism,” said Barker. “This whole pressure to be first can make people get stuff out there that is just plain wrong and that’s something we all have got to be careful of.”
Amanda Lima /
Thomas Mayer Rieger interviews Kim Barker, 
investigative reporter at ProPublica in New York
Fields said, “We don’t dictate anymore.” It’s a change that makes the job more interesting and exciting, she said.
Getting paid for it, on the other hand, still is a challenge, both women said.
“The younger generations grow up with everything free,” Barker said, “so they don’t understand why they have to pay for music or stories.”
Barker said newspapers are partly to blame because they didn’t come up with a better model for getting paid when they first put stories online.
“People don’t like to pay for things they used to have for free,” said Fields. “I think that, ultimately, the strongest brands will survive. A paywall, for example, is an interesting alternative. There are many other ways to create revenue from our work, though. It takes resources to create the content, just like it takes resources to create a movie or music.”
With a more rapid news cycle, the level of demands on reporters has increased, Barker said, recalling her work as a foreign correspondent.
“I had to do everything: blog, photo, short story for the web, longer story for the paper, audio. You have to be able to do all those things,” Barker said. “And that’s great, to be able to be a backpack journalist that can do anything that’s asked of you.”
Social media is part of the conversation, too, according to Barker, who said reporters can find sources on Twitter and Facebook.
“I think there is this tendency nowadays for people to want to share about their innermost feelings and all these things that are happening to them, which can be a boon for journalists,” Barker said. “It’s gotten to the point where it’s easier to get somebody through social networking than it is necessarily to find a phone that works for that particular person, especially if they don’t want to be found.”
Investigative journalists today may approach things differently than those of the Watergate era 40 years ago, according to Fields, who said many of the techniques used then would be “frowned upon” today.
Fields said nostalgia plays a role – the Watergate era of journalism is idealized, she said. And we also look back fondly on the days where amply-staffed newspapers reigned supreme as sources of information.
But investigative journalism is staging a bit of a comeback, Fields said, and is showing signs of a revival.
“I think people have realized it is one good way to distinguish yourself in a world of aggregation where everything is interchangeable,” Fields said. “To have a great original story is the supreme kind of journalism currency.”
As a nonprofit, ProPublica works like a boutique, providing in-depth public interest reports based on data, but also telling compelling stories, said Fields. “We can survive because we are essentially a boutique instead of a general store.”
Investigative journalism, like what ProPublica does, is probably one of the most expensive and resource-intense types of journalism, Fields said.
But she said it is a big investment with a potentially big pay-off.
Amanda Lima /
Robin Fields
And in an online format, Barker said, deadlines are more flexible, there are no space limits as with the printed page and it is possible to reach more people.
“Now you can blend everything in just one space,” said Fields. “It is, in every way, a superior way to do journalism. The only problem is: we haven’t figured out how to make it support the journalism financially. That’s the big trial that we’re going through.”
On top of all the other advantages of publishing online, Barker said, is another: apps.
Barker said apps have become very important, because they give people the ability to find the story that is most interesting to them.
“They allow you to answer more specific questions you might have while reading a story,” said Barker.
Journalists can use the apps, she said, but so can people who are looking for local information. Someone who wanted to find out about a doctor, for example, could do that, Barker said.
Data makes a difference, Barker said. She said data-driven journalism gives the story more credibility and allows a reporter to have the numbers needed to search out the stories.
In my opinion, data is very important,” Barker said, but added that unless it is used to tell very compelling stories with a human narrative, it will be difficult to get anyone to care.
Barker said she’s always worked with data bases, but said for those reporters who haven’t, discovering them can be amazing, like unlocking a “great toolbox.” 
But data is just one reporting tool, Barker said, but it provides the numbers to back up the story the reporter is trying to tell.
“Data makes you able to say, ‘Here’s the sad story and here are the numbers behind it.’ And I think when both work together, you get really good journalism,” said Barker.
There’s a downside, though, Barker said, of reporters drawing faulty conclusions.
“I do see a lot of this myself – and was a victim of this myself: young journalists saying, ‘I’ve got A, B and C. And therefore, A+B=C’ when there really isn’t that sort of correlation,” Barker said.
That’s merely an assumption, a coincidence, and can pose a danger of getting it wrong, according to Barker.
“You’ve got to look at all the variables going into it and also check with other people who have studied the subjects more than we did,” said Barker. “After all, we are just storytellers when it comes down to it. So you’ve got to make sure the story you’re telling actually has some sort of bearing out there in the real world. You’ve got to check things and make sure you are never assuming anything.”
While Fields said “it’s anybody’s guess” what journalism will be like in 10 years, she hopes it emerges from what she calls “this period of experimentation” with a working model for a sustainable future.
“We’re sort in a transitional period, and I want us to leave that with answers,” Fields said.
Junior reporters Amanda Lima, Ana Kruger and Renata Martins Oliveira Silva Pinto contributed to this story. Like Rieger, they all study journalism at Universidade Positivo in Curitiba, Brazil.

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