For the past decade, the Nieman Journalism Lab has provided incisive reporting about the future of news, innovation and best practices in the digital media age. The Lab is an essential resource serving a global audience of loyal readers and industry analysts looking for original reporting as well as research and commentary on the rapid evolution of digital news. It serves as a leading voice for journalism innovation worldwide.
In 2018, Nieman Lab continued to provide valuable and innovative coverage of the ever-changing world of digital news. In the past 12 months, the Lab has published more than 1,000 articles written by more than 200 writers. Sometime in the first few months of 2019, a Nieman Lab article will be read online for the 40 millionth time in our history. The Lab’s goals remain to help reporters and editors adjust to their online environment; to help traditional news organizations find a way to survive; and to help the new crop of startups that increasingly complement or supplant them. For a field in as much flux and experiencing as much growth as journalism today, the Lab is a hub for a global community where innovators share ideas and research.
For a taste of what Nieman Lab does, here is a sampling of the stories published in August 2018: multiple editions of Real News About Fake News, Laura Hazard Owen’s weekly column covering the latest research and innovations around the misinformation/disinformation crisis; two stories looking at how ProPublica and the Center for Investigative Reporting are expanding partnerships with local outlets; a profile of a German newspaper’s successful effort to build cross-partisan dialogue in a respectful manner; a census of how many American news sites have become inaccessible in Europe because of publisher concerns over the new GDPR regulations; a lengthy interview with the new director of public policy at European publishing giant Schibsted, discussing its technology strategy, regulation issues and more; and a collection of the most interesting recent academic research into digital media, done in partnership with Journalist’s Resource at Harvard Kennedy School.
Among the major questions the Lab explored in 2018: What does news look like after the advertising-fueled mass media era? Can the largest digital-native news publishers survive the dominance of Facebook and Google in digital advertising? Can publishers shift to a reader-revenue model without increasing information inequality, turning quality news into a luxury good? As audiences shift from traditional television to streaming services, can news find a place in the new environment—despite its structural preference for high-cost content that returns on that investment for years or decades? Is Facebook’s retrenchment from the news space an opportunity for news organizations or a threat to the mass diffusion of news? What will happen—to news and to news audiences—when local newspapers stop shrinking and start closing? Which of the new potential platforms for news—chatbots, virtual reality, augmented reality, smart speakers, wearables, AI, blockchain—will actually turn into significant distributors of civic information?
The year ended, as it has since 2011, with a collection of predictions for the new year in journalism, written by a diverse group of smart digital thinkers and doers. It is one of the most anticipated editorial products of the year in news industry circles. This year, the Lab published more than 200 predictions, a new record.
The Lab has continued to focus on expanding its international reach, working with partner news organizations around the world to have its stories translated and co-published, including work with major outlets like the Yomiuri Shimbun in Japan, Univision and the International Center for Journalists. Stories were made available in Portuguese, Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Polish, Arabic, German, Farsi and Japanese. Roughly half of the overall Nieman Lab audience is outside the United States, and its sustained reporting on international innovation continues to broaden its reach.
The Lab has continued to commit significant resources to reporting on the rise of misinformation and disinformation, with the weekly “Real News About Fake News” column essential reading for those interested in the topic. Its staff continues to be sought out for information and counsel by other reporters covering digital media and by news organizations seeking insight into the industry’s changes.
The Nieman Lab team, led by director Joshua Benton, produces daily media coverage with deputy editor Laura Hazard Owen and staff writer Christine Schmidt. Our two regular outside contributors are longtime news business expert Ken Doctor and Nicholas Quah, a former Knight Visiting Nieman Visiting Fellow who writes Hot Pod, the weekly podcasting newsletter that is the industry bible.
The Lab’s most important social outreach platform remains email, with the daily and weekly email newsletters reaching over 62,000 people, an increase of nearly 25 percent from a year ago. The Daily Digest, which goes out each weekday afternoon, highlights the Lab’s work and the most important digital innovation news of the day; its subscriber count grows at a rate of more than 1,000 per month. According to MailChimp, its open rate is roughly 50 percent higher than the average email newsletter from a news publisher. In all, Nieman Lab sent out more than 14 million emails in 2018.
The Lab’s other social accounts on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn continued to see steady growth in 2018, with over 475,000 followers between them. The site’s articles and other work are read roughly 5 million times per year and viewed many tens of millions of times across social media. According to Twitter’s internal analytics, Nieman Lab tweets are viewed on average between 4 and 6 million times per month.
Highlights from Nieman Reports in 2018 included a special double issue, published ahead of the Nieman Foundation’s 80th anniversary in October, showcasing the journalism that has shaped great journalists. In “The Nieman 80,” Nieman alumni reflected on 80 pieces of journalism—presented in chapters divided by themes of power, race, conflict, and people—that in some way left an indelible mark on their lives and careers. The result is what Nieman curator Ann Marie Lipinski called “an accidental curriculum that has shaped generations of journalists”—a collection of articles and investigations, books, photos, cartoons, podcasts, documentaries and virtual reality installations, all works that have endured long after Niemans first read, listened or viewed them. The Summer/Fall 2018 issue also featured two stories examining the complicated life, work and legacy of Walter Lippmann, the namesake of Nieman’s Cambridge headquarters.
The Spring 2018 issue featured a cover story about the state of local television news, which—despite being what the majority of Americans still rely on to keep informed—is in trouble, with shrinking profits and viewership as Americans of all demographics turn away from television. “Reinventing Local TV News,” by Sara Morrison and Eryn Carlson, highlights stations that are driving innovation and experimenting with new ways to attract younger, more diverse audiences, with case studies of stations that are going digital-first, crowdsourcing reporting, experimenting with augmented reality and injecting more personality in the news.
Published as the opioid epidemic in the U.S. continued to surge, the cover package of the Winter 2018 issue focused on covering addiction, treatment and recovery. The lead story, Susan Stellin’s “Covering Addiction,” highlighted the need for the media to provide a greater focus on treatment and recovery since—though there’s no shortage of news documenting the toll of the crisis—coverage of recovery itself remains rare and often tangential. The package also featured pieces on paying attention to word choice when writing about addiction and an article by photographer Graham MacIndoe, who was formerly addicted to heroin, on how to fairly and ethically depict addiction in photographs.
Other highlights from our 2018 print issues included insightful analyses of the innovation in arts writing happening at online outlets and how “extreme transparency” can be beneficial for news organizations; a look at the coverage of timely topics such as immigration and race relations; and examinations of the state of journalism in the Philippines, Russia and across Africa. A diverse array of pieces are published exclusively online, including features (such as “How Newsrooms are Rethinking Midterms Coverage,” “Why We Need More Journalism Courses Taught in Prison,” and one on journalism startups driving media innovation in Europe), regular columns on journalism ethics by 2014 Nieman Fellow Issac Bailey, and opinion and commentary pieces by an ever-expanding list of both U.S. and international contributors. Some of the most popular online-only pieces in 2018 were “How Journalists of Color Are Redefining Newsroom Culture,” “The Great Disconnect” by 2019 Nieman Fellow Steve Myers, and “Why Journalists Need to Be Witty” by Nieman Reports editor James Geary.
A variety of news outlets and organizations have recognized and spotlighted the work of Nieman Reports in 2018. For example, one of the articles on Walter Lippmann that appeared in the Summer/Fall issue was co-published by TheAtlantic.com, and several newsletters—including those from Poynter, the American Press Institute, Pew Research Center, and The Local Fix (from the Democracy Fund)—highlighted Nieman Reports articles.
The staff that produces Nieman Reports includes editor James Geary, deputy curator of the Nieman Foundation; senior editor Jan Gardner; editorial specialist Eryn Carlson; and publisher Ann Marie Lipinski, curator of the Nieman Foundation; with additional help from administrative assistant Shantel Blakeley and design by the New York City-based firm Pentagram.
Since 2009, Nieman Storyboard has showcased exceptional narrative journalism and explored the craft and value of nonfiction storytelling across all media.
Now, as the site’s 10th anniversary approaches, Storyboard’s mission is more important than ever. The digital-era demands for speed and multimedia production have put new pressures on the journalist in the field. The contraction of the legacy news media has left thousands of journalists working as freelancers or without strong support in their newsrooms. The need for news organizations to focus limited resources on investigations and civic affairs can leave little time for telling true stories in creative ways that reach beyond numbers and events to meaning and understanding. Storyboard enters its second decade with the goal of expanding the international community of storytelling journalists in ways that both inspire and support their work.
In early 2018, under the guidance of editor Kari Howard, Storyboard started a new series, “The Pitch,” offering tips from editors and writers on how to focus and pitch longform stories; it has become one of the site’s most popular features. Howard also introduced “theme weeks” that highlighted disparate standout work that touched on a common subject such as gun violence or race. Storyboard’s presence on social media, especially Twitter, grew through the popularity of tip-by-tip tweets and featured posts that went viral.
In June, Pulitzer-winning writer Jacqui Banaszynski, one of the nation’s most sought-after instructors on journalistic writing and editing, joined the site as editor, bringing with her years of her own field experience and an international network of contacts. “Nieman has been a touchstone for my work as a reporter, writer, editor and teacher,” Banaszynski said when she stepped into the role. “I look forward to hosting Storyboard, and building on its tradition as a creative and practical gathering place for today’s nonfiction storytellers.”
Banaszynski wants that gathering place to be a must-visit for its community, and a place where today’s storytellers find both inspiration and tools that help them in the field. The site will continue to expand its attention on multimedia storytelling, especially podcasts and visual narratives. It has added an emphasis on work being done by smaller and non-legacy news sites, on work being done under the intense pressure of deadline and digital demands, and on work being done by a new and diverse generation of journalists. At the same time, it will use the 10th anniversary as a prompt to revisit work done by past masters of narrative, and to collect the wisdom of today’s master class.
As part of that, Storyboard provided a teaching guide to more than 100 college-level instructors for use in their reporting and writing classes, and encourages both university and high school teachers to use the site as a teaching tool and a publication destination.
Identifying notable Storyboard contributors and featured work from any given time period is an arbitrary exercise, and one that leaves out so much wisdom. But among the gems:
Freelancer, teacher and longform devotee Matt Tullis went to see the new documentary on Mister Rogers, then reached out to Rogers’ profiler Tom Junod, who is among Storyboard’s most-followed names. Magazine writer and book author Kim Cross hit a high note with a strong “shop class” piece on what her 10-year-old, and she, learned from the Broadway smash “Hamilton.” Environmental journalist Cheryl Katz used her expertise from the Arctic to annotate Craig Welch’s (NF ’07) National Geographic piece exploring climate degradation in the Antarctic. Columnist and magazine writer Tommy Tomlinson (NF ’09) bared all to Storyboard veteran Chip Scanlan about his memoir of obesity. Sports reporter Greg Bishop talked about discovering the sport of “speedcubing” through his autistic son. And in something really inspiring and useful, veteran longform journalist Cynthia Gorney shared her fumbling attempts at her first podcast story.
Other featured pieces explored how field reporters covered the scorching fires in California, the chaotic narrative unfolding at the U.S.-Mexico border, the confounding reality of more gun violence and searing stories from Hawaii to the Middle East to Ireland. The “One Great Sentence” feature has expanded to become a frequent teaching tool about craft; email and social media response indicates it’s a growing favorite because of its fast read and concrete comments.
Storyboard has a loyal following online, with almost 15,000 followers on Twitter, more than 5,100 Facebook fans and, on average, more than 29,000 visitors to the website each month during the past year. The Storyboard newsletter now serves almost 10,000 subscribers and has become a primary driver of traffic and conversation.