This week, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting released a report on best practices in digital journalism that I co-authored with several colleagues here at American University and the Center for Social Media. Titled Scan and Analysis of Best Practices in Digital Journalism In and Outside U.S. Public Broadcasting, the report was commissioned by CPB as part of the organization’s planning for future directions in online reporting and media. In keeping with CPB’s mission, the report has a strong emphasis on strategies for using digital journalism to promote civic engagement, public participation, and diverse community connections.
Though the report is focused on journalism generally, each of the recommendations also applies to media projects in the areas of science, environmental, and health journalism. In fact, several of the examples that represent emerging best practices are drawn from these areas including a focus on Yale Environment 360 and Seed Media Group’s Scienceblogs portal.
The project was led by Center for Social Media Director Patricia Aufderheide, and I worked on the research team with several outstanding colleagues including CSM’s Jessica Clark and Katie Donnelly as well as Carin Dessauer, a senior fellow at iFOCUS.
Our research process included multiple stages. In the first stage, the identification of best practices was based on a review of existing reports and literature; primary research involving a qualitative analysis of leading websites, and conversations with leading experts who study digital journalism. Armed with initial best practice categories, we then expanded the scope of our investigation, examining and reviewing a broader range of media sites and digital journalism activities while also completing hour-long interviews with a total of ten thought leaders, innovators, and researchers who are examining a variety of digital journalism projects and outlets. Based on our research, here are the 8 best practices that producers and media organizations should consider:
* Involve: Journalism projects are using digital platforms to serve and involve users by providing the information, motivation, and tools for the user to participate in current affairs debates and related online/offline communities.
* Go deeper: News and public affairs outlets are taking advantage of digital platforms to add depth and context to coverage of breaking news, events, and issues. Digital journalism projects are also sustaining and expanding core public affairs specializations such as investigative reporting, international news, or science and environmental coverage–specialty beats that commercial news organizations are otherwise cutting.
* Reach new and non-traditional publics: Digital platforms are making it possible for producers to engage with more focused networks of users who share common identities, problems, issues or interests, rather than following a model that dictates coverage that appeals to a mass audience. Importantly, this creates openings for informing and engaging minority, ethnic, and low-income publics that are often underserved by mainstream coverage–a core mission for public broadcasters. In turn, such perspectives and content can migrate to broader platforms, diversifying coverage and providing valuable context for more general constituencies.
* Repurpose, remix, recycle: Repurposing existing content online can include shifting content from one platform to another, or the aggregation of existing news and data sources around particular issues. Such projects maximize user access to existing content and create new value and utility for users through smart curation.
* Collaborate: Collaborative digital news and public affairs projects are being organized around shared issues, locations and user communities. These projects involve connections between different sorts of media outlets as well as related organizations, institutions, and publics.
* Enable media literacy: Digital journalism is not just about effective use of technology or organizational restructuring. It also involves helping users to take advantage of the abundance of new media resources and choices, to become more frequent and more effective makers and users. This category includes examples of projects featuring news and media literacy, standards-setting and training to become citizen journalists.
* Play with form to innovate and integrate new technologies: Digital journalism pioneers are innovating new formats, interfaces, and platforms for delivering news and information and for sponsoring audience engagement with public affairs. In some cases these piggyback on commercial open platforms and software; in others they leverage free open source software and related developer communities.
* Promote political discussion and participation: Digital journalism sites are well poised to foster political conversations and civic engagement, whether they are election-centered or policy-centered, partisan or not. Political sites tend to encourage and even rely upon user comments that can sometimes turn into rigorous discussions that inspire people to take action. These sites also provide so-called “mobilizing information” on how to get involved, who to contact, and where to show up to participate or vote. Political conversations are also stimulated by government transparency initiatives.
Perhaps the best way to read the report is in the HTML version, which includes links to the several dozen examples of media projects that represent aspects of these best practices. The full report is additionally available in PDF format. You can also read about the related research on digital media that CPB commissioned at the organization’s site. Jessica Clark has more to say about the report in a blog post at the Center for Social Media.