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How an investigation into fake Ph.Ds became a case study for newsroom transformation

How an investigation into fake Ph.Ds became a case study for newsroom transformation

Sherry Ricchiardi | December 14, 2017
ICFJ Google Fellow Antoine Laurent (second from left) with Tempo staff.

In September, an investigative story shook the halls of academe in Indonesia.  

Reporters exposed a fake Ph.D. scam at 12 universities, sparking government intervention and a purge of the perpetrators. “Doctoring Doctorates” was more than a journalistic coup.

For the Tempo Media Group, the high-profile project was a template for the future.  

In June, Antoine Laurent, an innovation strategist and former journalist from Paris, began a fellowship supported by the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) and Google News Lab to help Indonesian news companies like Tempo harness new forms of storytelling using the latest digital tools. One of his first projects with Tempo was to develop interactive visuals for the Ph.D. exposé, a prototype for Tempo’s new multi-platform journalism.

Traditionally, the investigative unit has been exclusively print-oriented, paying scant attention to interactive infographics for Tempo.co, one of Indonesia’s leading news websites.

The Ph.D. project changed all that. It produced a list of impressive milestones for Tempo. Among the most significant:

  • For the first time, the investigative and infographics teams worked together from the start to plan both a digital and print version of a story. During the process, print staffers learned to use interactive tools.

  • Until September, Tempo had never produced a large investigative project with interactive elements. Previously, only text and photos from print stories were posted on the website and a PDF put up for subscribers.  

  • Normally, investigations had been published first in the weekly magazine, then a few days or a week later, posted on Tempo.co. Laurent pushed for the Ph.D. story to be published simultaneously in print and online. The results were staggering.

The exposé drew thousands of reader comments and social media shares. “It generated one of the biggest page view scores in Tempo’s history. Everybody was talking about it,” said Laurent.

Tempo’s reporters were invited to appear on television and radio to discuss “drive-through degrees,” including plagiarized dissertations and faked signatures on attendance logs.

There also was impact in the halls of power. The Ministry of Research, Technology and Higher Education launched an investigation and suspended a rector at Jakarta State University believed to be a ringleader.

Though the story was first broken just before by Tirto, an Indonesian publication, Tempo, well known for its strong investigations, helped push the issue to the forefront.

Going digital

Like so many news companies around the world, Tempo is struggling with a steady decline in advertising revenue and circulation for its print products — a weekly magazine and daily business newspaper. To Tempo’s leaders, going digital is a matter of survival.

At the same time, Indonesians are shifting toward a greater use of digital media, especially among the younger population. There is more demand for news delivered via mobile devices. Tapping into that growing market has become a priority for the Jakarta-based company.  

“If we don’t have a sophisticated digital presence, we will be left behind and lose out on this new landscape. Making this change was an inevitable decision,” said Wahyu Dhyatmika, editor-in-chief of Tempo.co and a driving force behind the transition.

He stresses that Tempo’s core journalistic values remain intact, but everything else is subject to change as the company morphs into a digital operation under Laurent’s direction as an ICFJ Google Fellow.

A chief objective: Build a culture of infographics and interactive news that will become as routine to newsroom staff as writing headlines and copyediting.

For the Ph.D. package, Laurent teamed up with digital project manager Sadika Hamid to create maps, charts and graphics for both the print product and website.

They turned to Infogram and Piktochart software, reasoning that both could provide reliable interactive results with the shortest learning curve, important for staff low on technical skills. A plugin, created with Laurent’s guidance, allowed readers to tab through examples of the universities’ numerous violations.

Pushing the investigative team to think in terms of multimedia content proved a major challenge.

“We asked them to plan a week or two ahead for infographics and they were not used to that,” said Hamid, a former reporter. “They only know print deadlines. We had to remind them over and over.”

For future projects, streamlining the embedding process for graphics and visuals will be a priority, Hamid said.

She explained that Tempo used iframes that allowed third-party tools, like Infogram, to be embedded in the Ph.D. story. That made them accessible to users but took a longer time to load.

Hamid was concerned website traffic could be lost if users were directed to external sites and failed to return to Tempo.co. Tempo is in the process of developing tools that will be hosted on its own servers to avoid using iframes.

“The goal is to have more control, including loading time and customizing content,” Hamid said.

A “facelift” for the newsroom

Tempo is also prioritizing its newsroom training regimen. Over the next few months, staff will learn about data visualization tools, multimedia and user engagement. A digital transformation team is being formed to help direct the next steps in the evolutionary process.   

Dhyatmika credits Laurent with helping smooth the newsroom transition when he arrived in July.  

At first, the plan was to retrain all the journalists and “do a whole facelift of the newsroom,” as Dhyatmika describes it. Laurent, he said, recommended a different way forward “without rocking the boat too hard.”

Instead of mandatory training, editors engaged staffers, many of them younger reporters, who showed an interest in learning new skills. They hoped illustrating the benefits of building a digital-friendly environment would entice others to climb on board.

“Journalists are a very skeptical group. We had to show, not just tell,” said Dhyatmika, a prize-winning investigative journalist and 2015 Harvard University Nieman Fellow.

Many staffers still are not persuaded that a digital operation is the way forward, “but we have convinced key people in the newsroom and that is enough for now,” the editor said.

The reorganization will continue in phases, including changes in job descriptions, leadership and newsroom workflow. Web designers, news programmers and digital experts to run the media lab will be hired to boost Tempo’s online effectiveness.  

“We realize we need to recruit people with a different set of skills. Our goal is to eventually have a multi-skilled newsroom,” said Dhyatmika, who views the next few months as crucial to Tempo’s evolution.

Tempo plans to finish redesigning its magazine’s and newspaper’s websites by February 2018, for instance. “Then we can involve more people from the newsroom in producing digital products,” said Dhyatmika.

“Hopefully the staff will see that we are not sacrificing the best values of our profession,” he said. “We are enriching them, making them more engaging, and reaching more people. That is good for our whole operation.”

Antoine Laurent is an ICFJ Google Fellow based in Indonesia. He has a strong background in bringing the latest digital innovations to media to enhance their storytelling, content distribution and audience engagement. He specializes in digital tools like Google Fusion Tables and Maps, YouTube Live, Infogram and Datawrapper. Learn more about his ICFJ Google Fellowship and background here.

Image taken by Fardi Bestari. Pictured (left to right): Wahyu Dhyatmika, editor-in-chief of Tempo.co; ICFJ Google Fellow Antoine Laurent; Sadika Hamid, digital project manager at Tempo.co; Mustafa Silalahi, investigative journalist for Tempo Magazine

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