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April 17, 2018

Ellen Hyslop, Jacie deHoop and Roslyn McLarty, co-founders of The Gist, of one five Digital News Innovation Challenge finalists. (Courtesy of The Gist)

A news outlet providing sports coverage tailored to a female audience and a pop-up journalism site designed to keep citizens connected to their local communities are among the five startups awarded up to $100,000 as part of the Digital News Innovation Challenge.

The Challenge, a partnership between the Facebook Journalism Project, Ryerson’s Digital Media Zone (DMZ) and the Ryerson School of Journalism, aims to support digital news ideas that will drive innovation for news organizations and journalism. The startups will spend from April to September in Sandbox, the DMZ’s skills development space. In addition to support for early-stage startups, participants will be provided with workspace and access to high-profile senior mentors, workshops featuring digital news experts in Canada, and the opportunity to work with journalists, researchers and investors.

“We’re genuinely excited about the mix of approaches and experiences the teams are bringing to the DNIC,” said Asmaa Malik, innovation lead and graduate program director at the Ryerson School of Journalism. “They’re tackling some of the most pressing challenges facing journalism in Canada: amplifying the reach and power of local news and understanding how deeply people engage with news, as well looking ahead to explore how emerging technologies can connect new audiences.”

The $100,000 in seed capital provided by Facebook will be distributed in phases beginning with the release of $20,000 to each startup. Each team will receive two additional installments of $20,000 upon completion of clearly identified milestones. At the end of September, there will be a final demo day where teams will pitch to high-profile investors and be eligible for a final $40,000. In addition to access to seed money, startups will each receive a Facebook marketing budget of up to $50,000 to promote their innovations on the social platform.

The startups selected as part of the Challenge offer a wide range of solutions, from platforms supporting on-the-ground reporting to AI-content analytics for publishers. The Gist, co-founded by Ellen Hyslop, Jacie deHoop and Roslyn McLarty, is a digital sports news business that curates and contextualizes sports content for a female audience.

“Women tend to be left out of the [sports] conversations in boardrooms, social gatherings and events,” Hyslop said, “mostly because they didn’t watch the game last night.” As a result, she said, women are at a disadvantage when it comes to developing important relationships in both personal and professional settings.

The Gist online platform provides a weekly newsletter and daily Instagram posts with timely and informative content about the top sports headlines. Its website also includes a glossary and guides for hockey, football, basketball, baseball, soccer, tennis and golf. These guides explain how the sport is played and organized, identifies the best players and the top women in the sport, and provides trivia. The Gist team, which is based in Toronto, also coordinates viewing parties that brings together women to watch sports games.

“We are hoping that the Gist can be a tool to inform women so they can use sports as an equalizer,” Hyslop said, noting that only 14 per cent of sports journalists are female.

Ground, founded by Harleen Kaur and Sukh Singh of Waterloo, Ont., is an online app that delivers news with real people reporting from when and where it happens. The app uses AI and human verification to weed out fake news and fake viral videos.

Ground picks up signals from social media platforms, traditional news organizations and news reported by Ground users. News stories are then filtered through the AI algorithm and users in the location of the reported news are notified by AI-composed requests for photos, videos and commentary. Ground users at the location are asked to confirm if the story as true or fake and each news story gets a verification score depending on how many people are verifying or debunking it, and the past credibility of each of the users. Verified news is disseminated to the user base while false stories are flagged as “fake” to clearly warn users against it.

If there is peak activity on social media in the area of Ryerson, for example, and the repeated word is fire, the Ground system will send out automated notifications to people near that location asking them to confirm whether there is in fact a fire, Kaur said in an interview. Ground can then break that news faster than other news outlets because of the verification by eye-witnesses. After the news is verified, Ground collects users’ content and photos and ensures it is has not been subject to tampering.

“We believe that technology has actually done a lot of disservice to journalists as opposed to helping them,” said Kaur, who is a former NASA engineer. “With Ground, we are putting verification at the forefront. We are using technology that takes social media information and the publishers’ information, and puts it together. So journalists can use Ground to get breaking news confirmed and commentary from people who are on the ground.”

Readefined, founded by Mario Vasilescu, Richard Tuck and Matei Vasilescu, is a piece of lightweight code that digital content publishers can install on their site. Rather than relying on second-degree data, like how a story was liked or shared on social media, or vague metrics like clicks or time on page, the technology helps publishers determine if visitors are really paying attention, how intensely, and why.

While some of the startup finalists focus on technology, others support local news.

Jeremy Klaszus of Calgary, for instance, says the decline of local news media in Calgary means Calgarians are disconnected from what’s going on in their community. To solve this, Klaszus founded the Sprawl– a pop-up form of journalism that can be set up and taken down according to coverage needs. The digital model means the site does not have to cover everything all the time, and instead allows for it to focus on one story or issue at a time and fill in gaps in coverage by traditional news media.

“It’s of interest to the journalism industry because we’ve been able to have a high level of engagement– which is what every news organization is seeking,” said Klaszus, a Calgary journalist who has written about the city for 15 years   for the Calgary Herald, Metro, CBC and CTV. “It’s participatory in a lot of ways because with the Sprawl’s model, I don’t have to worry about the next day’s newspaper or a newscast to fill. I have the freedom to adapt and to engage people on a deeper level rather than only feeding [audiences] news.”

Trebble.fm, the fifth project, is an online platform designed to distribute newscasts on voice-activated devices such as Amazon Echo or Google Home. With the loss of so many local newspapers, Armel Beaudry said his Ottawa-based media startup makes it easier for journalists to share news coverage and for audiences to find local content. Community journalists, for instance, can share newscasts with their audience using “capsules”– audio messages that journalists can record through the platform to play to listeners.

Staff reporter

April 13, 2018

Ryerson University master of journalism student Michael D’Alimonte (Courtesy of Michael D’Alimonte)

Gay men living with HIV/AIDS were underrepresented and often portrayed in a negative light by Toronto mainstream newspapers covering the early years of the health crisis, according to a new study.

The research paper by Ryerson University master of journalism student Michael D’Alimonte also suggests that the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail were too eager to publish scientifically dubious findings during the early years of the crisis in the 1980s.

“The (research) paper is a lesson on reporting on an emerging health crisis,” said D’Alimonte, whose paper has been accepted for presentation at the Canadian Communication Association meeting this spring. “Reporters can’t just take official sources at their word. They have to question things and reporters need to go into these at-risk groups and make connections to get the insiders perspective rather than taking an outsiders approach and reporting from there.”

D’Alimonte, who is completing his final year in the master of journalism program, compared the AIDS coverage by the two mainstream papers to reporting by The Body Politic, a monthly that billed itself as a “gay liberation newspaper.” He found substantial differences.

The Body Politic, he said, was more more likely to question early research claims that AIDS can be spread by casual contact – a claim that turned out to be false. Gay men living with AIDS were also given a voice in the publication’s coverage more frequently than in mainstream publications.

D’Alimonte’s content analysis also revealed that when AIDS was first recognized as a public health issue, The Body Politic reported more extensively on developments and also played the role of an advocate, adopting a critical perspective on AIDS as a social and public health issue, he said.

D’Alimonte said he decided to investigate news coverage of the early years of the AIDS epidemic after having a partner who was diagnosed as HIV-positive. He became more aware of the stigma faced by people who are HIV-positive, he said, when his partner encountered immigration difficulties moving from the United States to Canada.

“This got me interested in where all of this stigma came from,” D’Alimonte said. “As a queer male, I never learned about any of that stuff in school, so I took it upon myself to learn about the AIDS epidemic and also about that period of time in a Toronto context. Not a lot of people are aware that a lot of the activism surrounding AIDS was centred in Toronto.”

The paper, AIDS Coverage By Three Toronto-Based Print News Publications, examines AIDS coverage by the three news outlets in Toronto from 1981, when it was first reported on, to 1987.

In his analysis, D’Alimonte, 26, investigated the extent to which the newspapers focused on people who were diagnosed with AIDS and were ill rather than stories of healthy HIV-positive individuals. He examined how frequently AIDS stories appeared in the newspapers and the significance of word choice and terminology. Use of the term “plague,” he noted, implied that gay men with AIDS were deserving of their affliction because they were sexually deviant. The study also looked at where AIDS-related stories appeared in the publications and the types of sources quoted.

D’Alimonte said he wanted to see if the Toronto coverage mirrored patterns of early AIDS reporting in the United States, where researchers have divided the coverage into four distinct “eras.” He found that in the initial era from from June 1981, when the first AIDS cases were reported, to April 1983, the Star and the Globe virtually ignored the issue.

The Globe published just one article related to AIDS, a 1981 story titled “Young gays sensitive to rare cancer: study.” The article focused on Kaposi’s sarcoma, the “rare cancer” alluded to in the title, and featured only scientific sources. Individuals with the disease were nowhere in the story. Both the title and the lede of the piece connect this rare cancer to the gay male community, but no real explanation was provided for this link.

The Toronto Star, meanwhile, did not publish its first AIDS-related story until November 1982 when it a piece ran under the headline “Atlanta disease detectives hot on trail of ‘gay plague.’”

“Likening AIDS to a ‘gay plague’ makes those afflicted by the disease (who are mostly homosexuals and drug-users, as the piece points out) seem deserving of their fate,” D’Alimonte wrote in the research paper. “Drug-users and homosexuals, already seen as deviants in the public eye at the time, are being punished by God. That is, at least, what the language used implicitly suggests.”

The two mainstream newspapers may not have felt a sense of urgency to report on AIDS, D’Alimonte said, because their team and audience were outside of the community at risk: “No matter what the circumstance is,” he said, “it is always easy to point fingers. We are born in a way that makes the one group as the ‘other’ when you’re not a part of that community. During this time period, there was a lot of research and early reporting saying that the gay community is the reason why this disease is expanding.”

During the subsequent “Science Era,” from the spring of 1983 until June 1985, American journalists relied on scientific, academic sources in their reporting, and the Canadian newspapers did as well. The Globe and the Star would instantly write about new AIDS-related research, D’Alimonte said, and that occasionally led to the dissemination of misleading information.

The Body Politic, D’Alimonte said in an interview, took more cautious approach: “(Its) writers realized that what they wrote would influence how people thought,” he said, “especially when they are coming from their own community. They knew they shouldn’t just take information and report it out as soon as they got it.”

The publication went beyond simply disseminating information, D’Alimonte said, and worked to offer guidance to its readers, pointing out what information may be accurate, what may be false and where they could find out more.

Following the AIDS-related death of Rock Hudson in 1985, the general population became interested and concerned about AIDS, and both Canadian papers dramatically increased coverage. During the so-called Human Era of news coverage between July 1985 to January 1987, D’Alimonte found that the Globe and the Star did a better job of humanizing the disease, drawing upon people affected within the queer community as well as other at-risk groups as sources.

The Body Politic ceased publication in 1987, the same year AIDS coverage took off in the mainstream media during what is known as the Political Era of coverage. By that point, D’Alimonte said, AIDS became a major news topic – a public health issue the general population wanted to know more about. After publishing just 73 stories in 1986, the Globe and Mail carried 236 AIDS-related stories in 1987. The number of stories in the Star increased to 146 in 1987, up from 56 in 1986

D’Alimonte said he hopes his research paper will inform millennials of what happened during the AIDS epidemic and the legacy of it.

Founding Director, RJRC

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

April 13, 2018

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Who holds officials accountable when cities like Thunder Bay, Ont., rife with political and racial tensions, have no local reporters?

There’s $50 million in federal government money on the table in Canada to support local journalism in the country’s under-served communities over the next five years.

What’s the best way to spend it?

Last month’s federal budget announcement is an acknowledgement that access to reliable, timely, relevant local news is a growing problem. Data from The Local News Map, a crowd-sourced tool that tracks changes to local media, shows that 244 local news outlets of all types have closed in 181 Canadian communities since 2008. Over the same period, only 75 new operations were launched.

We are starting to hear about the consequences of what I call “local news poverty” — situations where the critical information needs of communities are not being met.

When Postmedia and Torstar Corp. announced the closing of three dozen newspapers in late 2017, local mayors worried aloud about how to keep their citizenry informed. In Thunder Bay, Ont., a city churning with political scandal and racial tensions, the local newspaper at one point had no local reporter on staff to hold officials accountable. Wire copy and short items by the paper’s two photographers filled the pages.

The federal government did not dictate how its $50 million will be spent: It said only that the money will fund “independent non-governmental organizations.” And so the search begins for ideas worth supporting.

‘Local democracy reporters’

Experiments aimed at strengthening local news are already underway in other jurisdictions. In the United Kingdom, the BBC is paying the salaries of 150 journalists who are embedded at newspapers, radio stations, online sites and other local media organizations. These “local democracy reporters” cover local political and civic news and their stories are shared with more than 700 media outlets that have signed onto the Local News Partnerships Program.

The recently launched Report for America initiative aims to place 1,000 reporters in U.S. newsrooms over the next five years to fill gaps in community coverage. Report for America, funded by the Google News Lab, foundations and individual donors, pays half of each reporter’s salary; local news outlets and philanthropists must cover the other half.

The $50 million could be used to create a made-in-Canada version of these initiatives, but paying the salaries of legions of journalists isn’t sustainable over the long term: five years from now, when the federal funding is gone, the reporters will be gone too.

The money would be better spent on projects that build capacity in local newsrooms. The Local News Lab, another foundation-funded project in the United States, explores strategies for building a stronger local news environment in New Jersey. Drawing on this work and experiments in local newsroom sustainability across the country, it produces reports offering practical advice on everything from running effective crowd-funding campaigns to putting out a newsletter.

These resources help startups and other struggling local news outlets avoid common mistakes, and they are worth supporting. But a $50 million investment should also buy a more concrete, lasting contribution to quality news coverage.

Stories with strong local angles

The establishment of a Local News Data Lab would be a good start. The idea is borrowed from two recent data journalism initiatives in the United Kingdom. The BBC’s Shared Data Unit brings together experienced BBC data journalists and reporters seconded from the local media.

The local reporters build their skills as part of a team that uses data that is publicly available or obtained via freedom of information requests to produce national stories with strong local angles.

One recent project that made data on the decline of local bus services available to local news partners in an easy-to-use format resulted in dozens of local stories. The Shared Data Unit also provided local journalists with a background briefing document that outlined why the bus network was in the news, why the issue is important and what the data shows.

Graphs, question-and-answer interviews with experts and examples of localized stories were also included.

The Bureau Local, launched in March 2017 and run by the not-for-profit Bureau of Investigative Journalism, is another U.K-based project that focuses on data journalism. Last year the Bureau’s journalists worked with local reporters and the volunteers in its network to produce a national story chronicling how victims of domestic violence were being turned away from cash-strapped crisis shelters.

The investigation, based on open government data, FOI responses, a survey of shelter managers and interviews with women who rely upon the shelter system, resulted in more than 30 local stories.

Political donations database

But we don’t need to look so far afield for an example of how a Local News Data Lab could enrich local journalism here in Canada. Reporter Zane Schwartz, this year’s Postmedia annual Michelle Lang Fellow, performed a great public service last week when he released Canada’s first centralized, searchable database of political donations.

Schwartz spent a year gathering six million records for provincial and federal donations — many of them in formats that were less than user friendly — and organizing them into an accessible database.

His subsequent story points to contributors who exceeded provincial caps on donations, donations to Yukon politicians from supporters who don’t live in the territory and numbered companies that make for a less-than-transparent system.

Schwartz invited engaged citizens and other media outlets to explore the data. Journalists who query the name of local constituency associations or their federal and provincial representatives are almost guaranteed a story.

A Local News Data Lab run by experienced data journalists could make this type of collaborative, investigative local storytelling an ongoing reality in Canada.

Possible partners?

If it operated under the auspices of a school of journalism, student interns could work with the professionals and get hands-on data journalism experience. Or it could collaborate with an organization like The Canadian Press — the national wire service’s news subscribers would be a ready-made network of local partners.

Sure, there will be instances where newsrooms won’t produce stories even when they are spoon-fed local data and a how-to-do-it story recipe. But overall, there will be more local investigative stories about issues that matter.

Student internships, newsroom collaborations and training opportunities for reporters in the field will build much-needed data journalism skills in local news organizations across the country.

The ConversationAnd if the lab proves its worth after five years, other funders may step up to keep it going. The Local News Data Lab will not singlehandedly solve the problems of local journalism in Canada. But public money invested in it would be money well spent.

Special to the RJRC

April 9, 2018

Data journalists are rethinking how they present data-driven stories as it becomes clear that readers won’t spend time clicking through interactive visualizations, says Roberto Rocha, a CBC data journalist and educator specializing in data-driven reporting.

Rocha, who has worked on stories ranging from a Montreal street history map to a ranking of psychedelic drugs, says data journalists must accept that readers have a limited amount of patience for sorting through data.

“Readers are lazy,” Rocha said during a Mar. 27 webinar hosted by Geothink, a Canadian geospatial open data research partnership funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. “They don’t want to work to get information. Basically, they just want to scroll.”

Rocha said the early tendency of data journalists to throw every scrap of data at readers and hope that they would explore the material has proven ineffective. Most readers simply won’t spend hours, or even a few minutes, exploring interactive websites overloaded with datasets, said Rocha, who characterized the practice as “an abdication of the journalist’s role.”

More recently, he said, data journalists have been returning to the basics, which include filtering information, uncovering the main story, and telling that story in an engaging way: “There’s a major shift that’s happening in data journalism that started a few years ago where [the way data journalists perceive themselves] has shifted from simply organizing data … to more of an active storyteller role.”

This new, more user-friendly approach is evident, Rocha said, in the New York Times’ March 19 use of an animated graph to visualize rates at which white and black men who grew up in rich families remain affluent or fall into poverty. Another example, a timeline visualizing 311 calls New Yorkers made relating to damage caused by Hurricane Sandy from the fall of 2012 to now, uses scrolling to drive home the long-reaching effects of hurricane recovery.

“Interactivity is not a panacea for engagement,” says Rocha, noting that if readers must search for information, they are more likely to lose interest in the story.

Analytics have played an important role in reshaping the story-telling approach used for data journalism projects. Rocha said data gathered by the New York Times to measure reader engagement with its interactive visualizations – which are costly and time consuming to produce – revealed an engagement rate of just 15 per cent.

In response to these findings, the Times refined its approach to minimize the work required of readers and place more responsibility on the shoulders of the journalists. The new direction was summarized in a set of three “rules for visual storytelling” in a talk given by Archie Tse, deputy graphics editor for the Times:

  1. If you make the reader click or do anything other than scroll, something spectacular has to happen.
  2. If you make a tooltip or rollover, assume no one will ever see it. If content is important for readers to see, don’t hide it.
  3. When deciding whether to make something interactive, remember that getting it to work on all platforms is expensive.

Although efforts by data journalists to more effective in their story-telling approaches, panelist April Lindgren pointed out that many journalists still need to learn the basics of data-driven journalism.

“The capacity of local new organizations to mine … data for stories is really lagging behind the growing availability of data sources,” said Lindgren, the academic director of the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre,. Most local journalists lack the skills required to collect data and pull stories from it, she said, and recent graduates who do possess these skills often find themselves overwhelmed with the workload once they are installed in local newsrooms.

Lindgren said more collaboration between newsrooms might be one solution to this problem and pointed to a recent project by fellow presenter Zane Schwartz to illustrate her point. Schwartz, an investigative journalist for National Post and Macleans, spent his section of the webinar discussing the political donations database he compiled using more than six million records gathered from every province and territory. Though Schwartz noted only a handful of people had downloaded the full dataset, Lindgren says the production and sharing of such databases could be one way to address the problems faced by local news organizations that lack the staff, skills, and time to explore data-driven journalism.

“Local journalists could go [into these databases], take the data, and make it relevant to their local audiences and do that work for the people who live in their communities,” says Lindgren. “I’m hoping … that more local journalists will see what [Schwartz] has done and recognize what a gift it is in terms of a story in hand.”

She pointed to collaborative data journalism models launched in the United Kingdom as possible models for Canada. The BBC’s Shared Data Unit, part of its broader Local News Partnerships Program, pairs experienced BBC data journalists with reporters from the local news industry to educate them about working with and reporting on data. Similarly, The Bureau Local, launched in March 2017 by the not-for-profit Bureau of Investigative Journalism, aims to work with British local media to use datasets to write local stories.

Recreating these types of initiatives in Canada, says Lindgren, could be critical to improving the state of Canadian local journalism. And the data suggests these improvements are necessary—findings from the Local News Research Project, which Lindgren co-founded, show that 244 local news outlets of all types have closed in 181 Canadian communities since 2008.

Staff reporter

April 8, 2018

Nicole Cohen said precarious working conditions undermine the diversity of voices available in media because it limits the number and type of people who can afford to pursue journalism careers. (Amanda Pope/RJRC)

The uncertainty and insecurity of the freelance life has major consequences including the elimination voices belonging to people who can’t afford such precarious employment and less investigative reporting, says author Nicole Cohen.

In her new book, Writers’ Rights: Freelance Journalism in a Digital Age,” Cohen includes the results of an online survey of 200 Canadian freelance journalists. The results paint a bleak picture of life on the freelance front lines. The survey revealed that 55 per cent of respondents had intense workloads upward of 50 hours a week, only 20 per cent are able to set their own rates of pay, and that female freelancers are generally paid less than their male counterparts.

“For freelance journalists,” Cohen said, “precarity means not knowing where their next assignment or paycheque will come from or anxiety about uncertain futures, or social isolation, income instability, or a lack of access to mentorship or training, which can inhibit career development.”

Cohen, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Institute of Communication, Culture, Information and Technology, recently discussed the book, which was awarded the Gertrude J. Robinson Book Prize, at a Ryerson School of Creative Industries and Global Communication Governance Lab event attended by about 100 students.

In addition to the survey, Cohen’s research explores the political, economic and cultural context in which freelancers work, and examines efforts to collectively address the challenges they face. She also argues that the ill effects of precarious work for freelancers extends beyond individual hardship: There are also implications for a just and democratic media system.

“Journalism is a form of communication essential for meaningful participation in democratic life,” Cohen said. “Because powerful corporate and political interests influence so much journalism today, freelancers are in a strategic position to produce independent, autonomous material free from corporate and government control.”

That’s the ideal. The reality, she argued, is that precarious working conditions undermine the diversity of voices available in media by limiting the number and type of people who can afford to pursue journalism careers. Of the survey respondents, 93 per cent identified as white: “Ensuring that journalism is accessible and sustainable to workers regardless of gender, race, or class is critical,” Cohen said.

“Those who produce journalism have great influence over what types of stories are told and from what perspectives. Our media system remains dominated by white men who can afford to pursue careers in an insecure industry that requires more to perform extended bouts of unpaid work.”

In the best of cases, Cohen said, freelancing can give journalists the time and space to produce investigative, critical and exploratory work that workers in understaffed, time-strapped newsrooms often cannot undertake. Quality reporting of this type, however, is jeopardized by low pay and irregular hours of work because freelance journalists can’t afford to do investigative journalism when they aren’t paid to do core reporting and research. The low pay and time pressures, Cohen said, force freelancers to produce quick-hit articles rather than more in-depth, quality journalism.

And the pay is low: Of the 200 survey respondents, 45 per cent of the freelancers reported earning less than $20,000 per year from writing.

“Many go into great personal debt to finance stories, as media outlets won’t pay for expenses,” Cohen said, noting that writers’ remuneration is determined by editors’ personal valuation of their work, word count or sometimes page views.

Freelancers are generally paid long after they do work and regularly chase late payment themselves. In such conditions, she said, it’s increasingly difficult for most to earn a living from journalism alone.

Cohen identified collective action by freelancers as one way to fight for improved pay and working conditions. In the United States, she noted, the National Writers Union just recently used legal proceedings to secure $80,000 in unpaid fees for 48 American freelancers who contributed to Ebony and Jet, magazines for African-American readers.

In the months leading up to the settlement with Ebony Media and the private-equity group that owns the magazines, freelancers took their complaints to social media using the Twitter hashtag #EbonyOwes to drum up public support, a strategy that alerted many to a not-so-secret reality that when companies struggle financially or when editors forget to file invoices, it is individual freelancers who pay.

“We have seen some inspiring movements and campaigns that are addressing these issues,” Cohen said, pointing to the growth of an intern labour rights movement internationally and the ongoing unionization of digital media workers over the past two years. “What these initiatives show is that the only way to address precarity and to improve writers’ rights is by acting together, not alone.”