Monthly Archives: March 2011

Data journalism: commercial models

I’ve written a lengthy article for InPublishing on the commercial side of data journalism, from increased engagement, hits and advertising opportunities to tapping into latent development talent and selling data itself – you can read it in full here.’s experiment with “Investigative reporting on demand”'s experiment with

Alessandra Bonomolo reports on an Italian experiment to involve readers in investigative journalism.

Whether investigative journalism should be considered “dead” or “alive”, it still proves to be a topical issue able to engage readers by only mentioning its name.

Italian, the online edition of the daily la Repubblica, has launched an investigative reporting “on demand” initiative. After the first three releases, the idea seems to be succeeding, with thousands of readers responding.

Every month, the online community is asked to choose an issue for reporters to investigate, among an array of options – all related to the environment. “Environment is a strategic editorial issue for us”, says Giuseppe Smorto co-editor of

The shortlist of options is drawn up by Repubblica’s correspondents. Most of the issues strongly affect a specific geographical community. Others may include follow-ups on big events in the past, such as the Winter Olympics held in Turin in 2006.

Although they are not all “nationwide and very appealing topics”, Repubblica considers the initiative as part of “an investment in the relation with the readership”. As the investigations are expected to mostly interest local communities, the proximity factor appears to play its part in the initiative’s good response. But, according to Giuseppe Smorto, the editorial focus remains on the environmental aspects.

The readers’ investigations are published both as online articles and videos. Such coverage clearly increases the costs for the news organisation, but it is seen as “an effective way to diversify the product for its final use (computer, smartphone or tablet) in order to reach out to more people”.

Unlike other outlets, is not engaging its readers in the investigation itself (for instance, by asking them for tips like the Washington Post). Rather, the “investigation on demand” project involves readers in the editorial process, by choosing the topic of the investigation.

This strategy echoes another initiative of the website. Every day, Repubblica Domani broadcasts the morning editorial meeting, opening to the public the doors of their newsroom.

“This is a most advanced form of interaction with the readership”, says the online co-editor. But having readers participating in the editorial process implies that journalists also make their own investigative process open to the public. Should the original hypothesis not be verified by the facts, the reader will see an unexpected conclusion. Potentially, they will even read an investigation with no case at all, which can lead to disappointment.

“This comes with the imperative of transparency and verification”, says environment correspondent Antonio Cianciullo. The newspaper’s investigation into a controversial pollution case concluded, for example, that measures have been eventually put in place and now the situation is under control.

Given the response with the environmental “on demand” investigations, Repubblica says the initiative may be replicated in other sectors.

FAQ: Journalism vs blogging

Here’s the latest in my attempt to answer questions publicly so that I can lazily point people to the answers when they ask them again. These are from a Norwegian student at London Metropolitan University:

Do you consider yourself a journalist? Why?

Yes, when I produce journalism. That is: finding newsworthy information and communicating it to others. I find G Stuart Adam’s definition best here – sadly no longer online but copied below: Continue reading

Getting full addresses for data from an FOI response (using APIs)


Here’s an example of how APIs can be useful to journalists when they need to combine two sets of data.

I recently spoke to Lincoln investigative journalism student Sean McGrath who had obtained some information via FOI that he needed to combine with other data to answer a question (sorry to be so cryptic).

He had spent 3 days cleaning up the data and manually adding postcodes to it. This seemed a good example where using an API might cut down your work considerably, and so in this post I explain how you make a start on the same problem in less than an hour using Excel, Google Refine and the Google Maps API.

Step 1: Get the data in the right format to work with an API

APIs can do all sorts of things, but one of the things they do which is particularly useful for journalists is answer questions. Continue reading

New York Times paywall: sense prevails over ideology (almost)

So, the plans for the New York Times paywall are out. I said when they were first mooted that they looked to be thinking along the right lines in allowing people to view content for free if they came via social media – but I feared that that innovation would be lost along the way.

It’s enormously encouraging to see that it hasn’t.

Why is it encouraging? For two main reasons: firstly, it recognises the importance of distribution in online publishing. If you erect an arbitrary paywall, many people will not bother to link to you because they don’t want to frustrate their friends. That not only hurts your social media traffic, it hurts your search engine ranking.

Variety magazine suffered from this so much recently, it seems, that they launched a blog outside of their paywall with an email begging other sites to link to it.

Secondly, it recognises that they need to balance quality with quantity. Online advertising has yet to settle into any sort of pattern, but metrics of engagement are rising in importance, and one of those metrics is how much traffic comes from recommendations, i.e. social media.

Another metric is, of course, how loyal a user is, how many articles they read, and how much you know about them. The subscription options will allow the NYT to gather that information too – without sacrificing the huge numbers that most advertisers will be looking for.

Curiously, the chairman of The New York Times Company is quoted as saying “A few years ago it was almost an article of faith that people would not pay for the content they accessed via the Web.”

But I don’t think they are paying just for the content. I think this system recognises that they are paying for convenience (you pay more to get the content across web, mobile and iPad than you do to get the same content on fewer platforms – and you could get all the content for free if you can bother to go through Bing), and reliability (not hitting a wall when you want to read the 21st article of the month).

In many ways it is no different to traditional subscriptions: it is the difference between paying for regular deliveries of the whole paper package, and picking up a newspaper that someone has left on the bus or the staff canteen, or borrowing one from a friend, for free.

In the past we accounted for those ‘freeloaders’ and ‘parasites’ – as we call them online – by adjusting our readership figures to reflect that every copy bought was read by 4 people. We didn’t lock down the newspapers and tell subscribers what they could do with them.

And so here we are, with the most mature, intelligent, and commercially sensible paywall model yet.

But we still have no idea if it will work…

UPDATE: Aside from the technical implementation I think Dave Winer has a point about the content proposition

What is investigative journalism (for)?

On Wednesday I attended a fascinating conference addressing the question of whether investigative journalism was “dead or alive”. As is now routine at these events the ‘Is ice cream strawberry?’ question reared its head as those assembled tried to establish just where they stood in this Brave New World – but this time it got me thinking…

It was a stunning line up of speakers – live, pre-recorded, and remote – and after being drawn into a Skype two-way with David Leigh by chair Kevin Marsh on whether “professional” journalists still had a role to play in all this, I started to literally sketch out – on paper – some of the key questions underlying investigative journalism’s own identity crisis.

Is investigative journalism defined by how its done, or what it does?

Investigative journalism was described in many ways throughout the afternoon: as “uncovering the hidden”; “expensive”; “difficult”; “requiring dedication”; “has impact”; “holding power to account”. These terms are important: I’ve blogged elsewhere about journalism’s professional ideology and how it compares to bloggers’, and investigative journalism has its own professional ideology within that. If we are going to ask “But is it investigative journalism?” then these will be particularly relevant.

For example, there was a focus on investigative journalism as process that particularly fascinated me: Donal Macintyre talked about the ‘undercover reporter’ as a “narrative device” to allow them to create a narrative around important but difficult-to-dramatise issues, rather than something inherent in investigative work itself. In other words, for his purposes the process of ‘going undercover’ had a storytelling function as much as – if not more than – an investigative one.

On the other hand, some members of the audience dismissed modern examples of investigative work because it did not fit into this mythology.

A comparison of the Wikileaks, MPs’ expenses and Watergate stories is useful to flesh this out: in looking at those three where is the cut-off point that makes this one ‘investigative’, and another not? More to the point, why do we care?

If Wikileaks hadn’t had a website, would it make those stories more ‘investigative’? Do the parts of Watergate based on public documents not count as ‘investigative’ because they were available to anyone with a library card?

It struck me that this idea of ‘uncovering the hidden’ was key – and not too dissimilar to the general journalistic idea of ‘reporting the new’.

Defining ‘hidden’

What is ‘new’? It can be what happened today – but it is not limited to that. It can also be what is happening tomorrow, or what happened 30 years ago. It can be something that someone has said about an ‘old story’ days later, or an emerging anger about something that was never seen as ‘newsworthy’ to begin with. The talent of the journalist is to be able to spot that ‘newness’, and communicate it.

So does journalism become investigative when that newness involves uncovering the hidden? And if so, what is ‘hidden’?

I would argue that it is anything that our audience couldn’t see before – it could be a victim’s story, a buried report, 250,000 cables accessible to 2.5 million people, or even information that is publicly available but has not been connected before.

Like the journalist’s eye for ‘the news’, ‘the hidden’ is subject to individual perceptions, and the talent of a particular journalist for finding something in it – or a way of seeing it – that is ‘newsworthy’.

I sketched out a thought experiment: what if all of the investigative journalist’s material was public: documents, sources (witnesses, experts, victims, actors in the story), and information?

The role of the investigative journalist would perhaps be as follows:

  • To make the ‘hidden’ (to their audience) ‘visible’;
  • To hold power to account;
  • To make connections;
  • To verify;
  • To test hypotheses.

This doesn’t sound very different to how we see their role now.

But in reality, all of the investigative journalist’s material will most likely not be online, so if we leave that thought experiment behind we can add other elements to acknowledge that, particularly in a digitised world:

  • Making the invisible visible (i.e. digitising offline material, from paper documents and witness accounts to the ‘invisible web‘)
  • Making the disconnected connected
  • Identifying gaps in information – and filling them

These are all in fact ‘making the hidden visible’ in another form. It is the final one which comes closest to the process-based model identified above. But does it matter whether they fill those gaps with material that is in the public domain or which only exists in a single witness’s diary?

(I may have missed elements here – if I have, please let me know)

Narrative and authority

The role of a journalist in creating a narrative came through strongly in the conference – and also comes through strongly here: hypotheses are about narratives; making connections is about making narratives.

The other role that comes through strongly is institutional: holding power to account involves (but does not require) being in a position of power to do so; verification involves (but does not require) the stamp of institutional ‘due process’.

My own experience with Help Me Investigate suggests that these two roles remain important bases for journalism as a profession: in crowdsourced journalism, ‘writing the story up’ did not particularly appeal to people (the story was in their minds already) – only journalists wanted to do that. And it took an established media outlet to get official reaction.

This is not to suggest that only journalists can “have impact” as was mentioned at the conference – there are plenty of examples of groundswells of opinion online instigating media coverage: Memogate is perhaps the best known example. But this does not mean we need journalists – it means that we need publishers and broadcasters. There is a difference.


Does deconstructing investigative journalism in the way outlined above make the craft any less special? I don’t believe so.

Does it make it less mysterious? Probably. But that’s no bad thing. I was heartened to hear the responses of two of the Coventry University journalism students in the room to a question from Kevin Marsh on how they saw investigative journalism: the first felt that institutional restrictions on time or money should not be an excuse for journalists failing to investigate important questions in their own time; the second felt that people no longer needed institutional validation to investigate something: they could publish on a blog and build an audience that way.

The mythology of our craft, however, has said that they have to get a job before doing investigative journalism. We have even – over the last 50 years – built an iconography to market it: the ‘undercover reporter’; ‘Deep Throat’. And in drawing a line between investigative journalism and journalism – and between journalism and everything else – we took a little bit of power away from our colleagues, and from our readers.

Giving some of that power back was one of the things that excited me most about Help Me Investigate – and research into its users suggests they have found it genuinely empowering. It’s not, of course, enough on its own: there remains a disconnect between citizens and journalists, and too often power is held to account for entertainment rather than the greater good.

Now, I’ve taught enough students to know the sort of initiative expressed by those two Coventry students is not shown by every aspiring journalist (which perhaps comes back to my differentiation between wanting to be a journalist and wanting to make journalism happen), but still: it demonstrated that they were not going to wait to be given the job title of ‘investigative journalist’ to get out there and do some investigating. That’s good: it also shows that they are doing so not for status but for the reasons for investigative journalism’s existence: to hold power to account, to make the hidden visible, and perhaps just for the pleasure of solving a problem and gaining knowledge.

If we can swallow our pride long enough to stop debating the membership requirements of who and what can be in ‘our club’ – whether that’s investigative journalism, watchdog journalism, or just ‘journalism’, we might just have time to help those students – and those who can’t afford to be students, or indeed journalists – do it better.

When is an online comment defamatory?

Rob Minto looks at two recent cases that leave the field of libel online as confusing as ever.

For several years, newspapers, bloggers and other online publishers have been waiting for a landmark case to clarify defamation online.

The unanswered questions have been along the lines of: who’s responsible – the author or publisher (or even ISP)? What jurisdiction will it fall in? What kind of audience is required (if at all?)

In the UK, in quick succession, there have been two cases which have, if anything, muddied the waters. Continue reading