Explaining The Local: East Village, NYU’s Collaboration with the New York Times

Feb.
23
“Look: Not everyone is going to be thrilled that NYU is doing this with the New York Times. We’ll have to take those problems on, not as classroom abstractions but civil transactions with the people who live and work here. You know what? It’s going to be messy and hard, which is to say real.”

The New York Times and NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute announced yesterday that they will collaborate on a news site serving the East Village neighborhood of Manhattan. It will be called The Local: East Village, and it will appear on the nytimes.com. The site will be edited and produced at NYU.

In this post, I will explain what we’re up to and why we’re doing it. I don’t speak for the editors of the Times, but I have been discussing the East Village project with them for over a year and I have some sense of what brought them to this collaboration. And it is a collaboration: NYU will produce the site; the Times will publish it. The Times will provide the online platform and strong editorial guidance; NYU will try to bring the East Village community to that platform and innovate on it.

Jim Schachter, editor of digital initiative for the Times, said the project was made possible by shared values, a single set of standards, the most important of which is “increasing the volume and scope of quality journalism about issues that matter.”

Here’s my own description of the project and how it will work:

1. The Local: East Village will be a news site about the culture and politics, the life and times of the East Village of Manhattan. That to us means the area bounded by 14th St. on the North, Houston Street to the South, the East River and Broadway to the West, which is about 110 city blocks. The offices of the NYU Journalism Institute (at 20 Cooper Square) lie within the coverage area. We work in the East Village, and many of our students live there.

2. The url will be http://eastvillage.thelocal.nytimes.com (It’s not live yet.)

3. The Local: East Village (or LEV, as we’re calling it) builds on the prior work of the Times in starting two other community news sites on the wordpress blogging platform: one for Maplewood, Millwood and South Orange New Jersey, the other serving Ft. Greene and Clinton Hill in Brooklyn. The CUNY Graduate School of Journalism is collaborating with the Times on the Brooklyn Local.

4. In another sense the collaboration unveiled yesterday builds on two earlier announcements: that the Times would join with the Bay Area News Project in a San Francisco edition and the Chicago News Cooperative in a Chicago edition. In all three cases, a non-profit supplies content to the Times and permits it to provide better coverage than it otherwise could. Chicago and San Francisco are key places on the cultural map for the New York Times; so is the East Village.

5. The editor of the site will be an NYU faculty member, Richard G. Jones, who is a former metro reporter for the New York Times. He will work closely with Mary Ann Giordano, a deputy Metropolitan editor at the Times who is in charge of The Locals. These two people are the “hinge” between institutions. We already know they can work together because they did before, when Jones was at the Times.

6. Whereas CUNY took over the production of an existing site, LEV is more of a start-up. The Local: East Village doesn’t exist yet. The Journalism faculty and students at NYU are to give form to it, and we are presently hard at work on that, assisted by the editors and blogging team at the New York Times.

7. Deciding how to launch the site, how it should operate, and how to make it effective in the East Village community are ideal tasks for students in NYU’s Studio 20 program, which I direct, assisted by my colleague, Jason Samuels, formerly of ABCNews.com. The students in Studio 20 are immersed in the innovation puzzle in journalism; they learn by doing projects with media partners who are struggling with the same puzzle. We’ve devoted their spring seminar—a class called Studio 2, which I teach—to this collaboration with the New York Times. They are working on every aspect of the project: from the design of the site to relationships with the community, from work flows to topic pages, data apps to user participation, social media to beat reporting.

8. Once the site officially launches in the fall of 2010, The Local: East Village will be partly sustained by a new course in NYU’s Reporting New York program. It will be called The Hyperlocal Newsroom, and offered during the fall, spring and summer terms. Faculty members Yvonne Latty and Darragh Worland will teach it, assisted by Rich Jones, the editor of LEV. The idea is that there’s no better way to learn about “reporting New York” then to cover a neighborhood in New York for nytimes.com.

9. Coverage of the East Village—including blog posts, news reports, video, audio, slide shows and the like—will come from students in the The Hyperlocal Newsroom, plus other NYU students and alumni who wish to contribute, plus contributors we recruit from the East Village (bloggers, citizen journalists, community leaders, writers and video artists who live there) who want to report on their community or speak to it. This probably won’t happen right away, but a key goal is to get to 50 percent community contributions. (Wanna help us get there? Email studio 20.)

10. The Times is providing: the publishing platform including the servers, editorial supervision, the nytimes.com url, other tools and data sources available to its various blogs, and, of course, inspiration, reputation and a standard of excellence recognized around the world. NYU is providing: the editor’s salary, student and faculty labor, offices (including a meeting space, production studios, classrooms and a location in the East Village) plus the reputation of its journalism program and the University at large. No money is changing hands, but ideas are flying. A simple one page agreement governs our relationship.

11. There are other parties collaborating in this project. Dave Winer, a visiting scholar at NYU and technical adviser to Studio 20, has already contributed east-village.org, a river of news-style feed that will help us curate the blogosphere and wider web. He will advise us on other parts of the project, as well. Avi Fein and Natalie Marchant, students from the Stern School of Business Consulting Corps, are working with Studio 20 on the sustainability puzzle. I’ve asked them to figure out what the most likely sources of revenue are and recommend a strategy we can follow over the next year or two. Anuj Bajaj, Erik Froese and SungHyun Bang, students in Professor Evan Korth’s Information Technology Projects class in the computer science program at NYU are collaborating with Studio 20 on an open source assignment desk system that we can use for LEV. (This is one of the holy grails of citizen journalism.) Darian Shirazi, founder and head geek at fwix.com , is building us an aggregation tool based on his system for isolating new web content about particular places.

12. We plan to pay for at least some of the contributions flowing into the Local East Village from the community, students and freelancers. How much we can pay and what percentage of the content will be paid for…. well, we cannot say at the moment. But Brooke Kroeger, director of the Journalism Institute, is determined to raise enough money to give the editor a modest “war chest” that would compensate key contributors and fill the gaps when NYU is not in session. LEV will be a pro-am site. The only compensation system that makes sense, and the only one that is practical for us, is to pay for a portion of the content, with priority given to the most reliable contributors, the highest value journalism and work that takes the most time, effort and talent. We certainly know that these sketchy promises will do little to mute criticism about exploiting cheap labor. All we can do at this point is to acknowledge that we’re aware of the issue and will take what steps we can to address it. (Want to help fund us? Email me.)

13. Once The Local: East Village launches, Rich Jones will edit it, the Hyperlocal Newsroom course will feed talent to it, the East Village community will be invited to contribute to it, the open source assignment desk will (we hope) make it easy to be involved in it, and students in the Studio 20 program will be able to innovate with it. Again, I don’t speak for anyone at the Times, but based on my discussions with them, I believe the editors are hoping we can make progress on the hyperlocal journalism puzzle and maybe think of things they didn’t. One of my priorities is the ergonomics of participation: making it super easy and efficient for people without journalism backgrounds to contribute. Another is to operate the site so that it helps sustain the local news ecosystem, including the existing blogosphere. Jason Samuels adds another: “How do we leverage the new and rapidly emerging tools of digital journalism to consistently produce engaging multimedia content to serve our LEV audience?”

14. Our aspiration is not to give birth to a replicable site—the East Village is not your typical neighborhood—but an outstanding one. Then we can say to the journalism world: go ahead, steal some of our best ideas. We’re not aiming for typicality but we are deeply interested in practicality. One example: if the open source assignment desk works in the East Village, it can work in Grand Rapids, Michigan, too. We’ve conceived of the LEV as a learning lab for extremely local, web-based, pro-am journalism. NYU will pour as much into it as we can. Not because we think every neighborhood will one day have this level of service; that’s unlikely. But what we discover by trying to provide very good service to a single community can benefit other communities and other sites in the same general category.

15. Permit me to say what I find so fascinating about this project. Man, it has everything in it— everything I’ve been studying since I gave my first talk to newspaper editors in Des Moines, Iowa in 1989. It’s neighborhood journalism; it’s cosmopolitan too. It’s about innovation; it’s about the classic virtues, like shoe leather reporting. It combines the discipline of pro journalism with the participatory spirit of citizen journalism. It’s an ideal way to study the craft, which is to say it’s an entirely practical project. It’s what J-school should be doing: collaborating with the industry on the best ways forward. It’s news, it’s commentary, it’s reviewing, it’s opinion, it’s the forum function, community connection, data provision, blogging— all at once. LEV I said is a start-up, but it’s starting with the strongest news franchise there is: the New York Times.

16. But the thing I really love about it… NYU is a citizen of the East Village, a powerful institution (and huge land owner) within the frame. Our students are part of the community; they live there, or at least a lot of them do. Because we’re located there; we can’t really separate ourselves from our subject. Look, not everyone is going to be thrilled that NYU is doing this with the New York Times. We’ll have to take those problems on, not as classroom abstractions but civil transactions with the people who live and work here. You know what? It’s going to be messy and hard, which is to say real. But what better way is there to learn what journalists are yet good for in 2010?

See also this interview at Nieman Lab: What the Times-NYU partnership says about the future of journalism education: A Q & A with Jay Rosen.

Update, July 19, 2010. Unfortunately, this article on what we’re doing, which appeared in Capital New York (a new site covering the city) is flawed. “The interns will not be paid,” writes the author, Eliza Shapiro, “but they will develop skills that may or not be valuable in a few years, depending on the success of projects like the Local blogs and the idea of citizen journalism.” This is incorrect. All the interns working on The Local: East Village are paid. She writes:

At The Awl, Choire Sicha wrote that the site was cynical in that it seemed to be premised on the notion that the way to finance local news operations is on the back of free labor.

Shapiro never asked us if that was correct. (Neither did the Awl.) The LEV is planning to employ a mix of volunteer and paid systems for its contributors. For more on The Local: East Village see this page.