Two News Challenge winners for public radio
WBUR, PRX projects test new approaches to court coverage, story funding
Two public radio winners from Boston emerged from this year’s competition for the Knight Foundation’s News Challenge grants — WBUR and Public Radio Exchange, both known for adapting new-media technologies and engagement strategies for public broadcasting.
- With its $250,000 grant, WBUR will create digital tools and a set of best practices for providing more public access to local court proceedings.
- PRX received $75,000 to tap a new funding source for local public radio newsrooms through the system created by an earlier News Challenge winner, Spot.us, a web platform for crowd-funded journalism.
The digital news projects, announced June 16, are pilots that aim to scale up for broader usage and become self-sustaining. They were among a dozen picked for Knight’s international grant program backing news media experiments that harness open-source web technology.
The five-year, $25 million Knight News Challenge competition, now dispensing its fourth year of grants, aims to inspire and support ideas that could propel journalism into its next frontier — open to participation, powered with the Web, yet still serving local communities.
It’s exceptional for pubcasting to fare so well, with two News Challenge winners this year. In four highly competitive, international grant rounds since 2006, only two other projects dreamed up for public radio received grants. New York’s WNYC won a $600,000 grant in 2007 with a project using social-networking websites and engagement tools in its cultural coverage. Quiddities, a California web development company led by Margaret Rosas, received $327,000 in 2008 to build a turnkey web publishing system for pubradio news sites using Drupal, an open-source content management system.
The Knight Foundation created the News Challenge in 2006 to support experiments in delivering news and information to local communities via open-source digital technologies. The 63 projects serve a wide variety of purposes — for example, creating virtual communities around news topics, engineering new digital tools for sharing information, and testing new revenue models for journalism.
Spot.us, the funding collaborative that PRX will build upon, is one of the News Challenge’s most buzz-worthy projects to date. Freelance technology reporter David Cohen proposed it in 2008 as a way for individuals to back independent investigative reporting through small contributions. Last year a feature story on a giant garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean was pitched on Spot.us and published in the New York Times science section.
Spot.us has also partnered with public radio stations in California. KALW in San Francisco, where Quiddities first applied its Drupal news platform, is raising money for regional crime and criminal justice coverage on Spot.us. KPCC in Pasadena recently ran a Spot.us-funded story on the University of Southern California’s troubled football program.
With more than 2,500 applications in each of the last two grant rounds, the News Challenge is very competitive. PRX entered the fray unsuccessfully two years ago, proposing its project, StoryMarket, as a rollout of the Spot.us model for public radio, according to Shapiro. This year, he recast his idea as a pilot with one station, Louisville Public Media.
The two-year PRX project still has potential to make a much bigger impact for public radio and crowd-funded journalism. PRX will build on the code base of the Spot.us platform and integrate it into its own network, enabling much broader distribution of online story pitches and enlarging the pool of potential donors by releasing story proposals through a new open Application Programming Interface. In the end, a Louisville Public Media story pitch on mountain-top coal removal, for example, could garner donations far beyond Kentucky. Station-based reporters as well as indie producers could seek backing for local, regional and, eventually, national stories.
“We’re not reinventing the wheel with a new idea but leveraging the investment in a significant project that’s underway, that’s built on collaboration and open source,” Shapiro said.
The Spot.us approach to crowd-funded journalism also sits atop the public radio system, whose listeners already buy into the concept of supporting their local station’s news service, he said. With StoryMarket, pubradio fans will be able to back their station’s ambitions for in-depth coverage on local topics.
Order in the courts
WBUR’s project will try new ways to open public access to local court proceedings. “The important thing about this project, and why we think it’s so necessary, is the media now have less capacity to cover the courts,” said John Davidow, executive editor of new media for WBUR, who proposed the Order in the Court 2.0 project. He hopes to address the decline of newspapers’ traditional courthouse beat by creating new tools and standards for providing access to information in the court’s docket.
Davidow is well-versed in the challenges that digital media technologies present to the judicial system. He represents WBUR on the judiciary-media committee of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and serves on a special subcommittee dealing with new-media coverage and access issues.
Soon after learning about the Knight News Challenge, Davidow attended a meeting at which judges were debating what to do when a court observer with an iPhone asks to plug into the television pool feed. “I said, ‘This sounds like a presentation I just heard at the Online News Association meeting.’”
The project aims to help local courts update their media policies. “There really hasn’t been true innovation in court communication policy since television cameras were introduced in the late 1970s,” Davidow said. Judges decide case-by-case whether to let observers use personal media devices in their courtrooms. “That’s not the way the courts like to operate. They like to have established ways of doing things.”
The two-year pilot will be tested at the Massachusetts District Court in Quincy, a busy court serving both urban and suburban communities and “known for its innovative thinking,” Davidow said. The court has agreed to allow live blogging by observers using a Wi-Fi network and live streaming of court proceedings. It will also experiment with uses of cell phones and other technologies that increase access to its proceedings. In addition to creating a set of protocols for digital media access, the project will develop a set of best practices and post them online, along with a set of case studies, and a wiki explaining legal terms, procedures and other basics of the judicial system, according to project documents.
“This is not a money-maker — it’s a laboratory for creating a set of best practices that we hope to push out from our pilot to state and other judicial systems around the country,” Davidow said.
Davidow predicts that the project will draft a job description for a new position within the courts — a public-access advocate who would balance the public’s right to know with a citizen’s right to a fair trial. “There will be friction points on some cases more than others — such as those involving sexual assaults or child abuse — where there need to be constraints on what information can be released,” he said. The project will look at how to staff such a position in courts.
Both of the earlier Knight News Challenge projects are winding down, but their work carries on in different forms.
WNYC’s Knight project, Taking Culture Out of the Box, culminated in 2008 with Street Shots, a street photography contest, its first major foray into crowd-sourcing on cultural topics. The contest received more than 5,000 submissions to its Flickr photo stream (flickr.com/groups/ wnycstreetshots). The station produced a multimedia website and dedicated an edition of the Brian Lehrer Show to the project. The techniques, which include special events and meet-ups, have been adopted for other cultural coverage, such as a Twitter tour of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Biennial this winter and Lehrer’s coverage of the 2010 Census.
RadioEngage, the project planned to create Drupal-powered news sites for public radio stations, built the site for KALW’s afternoon drive-time newsmagazine CrossCurrents and produced an in-house training curriculum for KUSP in Santa Cruz, its partner in the grant. Margaret Rosas, founder of Quiddities and project director, hopes to expand the training so that staff and volunteers at more public radio stations can develop Drupal programming skills.
When she proposed RadioEngage, Rosas envisioned it as a Drupal system that most stations would operate with help from outside vendors, but she discovered that wouldn’t fit stations’ needs and resources. “In my work with KUSP, I found that empowering the station with the [software] programming knowledge provides a more sustainable solution,” she said. “Stations don’t have the funds to devote tens of thousands of dollars to a vendor contract — then they’re locked into the vendor’s timetable and not able to implement things in a timely way.”
She is pursuing grants for a multi-phased project to help more stations adopt Drupal and continues to talk with stations as potential clients. “There are a lot of different conversations going on and nothing to report,” she said.
The roll-out of Public Interactive’s new Core Publisher software package, which is to be built on Drupal, will help draw more programmers into public media, according to Rosas. The progress of NPR’s Public Media Platform project will also influence stations’ decisions on their own web publishing systems.
Rosas regards Drupal as the most versatile open-source web-publishing platform but also one of the hardest to learn. “That’s why the solution with KUSP has a nice feel for us. In the same way that public radio trains people to be radio producers, they can bring in interns and volunteers who want to develop an application.”
“Once they have the skills to play in that space,” Rosas said, “they’re not in a perpetual state of needing to go hire a vendor to manage their website.”
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Web page posted July 20, 2010
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