NewsHour dispatches Twickers & more to the front lines of conventions
Before the Democratic Convention hits the airwaves Aug. 25, Jim Lehrer’s nightly NewsHour sendoff — “we’ll see you online and again here Monday evening” — will mean more than it used to.
|The Online NewsHour's Fact Project website will ask online users to help fact-check politicians' assertions. Pictured: page fragment of site prototype, still under development.|
For several months, Lehrer’s corps has been pondering ways to fuse its online and broadcast units and make the show’s website a more vital part of the reporting process. The team will use the pre-election political gauntlet to test its plan for collaborative rolling coverage.
On the floor of the conventions, Senior Correspondents Ray Suarez and Margaret Warner will conduct newsmaker and delegate interviews for online video streaming and possibly also for later broadcast. Each afternoon, the Online NewsHour will produce short video roundups of national, international and election headlines. Two-person roving teams from the online unit will post raw news feeds to Twitter and snap photos for a Flickr feed — a combo that Lee Banville, executive editor of online, is calling “Twicker.”
To bring the audience into the mix, they’ll debut The Fact Project, a new online application developed with the American Film Institute’s Digital Content Lab that invites users to post pieces of politicians’ rhetoric and submit it to a sort of community fact-checking process under the eyes of the Online NewsHour’s political team.
Lehrer decree: It’s time to converge
Jim Lehrer called for the on-air/online merge in spring.
“He came in one day convinced that we needed to make the online operation more newsy,” says Executive Producer Linda Winslow, who has been overseeing both broadcast and online since May. “If you’re telling Online they can’t print anything that hasn’t already been on the NewsHour, then you’re already dooming them to being 24 hours old by the time they go with a story.”
Slowly, the NewsHour is flipping its media model. News will appear first online instead of on-air, and broadcast reporters will become web reporters as well. At the conventions, the online unit will break news in text and video, and the broadcast’s senior correspondents will both contribute web content.
It’s a long way from the website’s beginnings in 1996 as a transcript and audio library for the broadcast.
The logistical barriers to marrying HTML journalists and broadcast veterans into a single NewsHour family are common among other news organizations attempting the same. The two NewsHour units work in different buildings a few blocks apart in Arlington, Va. They have no money to hire more staffers, so job descriptions will shift as people are trained in multimedia. Journalists will have to think for the Web and the broadcast, and broadcast correspondents will reserve parts of their days to blog or report online.
“We have to be one entity with different platforms,” says Winslow. “My vision of the future is that [news stories] would start with the online reporting and . . . amount to something that turns up on air, with the same group of people involved in the entire activity from the start of the day to the end of the day.”
Keeping pols (more) honest
The Fact Project brings users and viewers into this collaboration — inviting them to contribute questionable statements made by presidential and congressional candidates as well as by special interest groups.
“The sketchiest and most interesting political speech tends not to be the national ads,” says Banville. “It tends to be the radio ad run in local communities, the flyer stuck under windshield wipers at the church meeting, the stuff that’s happening at a much more local level.” Yet there hasn’t been a central place for citizens to share what they hear. The Annenberg Public Policy Center’s FactCheck.org project is a great service, he says, but professional journalists and academics set the agenda.
In January the Online NewsHour approached AFI’s Digital Content Lab to see what they could do jointly to spur people to join the democratic process. With the Swift Boat attacks and other 2004 firefights still vivid in the nation’s collective memory, the producers wanted voters to practice skepticism and use online tools to test statements, says Suzanne Stefanac, director of the lab.
In May, they began working on the site, which will be accessible through PBS.org as well as its own site, FactProject.org. Its tagline: “Keeping America’s politicians honest.”
AFI’s lab, which bills itself an “R&D incubator” for digital-media innovation, ordinarily brings together top professionals to develop prototypes, but they rarely build out or launch projects. The Fact Project will be complete and operating in four months, while AFI often spends six months on prototyping alone.
Two companies who are part of The Fact Project team — a tech company named The1st Movement and an ad agency that calls itself “. . . and company” — have volunteered to help launch the site. Banville says they’ll likely do a soft launch for the conventions and a bigger public unveiling the following week.
“We are really worried about having so much on our plate that this would get lost in the tidal wave [of information],” he says. They’ll run the site for at least four months and possibly employ it beyond the elections.
The Fact Project process works something like this: Someone submits a piece of rhetoric such as “It’s Barack Obama’s fault that gas prices are high.” The post remains “unconfirmed” until the online team verifies where the information appeared and confirms its source.
Then interested community members fact-check the claim, the online team declares it adequately checked, and a NewsHour journalist summarizes the findings and rates the fact on a Truth-o-meter — true, mostly true, very gray, mostly false, or false. The fact is still open for comment, but the rating stands.
Of course, partisan campaigns can submit their own “facts.” “We fully recognize,” says Banville, “this thing is going to be used and abused by campaigns.”
Stories on the broadcast NewsHour may be fodder for posts, and Banville hopes online comments and crowdsourcing will prompt on-air reporting or interview questions.
It’s sort of FactCheck.org meets Wikipedia,” says Banville.
But virtual communities don’t magically materialize, Banville acknowledges. He has recruited a crowd of students from six or seven major journalism schools to get the ball rolling with submissions and fact-checking. The NewsHour’s education unit is trying to get high schools involved, too.
Fact Project users will have a profile with a photo and can upload their “facts” and findings in a variety of media — for instance, they can videotape their conclusions and post them to the site using YouTube.
The site seeks help from both casual and devoted participants—they can post a piece of speech but leave the dirty work of reporting to others.
Instead of mapping posts geographically, which could discourage participants in non-battleground states with less campaign activity, the site uses a tag cloud with topics. But users register with their ZIP codes, so the NewsHour will have some idea of where info is coming from.
The NewsHour will offer a widget or module of The Fact Project to local stations through the Knowledge Network, a system-wide information sharing space set up under the CPB-funded Public Media Election Collaboration and hosted by NPR (Current, Jan. 22).
A new order of reporting
At the conventions, four online reporters will join the five broadcast correspondents—Judy Woodruff, Gwen Ifill, Ray Suarez, Margaret Warner and Jeffrey Brown—on the floor. Ifill or Woodruff will record an audio blog each morning, and the online staff will produce a text blog.
Two cameras — one for online, one for broadcast — will shoot Suarez’s 15-minute interviews with political stars of the magnitude of Bill Richardson, Mike Huckabee and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, among others. These clips will help fill gaps, including the one-hour evening break after the usual NewsHour broadcast and before convention coverage begins.
The NewsHour will enlist the help of local stations—some with their own reporters on the floor—to find delegates for 3-5 minute interviews, and the clips will be available to stations. Banville also plans to create an area for station-produced material on the convention area of the website.
The photo and headline ticker-tape “Twicker” module will also be available to stations. The online unit will use new Eye-Fi cards in their digital cameras to wirelessly upload photos to Flickr. Banville hopes to get all public media organizations at the conventions to tag their photos for the NewsHour Flickr feed.
All this will begin to transform the Online NewsHour into more of a news service. “For most of our existence we ran as a complement to the broadcast, adding depth and context around the core NewsHour content,” Banville says. The website brings in 1.2 million to 1.6 million visitors a month, while the broadcast averages 1.2 million viewers per night. But the website’s numbers may rise as it takes first crack at top stories of the day.
The culture of both organizations will have to shift, says Winslow. For example, the NewsHour has hired an experienced freelance producer to train the staff in shooting video and offline editing.
Winslow says the staff has responded positively to the merger, but she’s trying not to be too overbearing with the online folks. They have a fresh perspective on story production, and she doesn’t want to squash that, but she also has to make sure they support the NewsHour brand.
Little by little, we’re starting to learn how to share resources so that both teams aren’t covering the exact same territory,” she says — at least not in the same way.
In conformance with the first-things-first principle, we revised the start of this online storyfrom the print edition. The lede now refers to the Dems' convention, which starts Aug. 25, instead of the Repubs', which starts Sept. 1.
Web page posted Aug. 15, 2008
Copyright 2008 by Current LLC