Illuminations Blog, JTM News

The Weekly Illumination — Issue 25

Welcome to the Weekly Illumination, a JTM newsletter offering a quick look at the week in journalism with a focus on what’s working in today’s news ecology. In this week’s Illumination we’ll look at the state of net neutrality, examine a social journalism degree focused on engagement at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism and a look at the best journalism tips posted over the past week.

Tips and tricks

Net neutrality is being redefined

With Netflix having secured deals for preferential access though two of the nation’s largest internet providers, the two-tiered internet feared for more than a decade is fast approaching. Under revised FCC rules internet service providers will not be permitted from blocking Web sites who refuse to pay an additional fee, but establishing an internet fast line, like the one Netflix has negotiated under protest, will likely be permitted under the new rules.

Tim Wu, who coined the term net neutrality in 2002, described the proposed new rules as a “clear violation of Obama’s promise” to protect open equal access to the internet:

This is what one might call a net-discrimination rule, and, if enacted, it will profoundly change the Internet as a platform for free speech and small-scale innovation. It threatens to make the Internet just like everything else in American society: unequal in a way that deeply threatens our long-term prosperity.

In the words of Ryan Singel, who published a great explainer piece on Medium, “The FCC plans to save the Internet by destroying it.”

In January, The Illuminations Blog covered Tom Wheeler’s public appearance at an Oakland Town Hall and came away with the question: Will FCC Tom Wheeler fight for net neutrality?

At the time, he seemed to be saying all the right things, but his background as a telecom lobbyist — a self-described “typical Washington player,” left many concerned his words were hollow. Concerns that now appear to have been legitimate, although the formal rules are not expected to be issued until later this year.

Odds and ends and odd ends

New masters degree in social journalism

With social media providing the framework for a two-way conversation unlike anything feasible before now, the CUNY graduate school of journalism has announced a new masters program in social journalism.

Jeff Jarvis who is an associate professor at the school and the director of the university’s Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism outlined the new program in his announcement:

I see this as the discipline of outcomes-based journalism: We take responsibility not only for making a product called news, hoping people consume it and then hoping that they and their communities are better for it. That’s all we could do before, in print and broadcast. Now, online, we have new tools and new means to hear the public, to serve the public, and to measure our impact and value. There lies the essence of social journalism.

So, yes, it’s social but it’s not just about social media. Yes, it’s about engagement but not engagement with us but instead about a community’s engagement with its own work. It’s about results, outcomes, impact.

Jobs of the week

Illuminations Blog, JTM News

The Weekly Illumination — Issue 24

Welcome to the Weekly Illumination, a JTM newsletter offering a quick look at the week in journalism with a focus on what’s working in today’s news ecology. In this week’s Illumination we’ll look at how analytics are transforming what you know about our audience and invite our readers to participate in a survey about engagement as part of a new project JTM is developing in partnership with ASNE.

Odds & ends and odd ends

We want to know how you see community engagement

Journalism That Matters is building an interactive platform for peer to peer learning for journalists and news organizations interested in community engagement. To provide an orienting entry point, the homepage will link to responses to the questions we’ve heard most often as we’ve listened to the needs of those involved with engaging their diverse communities.  We want to offer a variety of perspectives to common questions from a diversity of people and a diversity of media. That’s where you come in. As someone who is actively involved in engaging your community, please give us your response on any or all of these questions using the form posted to our new site, which will be launching later this year at

Tips and Tricks

A look at analytics

Before Google Analytics launched in 2005, it was difficult to obtain much information about who was visiting a Web site and how long they spent online. Today, tools like Chartbeat and Google Analytics give publishers more information than anyone imagined a decade ago, but how should news sites use that information. Matthew Ingram shares in GigaOm how traffic data can pull publishers away from their editorial goal as they chase after advertising dollars. But that data is actually being used by some sites to tweak a visitor’s experience in an effort to maximize impact. For example, when a user visits Buzzfeed from Pinterest the button to share on Twitter disappears.

Jobs of the week

Illuminations Blog, JTM News

Lessons on growth from the Public Insight Network

Imagine a giant rolodex of sources that newsrooms across the country can tap into to find varied perspectives on the news of the day. It might sound like I’m describing LinkedIn or Twitter, but I’m actually referring to American Public Media’s decade-old Public Insight Network.

Today, 415 journalists across 70 newsrooms are using the Public Insight Network to send out questionnaires to targeted members of their local audience and other people across the country who’ve chosen to make themselves available to all stations participating in the network.

Screen_Shot_2014-04-13_at_7.29.02_AMJTM board member Linda Fantin is the director of the Public Insight Network, or PIN. Fantin joined American Public Media in 2008 and has built the organization into a national network since taking the helm.

Creating a new model for engagement

PIN originated with “the idea of how can we tap the intelligence of the Minnesota Public Radio audience,” said Fantin. It grew out of a growing philosophy to redefine who should qualify as an expert and a movement toward developing journalism as a collaborative process, she said.

By building a database, a reporter could log notes about a source’s expertise and later search for whatever types of people the reporter was looking to find. The idea from the beginning was to cultivate a critical mass of sources and then export this new tool to other newsrooms, Fantin told me during a recent phone interview.

While the challenges faced in growing PIN are unique to that organization many of those obstacles are universal to anyone building an active online journalism initiative focused on community engagement.

Gaining a critical mass of users

While it’s an incredible feat just to build something that works, that’s only half of the recipe for success. It’s not enough to create an amazing product if it never gets used, and unfortunately the two are not always related. After demonstrating that their tool was working within their own newsroom, American Public Media convinced other newsrooms to not only join the network but to actively use it as well.

One of the key elements to that achievement may have been the investment that the Public Insight Network required of its new partners. The team developed a intense training program that demanded newsrooms to send their people to St. Paul, Minnesota, three times over an 18-month period at their own expense, on top of a $5,000 annual fee to participate in the network.

“A good deal of the training was: how do you go out there? How do you invite people to be in a relationship with you,” said Fantin. “Only part of it was the technology.”

PIN also required each newsroom dedicate an employee to work half-time using PIN. They later expanded that to require dedicating an employee on a full-time basis before eventually removing the requirement entirely.

Fantin said that part of the reason they lifted the requirement was because it wasn’t economically feasible for many newsrooms, but also because social networks like Facebook and Twitter are being used at news outlets to complement PIN.

“It is catching on,” said Fantin. “After ten years, the importance of engagement is being recognized more and more in the newsrooms.”

Although the demanding training regimen and the resources needed to participate in PIN were significant, Fantin said that requiring that level of investment helped ensure that the newsrooms would use the network and inspire others to sign up.

If the newsrooms hadn’t made such a strong investment in PIN, it’s possible that many of its partners would’ve used PIN only briefly before forgetting it in favor of the next news experiment. Instead, the newsrooms were determined to maximize their use of PIN and that, in turn, maximized PIN’s own success. That success is what helped catalyze a period of rapid growth which helped make the stringent requirements for how their members use the network unnecessary.

Make it scalable 

As more and more news outlets expressed interest in joining PIN, the staff realized that it wouldn’t work to continue training everyone in St. Paul.

“We had to streamline our process just so we could keep up,” she said. “We had to be a lot more flexible.” At first, PIN tried sending out their staff out to the individual newsrooms for training, but that proved to be expensive and unwieldy and the team eventually developed a self-guided training module that’s available online.

Fantin said that although they might have been able to save some time and money by creating the online training modules earlier in the process, the decision to train people in-person may have helped encourage participants to embrace PIN when it was still new and untested.

At the same time, requiring a significant upfront investment will limit who can participate and creates a significant hurdle to generating significant traction. As such, the Engagement Hub’s established less burdensome demands on its pilot partners by requiring only regular participation and a plan to incorporate the Hub into the newsroom.

Strategies should change while values remain constant 

“You have to try things. Then you have to learn. Then you have to adapt,” said Fantin. “We’ve changed many things about PIN over the last 10 years but the core values have not changed. If anything they’ve become more salient over time.”

Those values are:

Relevancy — Many people have expertise to share; people know and want to share what matters to them.

Trust  – Information shared through PIN is confidential to its network of newsrooms. It is not published, broadcast or shared with third parties without the source’s permission.

Transparency  – Journalists are encouraged to be open with sources about what they want to know, why they want to know it, and how they plan to use the information. Sources decide which newsrooms can contact them, and they can see everything they have shared with reporters.

Relationships — Journalism is relational, not transactional. Sources are thanked for their contributions and given links to stories shaped by their contributions. 

Impact — Broader sourcing = better journalism, and better journalism = bigger and more loyal audiences. 

Many newsrooms across the country share these same values, and the principles of engagement demonstrated by PIN are also being implemented by a variety of outlets not associated with PIN. More and more news organizations are incorporating comments from Twitter and Facebook into their coverage and outlets are continuing to find new ways to create the same connections made possible through PIN.

Although PIN has proven tremendously successful, American Public Media continues to underwrite the program to keep it afloat. Part of that is because PIN has kept its rates flat in order to keep the network within the reach of as many outlets as possible. PIN is exploring ways to expand its network to freelance reporters and the organization has just launched a Public Insight Network Bureau at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Arizona State University.

It’s also possible for newsrooms to build their own network using the very same tools that power the Public Insight Network. As part of a Knight grant several years ago, PIN transitioned from a proprietary software platform to one that is open-source. Although no one has decided to adopt the platform for their own organization or develop it further to fit their needs, Fantin said that PIN would love to see their code used by other organizations.

Illuminations Blog, JTM News

The Weekly Illumination — Issue 22

Welcome to the Weekly Illumination, a JTM newsletter offering a quick look at the week in journalism with a focus on what’s working in today’s news ecology. In this week’s Illumination we’ll take a look at how different revenue models are performing, and provide an update on an ongoing collaboration between JTM and ASNE.

A look at publishing platforms

The latest entry in The Illuminations Blog, A tale of two platforms, looks at what content management systems are being used by news organizations today, while also exploring how NationBuilder offers a new opportunity for online publishing built around user engagement.

Tips and Tricks

Update on the Engagement Hub

Our collaboration with ASNE to support peer-to-peer learning among news organizations that are engaging the diversity of their community continues to progress. Next month our pilot partners will begin populating the site, and we hope to turn it over to the greater community shortly. We’ve posted an update detailing our progress.

Odds & ends and odd ends

The state of news revenue

Newspapers are no longer generating the fortunes they once were, but Pew’s 11th annual State of the News Media report reveals that the print-based publications are still earning the lions share of the money when compared to online news companies and television stations. The report concludes that advertising still accounts for more than two-thirds of revenue, and that fewer audiences members are contributing increasing amounts to support the news they consume. It also found that venture capital and other similar types of investors have poured in at least $300 million over the last year.

In an effort to boost its revenue, Slate has decided to implement a paid membership model. For $5 a month or $50 a year, members will get access to special content and will be polled to help the company decide where to put its focus. Meanwhile, the Orange County Register, which installed a paywall one year ago appears poised to restore full access to its visitors for free.

On the other end of the spectrum is E&E Publishing, an environmental news organization that charges subscribers between $2,000 and $150,000 a year.

Jobs of the week


The Illumination is a curated collection of stories about journalism innovation, notable job opportunities, grants and updates about Journalism that Matters. It is distributed to e-mail subscribers, through the JTM Google Group, and posted to the Illuminations blog

Illuminations Blog, JTM News

A tale of two platforms

It’s possible to build a news site from scratch in less than a day, but before getting started it’s important to decide on what platform to build.

While sites like The New York Times, CNN, and The Huffington Post are running custom content management systems, or CMS, that cost hundreds of thousands to develop and refine, there are hundreds of well-established news sites running software that is either free or very low-cost.

CMS options

The United Kingdom’s Metro newspaper is powered by WordPress, as is the Web site for CBS New York, the New York Observer and even the corporate site for The New York Times Company. WordPress is a free open-source software program that can easily be installed on most servers. Sites can also be hosted on, but some of the features do cost money.

Another popular CMS is OpenPublish. OpenPublish is a platform specifically designed for news sites that are built on top of a CMS called Drupal. Like WordPress, OpenPublish is free and open source. More than 150 sites are running OpenPublish including The Nation, the New Republic and the Washington Examiner.

Another option is NationBuilder, which is the software that powers the Journalism that Matters site. Unlike the other options suggested, NationBuilder is neither free nor open source, but pricing starts at $19 a month, so it’s still an affordable option for most publications. Not many news organizations are using NationBuilder today, but the platform is increasingly being used to power Web sites for documentary films.

Though I don’t have any experience using OpenPublish, I have worked extensively with both WordPress and Nationbuilder and will be comparing these two solutions throughout this article.

WordPress: The gold standardWordpress_Blue_logo

WordPress is probably the most popular CMS. It’s the software powering most of the blogs online, but the blogging platform is highly adaptable and a great tool for creating professional portfolio sites, e-commerce stores and even online job boards.

The difference between a blog and an online news Web site comes down to the theme chosen and the way the site is configured. This 2008 article from Smashing Magazine walks through the difference between WordPress blogs and “magazines,” but it almost completely comes down to what theme is running on the site. There are a lot of ready-made WordPress newspaper themes. Here’s a list of 30 good ones I found on another Smashing Magazine article. Each of those themes can be customized in a variety of ways to create a unique brand identity. Sometimes these changes can be implemented without any coding skills, but a basic of knowledge of HTML and CSS will quickly become essential. It is even possible to build a completely custom theme from the ground up, but doing so will typically require both technical skills and a strong sense of design.

NationBuilder: A new paradigm in online publishing

ph-nationbuilder_2xNationBuilder launched in 2009 as a platform for building political campaign Web sites quickly and easily. After gaining popularity in political campaigns, the tool was quickly picked up by nonprofits who realized that the same tools that worked for tracking votes and driving contributions could be used for engaging members and generating donations. In addition to basic publishing tools similar to those offered by WordPress, NationBuilder provides the ability to send and track mass e-mails, collect money online and maintain detailed lists of the sites’ users. NationBuilder is also integrated with both Facebook and Twitter.

These tools allow news organizations to engage their audience in new ways. By collecting the e-mail addresses and phone numbers of readers, it becomes possible to stay connected to an audience through e-mail and reach out to supporters directly when trying to raise money. While it might not be easy to convince visitors to sign up on the site, NationBuilder allows admins the ability to make posts only visible to people who are logged in as a way create an incentive.

It’s also possible to use this process to create a paywall on the site.

Augmenting WordPress to provide the same functionality

Just about anything that can be done in NationBuilder (and a whole lot more), can be accomplished in WordPress by adding plugins. There are several plugins available to create a paywall on a WordPress site, and it is even possible to use WordPress to create a metered-paywall, like the one at The New York Times, which allows visitors to see a certain number of pages each month without paying.

There are also a number of WordPress plugins that facilitate the kind of engagement made possible through NationBuilder. These tools are called CRMs, which stands for customer relationship management. There are free CRMs available for WordPress as well as a number of solutions that cost money. One of the most popular CRMs out there is SalesForce, and the company offers a plugin to integrate SalesForce with WordPress.

Some CRMs have a mass e-mail function built in, but MailChimp is a great solution for any that don’t include that feature.

Two solid options

Both WordPress and NationBuilder offer powerful tools to launch a news site in less than a day. Both tools offer a variety of customizable themes to create a unique look and both WordPress and NationBuilder offer plugins that expand the abilities of the software. However, there are thousands of themes available for WordPress and Nationbuilder only offers 15. Similarly the number of plugins available on Nationbuilder — or apps — is dwarfed by the number created for WordPress.

But the one advantage of this smaller ecosystem is that everything just works. There are no compatibility issues, and things are a lot less likely to mysteriously break on Nationbuilder, whereas new versions of WordPress have been known to create compatibility issues with certain plugins.

And while NationBuilder is often easier to configure, there are a lot more people skilled in working on WordPress sites than there are people experienced with NationBuilder.

No system will ever be perfect, but it’s easier now to launch a site than ever before. Now if only it were as easy to create content to populate that new site.