Introducing the “Whose Facts Matter?” project

Journalism, increasingly, has become a computational profession, and that brings a new set of questions about core journalism values such as fairness, objectivity, and truth itself.  This summer, I started work on a long-form writing project that engages these questions in a novel way – through a multi-media graphic narrative. It’s still a work in progress, but I invite you to take a look at “Whose Facts Matter? A Cautionary Tale” and offer your thoughts. For an overview of the ideas in the project, here are slides from the August, 2017 presentation I gave at a panel for the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.

This work builds upon the concerns I articulated in this 2014 talk: “Toward a more perfect Union: The case for culturally responsive computational journalism

Story idea: How well do municipal online tax collection websites work?

There’s a story in this morning’s Philadelphia Inquirer about the local government’s failure to collect delinquent real estate taxes:

“Between 2008 and 2011 – the last year for which complete data are available – Philadelphia’s one-year property-tax collection rate has averaged just 85.5 percent. That average is lower than that of any other any big city in the nation, including Detroit, and a full 10 percentage points below the average collection rate of the 20 biggest cities in the same period. Some cities, including Boston, Baltimore, and San Jose, Calif., routinely collect 99 percent to 100 percent.”

The story goes on to detail that while the administration of Mayor Michael Nutter insists that it has improved collections over the course of that time, collections continue to be below its own announced goals. Lagging property tax collections especially hurt the cash-strapped city public schools, which rely on these funds as a major source of income.

I have to wonder whether part of the problem is the city’s own outdated and confusing website. I don’t own property in Philadelphia, but I know many people who do, and I also know people who live in the city, work outside of it, and therefore have to make quarterly estimated wage tax payments. Despite the fact that millions of Americans have become accustomed to paying taxes online, the city of Philadelphia’s tax revenue website has basic usability problems, including the fact that unless you have a delinquent tax bill, the online payment link directs you to print out a payment coupon and mail in a paper check.

This is what you get when you follow the online payment link on the City of Philadelphia website.
This is what you get when you follow the online payment link on the City of Philadelphia website.

 

It is possible to pay delinquent taxes online, and it is also possible to pay some taxes by credit card. And there has been some improvement – I was able to access the payment section of the website in Safari today. Some months ago, I was told by a city employee that one could only view it in Internet Explorer.

But it takes a fair amount of time to sort through the site documentation to figure out what can be done where, and I have to wonder how much money and time is being lost as people try to comply with an unwieldy online system.

I would love to see follow-up stories exploring the challenge of modernizing and streamlining online revenue collection systems in Philadelphia and other large cities.

What’s the right hyperlocal news model for journalism education?

  1. Hyperlocal many not be what the big city newspaper’s business is, but it’s one important site where beginning reporters first learn their craft. How can the academy and industry work together to improve hyperlocal reporting and journalism education? Some questions for discussion below.


    What does the New York Times’ retreat say for student-professional partnerships?

    Nieman Reports identified five key lessons from the Times’ hyperlocal project, which teamed newspaper staffers with community contributors including New York University students working under the guidance of faculty mentors. The East Village Local is old-school shoe-leather reporting with a multimedia flourish. It’s labor-intensive stuff all the way around, and not very profitable.According to the article, the Times’ brass concluded that: while professional journalists’ involvement is important for quality control,  “It doesn’t pay big media companies to pay their staffs to go hyperlocal.” 

  2. “What we have been trying to figure out at the Times — and I think what lots of people in this space have been trying to figure out — is how do you prompt communities, and can you prompt communities into the act of covering themselves in a meaningful way?”  – Adrienne LaFrance, “Five Things the New York TImes Learned…

  3. Lisha Arino
    Sad to hear this. I learned a lot from my internship there last summer. 🙁
    Tue, Jun 26 2012 13:49:15
  4. What I’m hoping we’ll see soon are articles from the journalism professors and students involved in the East Village Local and other pro-am hyperlocal partnerships.  Technology makes new models of news reporting possible, even necessary. The question is, which models provide the best journalism, the most sustainable business mode
  5. Journatic: Bringing economies of scale to the newsroom at the expense of journalism, ethics

  6. Understandably, news organizations are like any business in that they want to produce as much salable content as possible at minimal cost – and that means minimal personnel expenditures. But that logic has led to the gutting of newsrooms and a retrenchment from the kind of reporting that relies on getting to know the members of a community and its issues.

    Enter Journatic, a company that bills itself as a “provider of extensive hyperlocal content.” According to its website, Journatic has an “efficient,”  “data-driven content creation model” that relies a distributed network of Filipino freelancers and low-paid American editors.  In an April, 2012 article,  Journatic CEO Brian Timpone reportedly told Chicago Reader reporter Mike Miner that the Filipino contributors are mostly data researchers, not reporters, but Miner cites a Journatic Philippine newspaper ad calling for writers who could turn out 250 events “stories” weekly for $.35 to $.40 each.   According to This American Life’s interview with Journatic staffer Ryan Smith, he spends much of his time editing the Filipino contributors’ stories based on information extracted from databases such as legacy.com.
    The Filipino writers’ work work is often published under fake English bylines. The Tribune Company, which is a major Journatic partner, now says it will investigate the use of fake bylines in content that Journatic produced for the Chicago Tribune. It’s also alleged that Journatic reporters tell sources that they are part of their clients’ news staffs, giving the false impression that they are local journalists.

    Smith says his pay is $10/hour without benefits. (According to Poynter.org, the company started paying benefits to full-time employees June 1 of this year.)

  7. Anna Tarkov pursued the story in more detail in this June 30 story for Poynter.org.
  8. Not surprisingly, readers and listeners were disturbed by Journatic’ outsourced news model:
  9. DDpan
    “The foreign freelancers make as little as 35 cents per story item” http://journ.us/Ne84oU via @Poynter
    Mon, Jul 02 2012 08:00:36
  10. Mandy Jenkins
    The Journatic story really fired me up, and I hope it’ll fire up local newsrooms who might someday have to compete with this sort of outsourced news operation. We need to show our readers that we live here, too.
    Mon, Jul 02 2012 10:18:25
  11. Eloise Davis
    Listening to “This American Life” and just amazed about one of the stories. It seems there’s a company called Journatics which handles outsourcing of hyper-local stories for some newspapers, like Newsday. They hire people to write local stories–people in the Philippines and elsewhere, (including some Americans who will work cheaply). So the local news is being written using cheap labor, while the local journalists are being fired. I guess even newspapers are exporting jobs! I wonder if that’s going to happen with the Tiimes-Picayune?
    Sun, Jul 01 2012 15:45:19
  12. The Chicago Tribune reacted as well:
  13. Medill Watchdog
    The Tribune is NOT amused by This American Life report on Journatic, that revealed fake bylines appearing in Tribune local edition:http://jimromenesko.com/2012/07/02/chicago-tribune-to-investigate-journatics-use-of-fake-bylines/
    Mon, Jul 02 2012 09:52:01
  14. Cast down your buckets where you are, Journatic

    Journatic CEO Brian Timpone defends his business model by saying it’s cost effective. The Chicago Reader’s Mike Miner quotes Timpone making his case to This American Life:

    “We have a solution that helps solve the problem. Cutting staff is not the way to growth, but empowering a reporter with people in the Philippines—that’s a really smart thing to do. The criticism’s fine, but at the end of the day, what’s a better solution? Do you have one? Tell me if you have a better idea. I’m all ears.” 


    Here’s one for you, Mr. Timpone.

    It strikes me that Journatic would not have had to resort to anonymous or pseudonymous bylines if it had brought college journalism classes in on tasks like obituary writing, where the reporting is usually done over the phone.  From a journalism education perspective, there is a good conversation to be had about the economics of reporting, and the trade-off that occurs when you have a distributed news force.
    While I’m no fan of having students work for professional news sites for paltry sums – or worse, yet, for free, I understand the reality of the contemporary news economy, and course credit would at least be some compensation. Journatic would get reporters who can write in standard English. Students could get exposure to their content management system, and research could be done on more efficient ways to mine and organize their data.
    Of course, all of this is assuming that Journatic comes clean and stope with the stupid fake bylines. Now that the cat is out of the bag, com why can’t they identify themselves in the same way that a wire service might.  Also,  requiring student reporters to lie about who they are is a non-starter – why not just say, “I’m a contractor for the Houston Chronicle” or whatever the paper is?)
  15. DiligenceEngine
    @richards1000 re: Journatic, you heard of Narrative Science (algorithms write news articles)? Here’s a post on them http://ow.ly/bWSmY
    Sun, Jul 01 2012 19:19:41
  16. Narrative science: The product of a journalism and computer science classroom collaboration

    One model of hyperlocal journalism seems to be prospering – and that scares a lot of journalists. Narrative Science is a company that uses artificial intelligence to program robots that generate news stories from spreadsheet data. The AI is based on input from journalists.  Their hyperlocal content draws on information such as parents’ youtube videos of their kids’ Little League games. They also produce basic financial stories for outlets such and Forbes. What is most interesting about this from my perspective is that it came about as a result of a class project by graduate journalism and computer science students at Northwestern University’s Medill school.
    Like anyone else, I have my qualms about the prospect of a robot one day cranking out Pulitzer-worthy scoops. But rather than shrink in horror, I think we need to examine these kinds of models more closely and think about ways of improving upon it and building upon it. For example, here are some areas of human and tech collaboration that would be helpful in meeting the information needs of underserved communities:
    1. Making environmental data intelligible and accessible to local communities
    2. Improving science and health reporting.
    3. Using robotics to realize the potential of news gaming
  17. DD: Narrative Science Creates Automated News Stories
    Thu, Apr 19 2012 17:26:22
  18. StartupsFormD
    $3M raised by Narrative Science Inc http://goo.gl/fb/rC4cR #vc #startup
    Mon, Jul 02 2012 13:51:24
  19. StylianosIordan
    Your Tweets Are Why The Next Walter Cronkite Will Be A Robot http://www.fastcompany.com/1840644/narrative-science-robot-journalism-stuart-frankel-moxie-awards via @FastCompany
    Thu, Jun 28 2012 08:58:06
  20. Previews Narrative Science
    Thu, Feb 02 2012 10:52:23
  21. There are other interesting models for hyperlocal reporting – Philadelphia’s Newsworks is a great example. Spearheaded by public radio station WHYY and supported by foundations, Newsworks relies on contributions from the University of Pennsylvania and LaSalle College, among others. But that is another conversation.

When two or three are gathered in the name of journalism and user experience design….

I was pleased to see that my post on user experience design in journalism education attracted the attention of a blogger who is pursuing graduate studies in Interactive Media with a focus in precisely this area. (Can’t find the blogger’s name, I’m afraid, but the blog is called UX+JX, which is catchy and cute in a geeky way.) I’ll be looking forward to the progress of this new colleague’s dissertation research. I’m also grateful for the pointer to Cindy Royal’s fascinating 2010 ethnography  (.pdf) of the New York Times Interactive desk. Perusing her site, I also came across this May, 2009 Online Journalism Review article on News as User Experience, which serves as a decent general introduction to the concept for news organizations.

Could journalists clear new Labor Department reporting roadblock by filing in html?

The Poynter Institute reports that the US Labor Department is imposing new rules on reporting on new employment data that could make it harder for reporters to file timely stories that are so critical to the financial markets. All credentialed news organizations will be forced to try to file their stories at the same time on department of labor computers only equipped with IE 9 and MS Word. In the past, the news organizations could bring their own equipment. The Labor Department says they are instituting the rules because in the past, some news organizations have violated their embargo – a requirement that the a news item be withheld until a certain time.

First, with everyone trying to file their stories at the same time, you know there will be more network congestion than you’d find in the arteries of a quintuple-bypass candidate. Second, some news orgs are complaining that the Word docs will require substantial reformatting to work with their content management systems. According to the Poynter story, the DOL officials were committed to implementing the new rules, despite the journalists’ expressed concerns.

Now I am wondering whether there would be an advantage for reporters who can insert the simple html formatting in the story and save the word document as plain text? If so, that’s another argument for why journalists need at least html and css. Nah, it can’t be that simple.

(h/t to M. Edward Borasky, whose Computational and Data Journalism curation site led me to the Poynter.org story.)