Illuminations Blog, JTM News

The Weekly Illumination — Issue 20

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 visit SXSW, look at how entrepreneurial journalists are running their own businesses and share the best tips for journalists posted online this week.

The Illuminations Blog looks at Climate Desk

JTM alum Jacob Caggiano takes a look at the collaborative project Climate Desk, which brought eight distinct media organizations together to provide in-depth coverage to a topic that’s often addressed in a superficial level. This is the first freelance piece we’ve published on the Illuminations Blog and we look forward to publishing more pieces from Caggiano and other writers.

Tips and tricks

Dispatches from SXSW

This year’s Austin conference included talks from Glenn Greenwald, Edward Snowden and Julian Assange. Of course, none of them were actually in attendance due to each man’s respective relationship with the U.S. government.

But many of the speakers actually were in attendance, including Upworthy Co-founder Eli Pariser who was asked during a panel about the company’s careful approach to crafting viral headlines. In another panel, Poynter’s Kelly McBride, a JTM Alum, joined a discussion about how the algorothims that increasingly rule the Web and decide what we see on Facebook will impact our perceptions of the world. On the other side of the feedback loop, ONA presented five challenges it has identified in using social media for news gathering.

After attending SXSW, Angela Washeck concludes on PBS MediaShift that journalism’s future will be tied to social, mobile, and data. A future that The Atlantic’s Scott Haven’s said is still ripe for great business opportunities.

And outside of the sessions, the Harvard Graduate School of design set up a pop-up library known as the LABRARY to show off experimental library technologies.

Odds & ends and odd ends

Going Solo

At one point in time it looked like every town with a Post Office would one day have a Patch, but today both Patch sites and Post Offices are endangered species. But for the hundreds Patch editors who have suddenly found themselves without work, the company’s downfall may spell opportunity for them to strike on their own, as both Caroline O’Donovan and Kaylin Bugos reported this week in separate stories.

While the Internet creates new opportunities for journalists to launch their own publications, like I.F. Stone before him, John Maginnis has been making a living off his own publication since 1972. Maginnis started his newsletter about Louisana politics as a weekly subscription that he delivered over fax; today most people get it on the Web. While Chumel Torres wasn’t even born when Maginnis launched his site, he too has built a sustainable business providing political coverage. The satirical Mexican video blogger has attracted 483,000 subscribers to his program El Pulso de la Republica.

As Vanity Fair pointed out this week, it’s important for journalists to develop their own brand, and in order to build that brand it’s probably a good idea to define your news philosophy as well.

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

How Climate Desk found the perfect storm for collaboration.

Collaboration in journalism is no longer a new concept, and it’s cropping up everywhere. There are many examples of reporters working with an audience to tell a story, and some examples where they merge their craft with other forms of storytelling altogether. In one case, an entire ad hoc army was built to tackle a large story when the Center for Public Integrity assembled 86 journalists in 46 countries to pore through the inner workings of offshore tax havens. Then there’s Climate Desk, a “journalistic collaboration dedicated to exploring the impact — human, environmental, economic, political of a changing climate.”


Climate Desk is a coalition of eight publications, The Atlantic, Center for Investigative Reporting, The Guardian, Grist, The Huffington Post, Mother Jones, Slate, and Wired; all putting aside competitive interests in order to address the increasingly drastic ecological changes throughout our planet.

Instead of the usual coverage of activists vs. denialists, they bring new angles to climate reporting; reporting which has typically lagged behind the paradigm shift as attitudes toward climate change shift. Stories include topics like changes in infrastructurefood supply, and animal behaviors (did someone say cannibal lobsters?). It’s an important resource in a time of uncertainty for environmental reporting, as shown when the New York Times dropped its environmental desk last year.

All of the partners contribute stories to the pool, and in turn, publish each others work to reach a combined readership of 200 million people, Senior Project Manager Jeremy Schulman told JTM.

So then, how do eight competing publications join together without stepping on each others’ toes?

Find a host who’s willing to drive

Climate Desk operates out of the Mother Jones offices, which is where the idea formed in December 2009, right as the excitement was peaking before the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhangen. Mother Jones is published by the non-profit motherjones-logoFoundation For National Progress, which brought in the additional philanthropic support for Climate Desk listed on their about page. The funding allows them to have four people on full-time staff who all take part in producing content, as well as aggregating all the climate related content for partners to share.

Climate Desk also produces their own original content for partners to publish while they’re out covering other stories. Along with originally researched articles, they also release the weekly “Inquiring Minds” podcast, hosted by Chris Mooney and Indre Viskontas, and the “Climate Desk Live” video events, which partners sometimes stream live on their own sites.

Find a common calling

The breakthrough moment of Climate Desk was made possible because all of the original seven partners got into a room and had what Mother Jones co-editors Clara Jeffery and Monika Bauerlein described as the result of brainstorming “the perfect editorial meeting.”

Everyone found consensus on four points:

1) Climate change is slow-moving and vast, making it overwhelming for news organizations to grapple with.

2) What coverage there is tends to be fractured and compartmentalized—science, technology, politics, and business aspects are covered by different teams, despite the intrinsic connections.

3) Coverage is too often fixated on imperiled wildlife, political gamesmanship, or the “debate” over the existence of climate change, all at the expense of advancing the bigger story—how we’re going to address, mitigate, or adapt to it.

4) Cuts to news organizations are making matters worse.

Once the common bond was established, the group could then move forward and start sharing the fruits of their combined labor.

While the entire group gets access to each other’s content, partners can request an embargo on a major story so they can break it first before others post it. This was the case when The Huffington Post revealed the NSA spying that took place during the Copenhagen summit.

Diversify skills and angles

“One of the unique things about collaboration is all the different partners offer unique beats and subject expertise” says Schulman. Case in point, Chris Mooney worked together with Dana Liebelson, who writes about national security for Mother Jones to report on the CIA funding geo-engineering research. This allowed someone from a science background to explain the technical side, in addition to someone with a political reporting background to explain the policy angle. “If we were operating on just a staff, it wouldn’t be possible” he noted.

Another good example is Phil Plait, a popular explainer of science who runs Slate’s “Bad Astronomy” blog. He put together a short video with the Climate Desk producers to set the record straight on the echoing misinformation around Arctic sea ice. Or take Suzanne Goldenberg, the environmental correspondent for The Guardian, who got the video crew to follow her to West Texas to document droughts caused by fracking, the aftermath of the West Virginia chemical spill, and a strange legal battle in Pennsylvania where Cabot Oil and Gas pushed a court injunction against an anti-fracking activist barring her from entering the supermarket.

One of the key factors that makes this collaboration work is the production assistance that Climate Desk offers when a story heats up. A partner can pitch a story to the team and get James West (Senior Producer) or Tim McDonnell (Associate Producer) to venture out in the field with them to produce a polished video. In a way it’s like having a jetpack to wear so a reporter can take their story to a level that wouldn’t be possible with limited staff resources.

For now, the multimedia production is handled by the small team at Climate Desk headquarters, with some help from other Mother Jones staff who have contributed their graphic talent. With The Huffington Post added as a new partner this year, thanks to their environment and energy editor Kate Sheppard, there is hope that the group will be able capitalize on their dedicated infographics shop and video studio where HuffPost Live is produced.

Don’t bog it down with process

When they first started out, Climate Desk had a structured protocol that involved daily conference calls, shared Google Documents, and a customized Publish2 feed. Now it operates under a more asynchronous workflow, without fancy tech or scheduled calls.

climatedesk-sxswecoInstead, it’s centered around Schulman (Senior Project Manager), who wrangles together a daily email with all the upcoming climate stories for partners to nose through and print as they choose. When a partner wants multimedia support, they write to Schulman and he handles it on a case by case basis. “One of the advantages to Climate Desk building up its own dedicated staff over the last few years is that it makes communication and collaboration with the partners much simpler,” he says. “Rather than having to schedule an official ‘Climate Desk Conference Call’ with eight busy partners, the Climate Desk team communicates with individual partners throughout the day.”

Because partners aren’t communicating directly with each other, they don’t tend to team up on a given story. However, with Schulman as a dedicated liaison, they end up working together indirectly when it comes to planning coverage of big events.

“In the run up to the release of last year’s IPCC report, for instance, several of the partners shared story budgets in advance. We were able to alert partners in advance that both the Guardian and Climate Desk’s Tim McDonnell would be reporting live from Stockholm and that Climate Desk’s Chris Mooney would be breaking down the science.” Climate Desk also ran a live blog highlighting coverage from across the partnership, and because they knew about it advance, it was republished by Atlantic Cities to gain further reach.

Where will the experiment lead?

It’s safe to assume a noticeable increase in content and distribution that is made possible by the collaboration. Climate Desk partners disseminated 430 different stories last year, 150 of those were written or produced by Climate Desk staff themselves. Along with the 200 million combined monthly readers around the world, there’s the added bonus of cross sharing on social media, with an extra boost of ~50,000 followers that are growing on @ClimateDesk’s Facebook and Twitter. Another side advantage to the collaboration is that it’s easier for partners coordinate face-to-face events together, like this SXSW eco panel discussing problems with mainstream climate coverage.

While there have been setbacks in the field, like the New York Times dismantling its environmental desk, there are figures that show demonstrated growth of climate based reporting. Besides Climate Desk, there are dedicated outlets out there like The Daily Climate, Inside Climate News, and Climate Central.

While there are clear benefits to collaborations like Climate Desk, it’s important to note that its success has relied on donations from private philanthropists. There are questions as to whether alternative financial models can develop to produce strong teams that report on a single issue. One brave new attempt is “Climate Confidential” which just reached their crowdfunding goal on Beacon, and plan to be entirely reader supported.

What other collaboration possibilities do you see out there? Can a coalition form around other major issues like health care or education?

Illuminations Blog, JTM News

The Weekly Illumination — Issue 19

Welcome to the 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 explore the controversy surrounding Newsweek’s Bitcoin cover story, look at the exploding world of data-driven journalism and offer the best tips for journalists posted online this week.

JTM Co-founder Peggy Holman now Executive Director

Peggy-Holman-smallWe’re excited to announce that Peggy Holman is now serving as JTM’s Executive Director. In her new role, Holman will oversee JTM’s growth as the organization matures beyond event production and expands into a hub for supporting journalism innovation and community engagement.

“I see an opportunity for us to fill a vital niche by connecting people who are reinventing ways in which the public’s voice enters into news and information,” said Holman. “News organizations that are forging new ground around engagement often find themselves alone in the wilderness. We want to provide a place for them to benefit from each others work.”

Tips and Tricks

“I am not Dorian Nakamoto”

Newsweek returned to the world of print this week with a bang. But if it turns out the Temple City man outed by the long-running newsweekly is not Bitcoin’s creator will the barely resuscitated print product survive? In a comment on the ning group where he first announced Bitcoin v0.1, the pseudonymous online Satoshi Nakamoto denied being Dorian Nakamoto, the man exposed by Newsweek’s Leah McGrath Goodman.

“All I can think of is I’m so glad I’m not the editor,” said Tina Brown, Newsweek’s former editor, when Bloomberg Television asked her about the possibility that Goodman got it wrong.

But Felix Salmon points out in the Columbia Journalism Review that despite the merits of hiding in plain sight, perhaps Newsweek should’ve couched their thesis that Satoshi Nakamoto was hiding out under his own name as theory rather than fact.

In reporting the story, Newsweek published the city Nakamoto lived in, along with a photograph of his house and another of his face. While there’s a case to be made for publishing this information if the story were accurate, there is no argument to do so if their assumption proves false.

Odds & Ends and Odd Ends

What’s the big deal about big data

Following last week’s computer-aided reporting conference NICAR 2014, which now has audio archives available for those unable to attend, the web has been abuzz with stories about how to use and gather data along with the legal and ethical issues inherent with obtaining it in the first place.

If you have to bypass firewalls and manipulate URLs to obtain information that isn’t clearly in the public domain, you may be crossing an ethical line and could find yourself in legal trouble, writes Kimberly Fields after attending the Hack or Hacker session of the conference. Allen Zeng, a computer science student without a journalism background wrote his account of the same session for Northwestern University’s knight lab blog.

For journalists without the programming chops to scrape data on their own, new tools like OutWit Hub and are making it increasingly easier to gather datasets that can drive investigative reports and uncover new information.

In some cases datasets are already available from government agencies and ProPublica has launched its own data store offering the databases its used in its own reporting to journalists for only $200 each. Some of the sets on the ProPublic Data Store can be downloaded for free.

But data doesn’t only exist in the virtual world, much of it originates in the physical world and that data can also be presented through all kinds of physical manifestations, writes Anushka Patil for the Northwestern University knight lab. And with data becoming such a significant element for everyone, Caroline O’Donovan explores whether journalists should start reporting — and critiquing — the actual algorithm’s themselves in a post for Nieman Lab.

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

How circa constructs a story

On Wednesday, February 19 at 11 a.m. Pacific time, Journalism that Matters will host a hangout with David Cohn to discuss his experiences as an entrepreneur and to talk about how circa is changing the shape of news on mobile devices. Please join us.

The way people consume news has radically changed over the past twenty years, but the basic story structure has remained essentially the same. But what if the news itself were reimagined for our mobile-first hyper-digital world?

4568948042_d68ba4d32f_oThat’s exactly what JTM-alum David Cohn, who founded Spot.Us is now doing at circa, a mobile-only app that has taken the news apart into its most tiniest components and reassembled it in a new way.

“We don’t write articles. We tell stories and those stories persist over time,” said Cohn. “We can keep track of what a person has read or not read… as a result we can prioritize for each individual.”

Each story on circa is comprised of fragments of information that are written by circa’s 11-person editorial team. These pieces are then stitched together to create a story like a set of building blocks stacked on top of each other. It’s a little bit like the way young students are taught to write a research paper by putting each individual point on a separate strip of paper and then sorting them out and arranging them on their desk before assembling a rough draft.

Like Wikipedia, for every circa story each of these nuggets includes a citation to where the editor obtained that fact. This process creates stories that can be easily updated as new information becomes available and the stories are customized to put new information above the facts a user has already read.

Although the team doesn’t do any boots-on-the-ground reporting, they do corroborate information and communicate with sources to ensure their stories are as complete and accurate as possible.

In many ways circa represents the next step in the atomization of news. Before the Internet, the basic unit for news was the publication itself, pointed out Felix Salmon last week in a blog for Reuters. Sure, you could clip out an article to send to your cousin, but people subscribed to a limited number of publications and weren’t exposed to many news stories outside of those newspapers and whatever they saw on television.

As people began to rely on Google to search the Web and news sites, the basic unit shifted to the article itself. Now, with Twitter, it’s shifting to the individual facts themselves as people tweet and then retweet 140-character updates on everything from the deaths of celebrities to Supreme Court verdicts and breaking news.

In the same way that CNN led the evolution of television news in the 1980s, Cohn sees circa as a leader in producing news for mobile devices. The company is not only changing the way people engage with news but developing the technology to make that possible.

Circa allows people to read stories and identify new developments faster than they can by reading stories on a typical news site. This is increasingly important in general, but even more so when it comes to people consuming news on their phones during momentary lulls in their busy days. And circa makes it possible to dig deeper into any stories by linking every reported detail to another publication or the original primary source material where the information was first reported.

Cohn said that if other publications were to adopt this granular approach to news he would see it as a “huge validation for what we’re doing.” But such a change won’t be easy, he said.

“It’s actually a bigger shift than just technology,” said Cohn. “It would require a more fundamental shift.”

Though the reporting process itself would essentially remain the same, circa frees reporters from writing a new article every time there is something new to share. The approach also changes the way reporters relate to the stories they work on as anyone from the team can inject a new point into a developing article. These points can also be used in multiple stories, and transition are typically avoided.

“It’s actually a really efficient process of writing the news,” said Cohn. “We’re not necessarily there to create new article after article after article.”

While circa doesn’t do a lot of original reporting and relies on other news sites in much the same way that the AP wire service depends on its local members, Cohn said that if that source material were to evaporate it would be a boon and not a disaster.

“If all the newspapers ceased to exist that would actually create a market opportunity,” he said. “We don’t (do original reporting) right now because we don’t have the manpower.”

But unlike, Cohn’s nonprofit organization that brought crowd-funding to journalism before Kickstarter made it a household term, circa is a for-profit company with the resources to ramp up their editorial team. While the annual budget for never crested above $170,000, circa has raised more than $1.5 million. Cohn said that part of the reason circa has been so successful at raising money is because the company was founded by Ben Huh whose Cheezburger network of Web sites, which includes I Can Has Cheezburger and FAIL blog generates more than 350 million page views a month.

“For better or worse, money follows money,” said Cohn. “And that was true in the nonprofit world as well as the for-profit world.”

Illuminations Blog, JTM News

The Weekly Illumination — Issue 18

Welcome to the 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 share a long list of tips we found over the week, take a look at First Look Media, and explore how the social web is impacting the way news is delivered.

Hangout with JTM-Alum Dave Cohn on Wednesday

The next installment of our February Hangout series will feature a conversation with David Cohn, the founder of Spot.Us and Director of News at David will join us February 19th at 11am Pacific Time to talk about the lessons he learned launching his first startup and to share with us a new model for handling information that Circa is pioneering. Last week’s Hangout featured a conversation with Evelyn Messinger, another JTM alum. The guest for our final installment this month will be JTM Board Member Linda Fantin who will be discussing the Public Insight Network. I encourage you to RSVP to this week’s event, but everyone is welcome to attend any of the Hangout‘s on the day of the event.


JTM Co-founder Peggy Holman has written a pair of articles looking at the roles that naturally develop during times of change. The Seapoint Center for Collaborative Leadership published Change your Story, Change Your Organization and JTM has published Stories for Navigating Change.

Another Look at First Look

The Intercept is the first of several publications rolling out from First Look Media. Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill launched The Intercept on February 10 to focus on national security issues and to continue the ongoing reporting generated by the Snowden leaks. Jay Rosen, an advisor to the company, wrote about the digital magazine’s launch on his blog and has a breakdown of who’s now working for the new company.

Tips and Tricks

The Social Web’s Continued Growth

It’s clear that Facebook and Twitter are a major way that people find the news content that interests them, but a new column by Felix Salmon for Reuters explains the depth of this paradigm shift. As Salmon explains, Facebook accelerated the unbundling of news online as people increasingly relied on their friends as curators and less on the front pages of publications. People are also relying less on Google searches to find the news that’s interesting to them, The Atlantic reports. Now Buzzfeed, a news outlet born on the social web, is even getting people to share its advertisements on Facebook, and some foundations will even make donations to nonprofit news organizations to encourage more social sharing.

Odds & Ends and Odd Ends

Jobs of the Week

The Internet Cat Video Festival is hiring a Coordinator.

The Freelancers Union is looking for a senior writer.

ThinkAdvisor has a position available for a social editor.

NBCUniversal is hiring a senior data visualization editor.

There is an opening available at the Georgia Perimeter College for a part-time journalism instructor.

The Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard is hiring an Operations Director