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June 27 2013

15:17

The newsonomics of Advance’s advancing strategy and its Achilles’ heel

Another city. Another melange of limited information, confused storytelling, and an unsuccessful attempt to put on a happy face to mask a huge change in newspapering and civic life.

Last week, Oregon’s dominant paper, The Oregonian, followed in the footsteps of other Advance papers and announced it would be delivering to homes only four days a week come fall. It will be greatly slimming down staff, including dozens in the newsrooms, formally going digital-first, reorganizing into two companies, and producing newsstand editions on the days it won’t home deliver. It’s Advance’s Slim-Fast, Phase 2, tweaked after its torturous New Orleans rollout last year (“The newsonomics of Advance’s New Orleans strategy”).

That’s the new Advance playbook, as the company — a top 10 newspaper company by revenue in the U.S. — proceeds with a revolutionary restructuring of the local news business. It’s a play that serves at this point as a contrarian example. Most publishers believe the Newhouse family, owners of the very private Advance, is downsizing its own business, and about to give away the local market dominance in readership and commerce monopoly regional dailies have long had in the United States.

Within Advance, you hear that its strategy isn’t just on plan — it’s ahead of it. How do we put together what’s really happening and figure out what to make of it?

It’s not easy. Working with sources up and down in Advance cities is one way, gathering lots of partial views. While top editors are willing to talk, Advance’s business leaders are mum. That’s just silly: Newspapers have a special responsibility to the public, one that although further tested by Advance’s new strategy, is universal. Newspapers are citizens of their community — leading ones, we’d hope — and clamming up about changes of this significance is contrary to the values of the trade.

Just as curiously, Advance isn’t sharing much with its peers in the industry. If Advance has really developed the new secret sauce, why not share it with other newspaper publishers nationally and globally? After all, they’re not the competition. Yet Advance’s omerta-light DNA is a sideshow here. What we care about is the Advance strategy and what it means to the readers, to the journalists, and to the business of news going forward.

So let’s look at the updated newsonomics of the Advance strategy, Phase 2, as it rolls out in Portland in October, two months after Cleveland’s Plain Dealer takes the same plunge. Let’s look the strategy — which has a fair amount of smarts built into it — and its challenges, pitfalls and, likely, its Achilles’ heel.

Planning for print decline

As a strategy, think shock therapy and you’d be close. For decades, the Advance papers had been the epitome of corporate paternalism. The no-layoff pledge, generous health benefits, and good salaries all said job-for-life. Advance’s separation of its local digital sites (OregonLive.com in Portland, for instance) from the newsroom — literally 10 blocks away and reporting to corporate, not the publisher or editor — greatly hampered a singular reader focus.

As other companies struggled mightily with the digital transition, the huge staffs of the Advance dailies found themselves too often sitting on the sidelines. Individual editors, with great variability, tried to innovate. Overall, though, Advance dailies were falling behind the peers in trying to meet the digital revolution.

After years of waiting, waiting, and waiting, the company is now in a mad rush to change. When it came time to acknowledge basic truths about newspapering, Advance management reached for the hand grenade rather than the scalpel.

Reading the same tea leaves of print decline as their brethren, they decided that blowing up the enterprise (reassembling it in two pieces) and downsizing their operations, their home delivery, and their community service was the answer.

Their analysis, curiously, parallels that of iconoclast John Paton, the mastermind behind Digital First Media, as Journal Register and now MediaNews properties experience their own more evolutionary revolution. The in-common belief: As print ad revenues show accelerated decline, companies must greatly reduce their legacy costs and concentrate on the digital future. In fact, Paton has somewhat endorsed Advance’s efforts.

While the experiments began in Michigan in 2009, it was the the New Orleans Times-Picayune downsizing that riveted public and industry attention. In fact, 60 Minutes, which had sought the one moment for years to finally talk about the decline of the U.S. press, used the Times-Picayune’s réduction des effectifs as Exhibit A.

Everyone acknowledges that Advance publicly handled the New Orleans changeover as poorly as it could. Marketing. Messaging. Engagement. All subpar.

The T-P seemed to be at odds with the community that went into the streets to demand its very pulp-based existence. The community’s clamor for a seven-day paper went unheeded — until Monday, when the street edition of The Times-Picayune hit pavement, in 60 glorious tab pages. The New Orleans paper had borrowed a page from its northern cousin, the Post-Standard, which cut back home delivery Feb. 1, publishing a print edition even on days that it no longer offered home delivery. The changeover, Phase 2.

Now The Plain Dealer, which just announced a set of layoffs last week, and The Oregonian are following the same five-point model:

  • Massively cut expenses: At The Oregonian, about a sixth of the 650 staffers will lose their jobs. At Syracuse, the number was closer to 30 percent of about 400. Overall, I’ve extrapolated that Advance is aiming for an about 25 percent expense reduction (mainly in staff, printing, and distribution); I’ve been told that is close to the mark.
  • Pixelate the remaining ink-stained wretches: As Oregonian editor Peter Bhatia made (solely, he says) the layoff decisions that eliminated the jobs of about four dozen journalist staffers — about a quarter of the newsroom — he’s been quite clear that digital skills played a part in his decision-making. “How well [people] will work in the new world order” is key, he told me this week. (For the depth of the tumult within The Oregonian, check out Willamette Week’s takeout here.)
  • Separate out the old business from the new: In all its restructured cities, two separate companies have emerged to replace the old print. In Portland, it’s the Oregonian Media Group (yes, the already much-satirized OMG) that will now employ the content and sales people. As I’ve argued over the years, it is content and sales, quite simply, that are the foundation of the new business. The Advance strategy recognizes that and takes it to an operational level. The other new company Advance Central Services Oregon houses “support” of OMG. So it’s mainly made up of the print-oriented parts of the business — production, printing and distribution — along with HR, finance, and technology.
  • Provide seven-day print, but not home delivery: In New Orleans, and at Advance’s two Alabama dailies, the end of seven-day print was cold-turkey. One day: seven days a week of print; after the changeover, only three days. Then, Advance learned something from the Syracuse model. Pushed to continue (at least for a while) the semblance of seven-day print, the Post-Standard found that a by-product of daily print — the durable, seemingly vestigial e-edition — achieved a market purpose. Today in Syracuse, with a daily circulation of about 75,000, about one in ten readers downloads that daily e-edition. E-editions have been around for 15 years; essentially, they’re replicas of the final edition of the printed paper, ones that can be updated during the next day, but often aren’t.

    Why would anyone want to read a static copy of yesterday’s news? Think older readers. They own computers, but are more comfortable with the format of the newspaper they’ve read for decades. This is an interim market, to be sure, but serving it is a subscriber retention must. To publish an e-edition, you need a print edition. If, like the Oregonian, you’re making substantial revenue printing other publishers’ papers, adding a short run of single-copy papers can be done very cheaply. Hence, single copy editions.

    In Portland, there will be four days of home delivery. The Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday editions are clearly full papers. The content emphasis of a Saturday paper — first called a “bonus” in its announcement — is still taking shape, says Bhatia. Consistent with Advance’s marketing and messaging faux pas, it has also named its daily e-edition, “My Digital O,” to the guffaws of many. Talk about service journalism.

    This single-copy story may get more interesting. Whereas Syracuse has stuck to a 16-page edition, with a single ad — to facilitate that e-edition — New Orleans’ TP Street debuted with 60 pages and a good run of ads, adding three to its print team to produce it. Both cities’ papers are delivered to hundreds of newsstands. An ironic question: What would Advance have to charge to restart seven-day home delivery, coming full-circle in its digital-first, cost-cutting exercise?

  • Keep digital access free — at least for now: Most puzzling in Advance’s strategy is its reliance on advertising, which continues to go south for the whole industry — including Advance. As more than 500 dailies in the U.S. move to charging for digital access, including all of Advance’s peer chains, Advance eschews paywalls. Why? Well, given the tight lips, we’re not sure.

    The lack of an All-Access model, I believe, looks like the Achilles heel of the Advance strategy, even if that strategy works in other ways. Why? Advance depends and will depend much more on ad revenue than its peers. Many of those peers believe that reader revenue may reach 50 percent of total revenue within two to five years. They believe that print advertising’s fade looks near-irreversible. Further, they’ve learned that the sharp growth curve upward in digital ad revenue has hit a wall. Some struggle for growth at all; most are in single-digits, well below the 15 percent growth of digital ad revenue overall. Sure, The Oregonian, The Post-Standard, or The Harrisburg Patriot-News could institute a paywall. It would likely, though, yield much less than it could have.

    Getting the order of things right on a paywall is important: Much better to improve the seven-day print product, add usable mobile apps, and then price up, even if you have a mind to cut home delivery. That way, you’ve established a new, higher price — and the monetary value of digital. Instead, Advance maintains what now seems like a nonsensical approach to paid print and free digital, and that bodes ill for holding on to current print subscribers, much less convincing many people to pay much for all-access down the road.

    If other publishers believes half of their 2016 revenue will come from digitally oriented readers, how will Advance newspapers deal with the lack of that revenue? It will have two major choices: find currently unknown large sources of revenue — or keep cutting expenses, including newsroom staff.

Stand back from this audacious strategy — with all its staff-cutting pain, its inducing of reader pain, and the promise of its digital-first, future-is-now thinking — and it’s hard to get past the point of its missing digital reader revenue strategy.

That said, Advance’s more immediate bet is that it can radically reduce its costs and maintain its dominating presence in local news and commerce.

It’s too early to assess the local advertising challenge. It’s a hyper-competitive marketplace, and Advance seems to succeeded in corralling seven-day advertisers into three days. (I’d projected it would hold on to 85 percent of its print advertising revenue in New Orleans; the number appears to be closer to 90 percent.) It still faces, though, a fast-declining (high single digits loss in metro markets) print market. Further, its ability innovate fast enough in the digital ad marketplace is unproven.

As one observer put it to me today, does the new Oregonian plan to make its future on display banner ads? I’m sure execs would answer that no. But its work in newer forms of digital advertising, from content marketing to marketing services to a major video presence, all seem relatively nascent. Is it ready for prime time as a digital-heavy company? Not yet, certainly, and the clock shows two more big Advance dailies going digital-first within 90 days or so. As it fights for digital ad revenue, it faces many competitors from Google and Facebook nationally to lots of local players.

New competition

In news impact, so far, there is mixed evidence.

Observers in both New Orleans and Syracuse tell me it is a crazy-quilt. Yes, with time-stamping on the website, more stories and posts are being pumped out of the newsroom.

The new operations break their share of news, and some second-day stories do a great job of summing up major news events. Sometimes, though — more than they used to — both papers drop the ball on breaking news. Other news players, from NewsChannel 9 WSYR in Syracuse to The Lens and the just-launched Baton Rouge Advocate’s greatly energized New Orleans play (“The New Orleans Advocate”), are competing more consistently. The Advance papers are still the biggest dog in town, but the dog park is now more diverse. Come fall, The Plain Dealer and The Oregonian will wake up to find their traditional alpha status more challenged day by day.

Times-Picayune editor Jim Amoss believes he is already seeing the dividends from the wrenching change the newsroom has seen. His staff is thinking news, not the next day’s paper.

“We’ve had eight months of having the news gatherers and editors separate, physically separate, from the print team and not having to think about the print product. The new rhythms have been inculcated in everybody,” says Amoss. “The total number of people in news went from 181 pre-change to 160 now. We’re still in the process of filling some of those positions. That total includes 91 reporters (including metro area news, sports, entertainment, Baton Rouge, and Washington correspondent). The number of reporters pre-change was roughly the same.”

Digital audience has grown, as we would expect given the print stoppage. Overall pageviews are up 15 percent, and “eyes on content” — meaning views of articles, videos, and photos across the site — are up 35 percent. A significant part of that is huge photo growth, up 150 percent year over year; photos represent 16 percent of the site’s traffic.

With the changeover, editors and ad directors have more direction of their own digital presentations and business. Advance Digital, to whom the separate sites used to report, still provides digital product development, sales strategy, news and information content product development, and centralized technology for the digital products.

Oregonian editor Peter Bhatia echoed Amoss’ newsgathering point to me this week: The Oregonian newsroom today has about 90 reporters and will have about the same in the fall. The newsroom cutting has fallen disproportionately in middle editor and copy editing ranks in all the Advance cities, a strategy well-employed by others over, including the Star Tribune, over the past several years in making cuts.

The big questions, of course, are who those reporters are, how much experience they have and what beats they cover. In any newsroom restructuring, newsroom managers can use the opportunity to make changes they long wanted to make, but found inconvenient. In this great shuffle, some areas, like environmental beat experience, have been wiped out at the Oregonian.

Further digital skills may have trumped journalistic skills in such Sophie’s Choice decision-making. Finally, The Oregonian — as keenly aware of its newsroom dollar budget as of its actual headcount — cut many high-salaried people, as well as some younger staffers, weighing, I’m sure, one more factor: exposure to age discrimination suits, as any employer in such a situation would do.

All of that change means The Oregonian, come fall, will find new areas in which to excel — and will leave its flanks more open to competition. In Portland, there’s a lot of it. Pulitzer Prize-winning Willamette Week provides city-smart, well-established news coverage. Oregon Public Broadcasting has been adding coverage area after coverage area. Add in a strong TV news presence and several niche print players, and The Oregonian may find what its sister papers in New Orleans and Syracuse have found: breaking news and analysis becomes more of a multi-horse race.

It’s not just news-gathering and writing that matters on the web, of course. A digital-first news operation should be the go-to news aggregator for the region; The Oregonian isn’t. It should have the best tablet and smartphone apps — news and entertainment — and its offerings so far are nothing special, open to competition. It could leverage community, user-generated content far better, borrowing a page from its Northwest neighbor, The Seattle Times, but hasn’t moved in that direction.

Broadly, let’s say the strategy — at least parts of it — may be right. Then the question becomes: Is the Oregonian ready to execute on it?

There’s little doubt that most of Advance’s employees — whose work will make or break the strategy — have little confidence in the “the plan.” It’s paternalism gone awry, and the sense of abandonment is clear. The lurch in strategy is offering little comfort, as Advance and its publisher largely keep the staff in the dark about how the new business is going to create successful products and long-term employment.

What Advance has done is buy some time. In radically cutting its cost base, it may have given itself a couple of extra years to get its new strategy right. It will need that time, at least, to work the prodigious to-do list it has handed itself.

Photo by Josh Bancroft used under a Creative Commons license.

June 26 2013

20:57

With gay marriage sure to spark emotional responses, The Washington Post and New York Times try structuring comments

Back in March, we wrote about a New York Times experiment to add more structure to reader comments on big stories. In that case, the story was the election of Pope Francis; The Times asked readers to notate their responses with whether they were Catholic, whether they were surprised by the appointment, and whether they approved of it. That added structure allowed other readers to view comments through those lenses, putting a filter on what could have been, on another platform, an overwhelming “Read 5,295 comments” link.

Today brought some more big news: the Supreme Court’s ruling that the Defense of Marriage Act, which prevented federal recognition of same-sex marriages, was unconstitutional. And today both the Times and The Washington Post brought structure to reader response.

First the Post:

wapo-structured-comments-doma

The interactive — credited to Katie Park, Leslie Passante, Ryan Kellett, and Masuma Ahuja — steps past the pro-/anti-gay marriage debate and instead asks why readers care: “Why do the Supreme Court’s decisions on gay marriage matter to you?” The given choices — “It engages my moral or religious beliefs,” “It impacts someone I know,” and the like — then provide the raw data for a lovely flower-like Venn-diagram data visualization. (With colors sufficiently muted to avoid immediate rainbow associations.)

The open response question also tries to steer clear of pro/con by asking: “Now, in your own words, use your experience to tell us how these decisions resonate with you.” It’s generated over 2,800 responses at this writing, and you can sort through them all via the structured filters.

Now the Times:

nytimes-doma-supreme-court-comment

The Times’ interactive was built by Lexi Mainland, Michael Strickland, Scott Blumenthal, John Niedermeyer, and Tyson Evans. They selected six key excerpts from today’s opinions — four from Anthony Kennedy and one each from Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito — and asked readers whether they agree or disagree with each. (There’s also an “unsure” option for those who don’t fancy themselves constitutional scholars.)

Along with that quantifiable response, readers were asked to leave a brief comment explaining their position. The excerpts appear in random order on each load. And, just as the pope experiment separated out responses from Catholics, this Times interactive pulls out comments from people who identify as gay. Like the Post, the Times uses a non-standard call for responses: Rather than responding to a news story, they’re asked to “Respond to the Justices.”

(The responses so far don’t do much to change the stereotype of Times readers as liberal. Justice Kennedy’s four excerpts — from the majority opinion, striking down DOMA — have been agreed with 130 times and disagreed with just four times. In contrast, Scalia and Alito’s pro-DOMA comments are losing Times readers 76 to 7 and 73 to 6, respectively.)

As news organizations try to figure out better ways to benefit from their audiences — ways that go beyond an unstructured “What do you think?” — these efforts from the Post and the Times are welcome. Big stories that generate big emotion deserve custom treatment if you want to get the most of your readers. Comments are just another kind of content, and as content becomes more intelligently structured, comments should follow suit.

16:48

What’s New in Digital Scholarship: A generation gap in online news, and does The Daily Show discourage tolerance?

Editor’s note: There’s a lot of interesting academic research going on in digital media — but who has time to sift through all those journals and papers?

Our friends at Journalist’s Resource, that’s who. JR is a project of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, and they spend their time examining the new academic literature in media, social science, and other fields, summarizing the high points and giving you a point of entry. Roughly once a month, JR managing editor John Wihbey will sum up for us what’s new and fresh.

We’re at the halfway mark in our year-long odyssey tracking all things digital media and academic. Below are studies that continue to advance understanding among various hot topics: drone journalism; surveillance and the public; Twitter in conflict zones; Big Data and its limits; crowdsourced information platforms; remix culture; and much more. We also suggest some further “beach reads” at bottom. Enjoy the deep dive.

“Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2013: Tracking the Future of News”: Paper from University of Oxford Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, edited by Nic Newman and David A. L. Levy.

This new report provides tremendous comparative perspective on how different countries and news ecosystems are developing both in symmetrical and divergent ways (see the Lab’s write-up of the national differences/similarities highlighted.) But it also provides some interesting hard numbers relating to the U.S. media landscape; it surveys news habits of a sample of more than 2,000 Americans.

Key U.S. data points include: the number of Americans reporting accessing news by tablet in the past week rose, from 11 percent in 2012 to 16 percent in 2013; 28 percent said they accessed news on a smartphone in the last week; 75 percent of Americans reported accessing news online in the past week, while 72 percent said they got news through television and 47 percent reported having read a print publication; TV (43 percent) and online (39 percent) were Americans preferred platforms for accessing news. Further, a yawning divide exists between the preferences of those ages 18 to 24 and those over 55: among the younger cohort, 64 percent say the Web is their main source for news, versus only 25 percent among the older group; as for TV, however, 54 percent of older Americans report it as their main source, versus only 20 percent among those 18 to 24. Finally, 12 percent of American respondents overall reported paying for digital news in 2013, compared to 9 percent in 2012.

“The Rise and Fall of a Citizen Reporter”: Study from Wellesley College, for the WebScience 2013 conference. By Panagiotis Metaxas and Eni Mustafaraj.

This study looks at a network of anonymous Twitter citizen reporters around Monterrey, Mexico, covering the drug wars. It provides new insights into conflict zone journalism and information ecosystems in the age of digital media, as well the limits of raw data. The researchers, both computer scientists, analyze a dataset focused on the hashtag #MTYfollow, consisting of “258,734 tweets written by 29,671 unique Twitter accounts, covering 286 days in the time interval November 2010-August 2011.” They drill down on the account @trackmty, run by the pseudonym Melissa Lotzer, which is the largest of the accounts involved.

The scholars reconstruct a sequence in which a wild Twitter “game” breaks out — obviously, with life-and-death stakes — involving accusations about cartel informants (“hawks,” or “halcones”) and citizen watchdogs (“eagles,” or “aguilas”), with counter-accusations flying that certain citizen reporters were actually working for the Zetas drug cartel; indeed, @trackmty ends up being accused of working for the cartels. Online trolls attack her on Twitter and in blogs.

“The original Melissa @trackmty is slow to react,” the study notes, “and when she does, she tries to point to her past accomplishments, in particular the creation of [a group of other media accounts] and the interviews she has given to several reporters from the US and Spain (REF). But the frequency of her tweeting decreases, along with the community’s retweets. Finally, at the end of June, she stops tweeting altogether.” It turns out that the real @trackmty had been exposed — “her real identity, her photograph, friends and home address.”

Little of this drama was obvious from the data. Ultimately, the researchers were able to interview the real @trackmty and members of the #MTYfollow community. The big lessons, they realize, are the “limits of Big Data analysis.” The data visualizations showing influence patterns and spikes in tweet frequency showed all kinds of interesting dynamics. But they were insufficient to make inferences of value about the community affected: “In analyzing the tweets around a popular hashtag used by users who worry about their personal safely in a Mexican city we found that one must go back and forth between collecting and analyzing many times while formulating the proper research questions to ask. Further, one must have a method of establishing the ground truth, which is particularly tricky in a community of — mostly — anonymous users.”

“Undermining the Corrective Effects of Media-Based Political Fact Checking? The Role of Contextual Cues and Naïve Theory”: Study from Ohio State University, published in the Journal of Communication. By R. Kelly Garrett, Erik C. Nisbet, and Emily K. Lynch.

As the political fact-checking movement — the FactChecks and Politifacts, along with their various lesser-known cousins — has arisen, so too has a more hard-headed social science effort to get to the root causes of persistent lies and rumors, a situation made all the worse on the web. Of course, journalists hope truth can have a “corrective” effect, but the literature in this area suggests that blasting more facts at people often doesn’t work — hence, the “information deficit fallacy.” Thus, a cottage psych-media research industry has grown up, exploring “motivated reasoning,” “biased assimilation,” “confirmation bias,” “cultural cognition,” and other such concepts.

This study tries to advance understanding of how peripheral cues such as accompanying graphics and biographical information can affect how citizens receive and accept corrective information. In experiments, the researchers ask subjects to respond to claims about the proposed Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero and the disposition of its imam. It turns out that contextual information — what the imam has said, what he looks like and anything that challenges dominant cultural norms — often erodes the positive intentions of the fact-checking message.

The authors conclude that the “most straightforward method of maximizing the corrective effect of a fact-checking article is to avoid including information that activates stereotypes or generalizations…which make related cognitions more accessible and misperceptions more plausible.” The findings have a grim quality: “The unfortunate conclusion that we draw from this work is that contextual information so often included in fact-checking messages by professional news outlets in order to provide depth and avoid bias can undermine a message’s corrective effects. We suggest that this occurs when the factually accurate information (which has only peripheral bearing on the misperception) brings to mind” mental shortcuts that contain generalizations or stereotypes about people or things — so-called “naïve theories.”

“Crowdsourcing CCTV surveillance on the Internet”: Paper from the University of Westminster, published in Information, Communication & Society. By Daniel Trottier.

A timely look at the implications of a society more deeply pervaded by surveillance technologies, this paper analyzes various web-based efforts in Britain that involve the identification of suspicious persons or activity. (The controversies around Reddit and the Boston Marathon bombing suspects come to mind here.) The researcher examine Facewatch, CrimeStoppers UK, Internet Eyes, and Shoreditch Digital Bridge, all of which had commercial elements attached to crowdsourcing projects where participants monitored feed from surveillance cameras of public spaces. He points out that these “developments contribute to a normalization of participatory surveillance for entertainment, socialization, and commerce,” and that the “risks of compromised privacy, false accusations and social sorting are offloaded onto citizen-watchers and citizen-suspects.” Further, the study highlights the perils inherent in the “‘gamification’ of surveillance-based labour.”

“New Perspectives from the Sky: Unmanned aerial vehicles and journalism”: Paper from the University of Texas at Arlington, published in Digital Journalism. By Mark Tremayne and Andrew Clark.

The use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or “drones”) in journalism is an area of growing interest, and this exploration provides some context and research-based perspective. Drones in the service of the media have already been used for everything from snapping pictures of Paris Hilton and surveying tornado damaged areas in Alabama to filming secret government facilities in Australia and protestor clashes in Poland. In all, the researchers found “eight instances of drone technology being put to use for journalistic purposes from late 2010 through early 2012.”

This practice will inevitably raise issues about the extent to which it goes too far. “It is not hard to imagine how the news media, using drones to gather information, could be subject to privacy lawsuits,” the authors write. “What the news media can do to potentially ward off the threat of lawsuits is to ensure that drones are used in an ethical manner consistent with appropriate news practices. News directors and editors and professional associations can establish codes of conduct for the use of such devices in much the same way they already do with the use of hidden cameras and other technology.”

“Connecting with the user-generated Web: how group identification impacts online information sharing and evaluation”: Study from University of California, Santa Barbara, published in Information, Communication & Society. By Andrew J. Flanagin, Kristin Page Hocevar, and Siriphan Nancy Samahito.

Whether it’s Wikipedia, Yelp, TripAdvisor, or some other giant pool of user-generated “wisdom,” user-generated platforms convene large, disaggregated audiences who form loose memberships based around apparent common interests. But what makes certain communities bond and stick together, keeping online information environments fresh, passionate, and lively (and possibly accurate)?

The researchers involved in this study perform some experiments with undergraduates to see how adding small bits of personal information — the university, major, gender, or other piece of information — to informational posts changed perceptions by viewers. Perhaps predictably, the results show that “potential contributors had more positive attitudes (manifested in the form of increased motivation) about contribution to an online information pool when they experienced shared group identification with others.”

For editors and online community designers and organizers, the takeaway is that information pools “may actually form and sustain themselves best as communities comprising similar people with similar views.” Not exactly an antidote to “filter bubble” fears, but it’s worth knowing if you’re an admin for an online army.

“Selective Exposure, Tolerance, and Satirical News”: Study from University of Texas at Austin and University of Wyoming, published in the International Journal of Public Opinion Research. By Natalie J. Stroud and Ashley Muddiman.

While not the first study to focus on the rise of satirical news — after all, a 2005 study in Political Communication on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” now has 230 subsequent academic citations, according to Google Scholar — this new study looks at satirical news viewed specifically in a web context.

It suggests the dark side of snark, at least in terms of promoting open-mindedness and deliberative democracy. The conclusion is blunt: “The evidence from this study suggests that satirical news does not encourage democratic virtues like exposure to diverse perspectives and tolerance. On the contrary, the results show that, if anything, comedic news makes people more likely to engage in partisan selective exposure. Further, those viewing comedic news became less, not more, tolerant of those with political views unlike their own.” Knowing Colbert and Stewart, the study’s authors can expect an invitation soon to atone for this study.

The hidden demography of new media ethics”: Study from Rutgers and USC, published in Information, Communication & Society. By Mark Latonero and Aram Sinnreich.

The study leverages 2006 and 2010 survey data, both domestic and international, to take an analytical look at how notions of intellectual property and ethical Web culture are evolving, particularly as they relate to ideas such as remixing, mashups and repurposing of content. The researchers find a complex tapestry of behavioral norms, some of them correlated with certain age, gender, race or national traits. New technologies are “giving rise to new configurable cultural practices that fall into the expanding gray area between traditional patterns of production and consumption. The data suggest that these practices have the potential to grow in prevalence in the United States across every age group, and have the potential to become common throughout the dozens of industrialized nations sampled in this study.”

Further, rules of the road have formed organically, as technology has outstripped legal strictures: “Most significantly, despite (or because of) the inadequacy of present-day copyright laws to address issues of ownership, attribution, and cultural validity in regard to emerging digital practices, everyday people are developing their own ethical frameworks to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate uses of reappropriated work in their cultural environments.”

Beach reads:

Here are some further academic paper honorable mentions this month — all from the culture and society desk:

Photo by Anna Creech used under a Creative Commons license.

May 14 2013

11:00

How FrontlineSMS Helped an Indonesian Community Clean Up a River

FrontlineSMS has had a strong connection with environmental issues since our founder had the initial spark of an idea while working on an anti-poaching project in South Africa. We're delighted to share how Een Irawan Putra of KPC Bogor and the Indonesia Nature Film Society used FrontlineSMS in Indonesia to invite the community to help clean up the garbage clogging the Ciliwung River.

Community Care Ciliwung Bogor, known locally as KPC Bogor, was founded in March 2009 in West Java, Indonesia to harness the growing community concern for the sustainability of the Ciliwung River in the city of Bogor. We formed to raise awareness about the damaging impact of garbage and waste in the river, as well as to mobilize the community to take action.

river1.jpg

The community around KPC Bogor was initially formed by our friend Hapsoro who used to share his fishing experiences in the Ciliwung River. "If we go fishing in the river now, there is so much junk," Hapsoro once said, "All we get is plastic, instead of fish." It was after an increasing number of similar tales from the community about pollution levels that we decided to conduct some field research. We set out to find the best spots for fishing along the Ciliwung River, particularly in the area stretching from Katulampa to Cilebut.

Some KPC members work in Research and Development of Ornamental Fish Aquaculture, Ministry of Marine and Fisheries and in fisheries laboratory in Bogor Agricultural University. So while we conducted the research voluntarily, they were always present to offer their skills and ensure our research methods were sound. In addition to the study of fish, some KPC members who work in mapping forest areas in Indonesia helped us to map the river area using GPS. We mapped the points where garbage was stacked, sewage levels and commensurate changes in the river. We also tested the quality of river water by using a simple method called "biotilik," using organisms as an indication of the state of the river water quality in the Ciliwung River.

The results of the research were shocking. We found out that while the people who live along the Ciliwung River rely on its use for daily necessities including cooking, cleaning and washing, the river is increasingly being used as a place to dispose of trash and inorganic waste materials. The research helped us realize just how poor the Ciliwung River conditions were at the time -- with worrying consequences for the function, condition, and use of the river. Not only did we uncover poor river standards, we also identified that there was a lack of public knowledge about the importance of maintaining a healthy river among the community. Waste disposal practices have become rooted in the bad habits that have been ingrained in the minds of the people who live around the Ciliwung riverbanks over a long period of time. People are so used to the methods they use that they do not realize the severity of the environmental damage which they cause.

citizen clean-up takes off

So members of KPC Bogor got together to ask, "What can we do to save Ciliwung River in ways that are simple, inexpensive and uncomplicated?" From there, a simple concept was born. We set out to recruit volunteers to become garbage scavengers in the Ciliwung River. Every Saturday, KPC Bogor members and friends met from 8am to 11am, to pick up any inorganic matter that litters the Ciliwung River and put it into the sacks before sending it to landfills.

In many ways, we actually consider this activity as a way to meet new friends. It might be hard work that can cause us to sweat, but we understand that even though waste removal is a very simple activity, it important for the sustainability of our river and our community around it. The number of people who come every Saturday varies: Sometimes there are only two, other times up to 100 people. For us, the number doesn't matter. What's important is that KPC Bogor must continue to remind citizens to take care of the Ciliwung River.

About three months ago, we had some sad and shocking news that our friend and leader Hapsoro had passed away. A few of us were worried about what would happen to our 4-year-old community and how it could continue without his leadership. We gathered at Hapsoro's house before his funeral, and we all committed to doing all we could to ensure KPC Bogor's activities would carry on. We saw how vital this work was for the River, the community's health, and our livelihoods. We needed to honor and commemorate the important service Hapsoro had initiated to form a sense of responsibility and awareness in the community. But how could we mobilize the community like he did?

river2.jpg

using sms

Hapsoro was a man who always actively sent SMS to all our friends to participate in regular KPC Bogor activities, especially to remind them to get them involved with cleaning the river. With an old mobile phone, he used to send messages one by one to the numbers in his phone book. The day after we decided to keep KPC Bogor alive, I asked permission from Hapsoro's wife, Yuniken Mayangsari, about whether we could keep using his phone number to send SMS to all the subscribers. She gave me the phone at once without hesitation.

I started using Hapsoro's mobile phone to send SMS every Friday to the friends of KPC Bogor. When I was using the phone, I realized how patient Hapsoro must have been in sending the SMS alerts about river cleaning over his three years of organizing the activities. One by one, each of the numbers had to be selected from the address book, and I could only enter 10 numbers at once. It made getting though more than 200 numbers exhausting, and it took me more than two hours! Not to mention when I forgot which numbers I'd already sent the message to. I'm sure there are a few people who got the message twice.

Because of the limited time I could dedicate to sending SMS every Friday, some friends and I decided to try using FrontlineSMS. A friend who lives in Jakarta went looking for a compatible Huawei E-series modem to send and receive messages with the software. When we were finally able to buy one, we installed it on my laptop and KPC Bogor's laptop. Now every Friday, we load up FrontlineSMS to send alerts about KPC Bogor activities due to take place the following Saturday. It's great because I can carry on working while FrontlineSMS is sending the messages. I can easily manage contacts and send alerts to the community in a few simple steps.

KPC Bogor's work with volunteers is now so successful that we started a "Garbage Scavengers Race" which has now become an official annual agenda event in the city of Bogor. Last year, 1,500 people came to the river to help and we collected 1,300 bags of garbage in just 3 hours. We are now preparing for this year's scavenge due to take place in June 2013. In recognition of the need to tackle root causes of the waste issue rather than just the clean up, we've also started to do more than collecting garbage. KPC Bogor now provides environmental education for elementary school children, conducts research on water quality and plants trees around the Ciliwung River. We are also able to regularly assess the river water biota, where we analyze diversity of micro-organisms, plants and animals in the ecosystem. Recently, we even made a film about the waste problems in the Ciliwung River.

Now, we use FrontlineSMS to let the community know about our new activities too. Every week we receive SMS from new people who want their mobile number to be added to the subscribers list so they can receive a regular SMS every week with information about how to join in with our activities.

Thanks to the community, the city government is now giving full support to our activities by giving us budget for waste cleanup efforts through the official budget allocation. Once, Ciliwung was a clean river that was highly venerated by the people for its famous fresh water and was relied on by the public in Indonesia for their livelihoods. It was once a source of clean water used for drinking, cooking, bathing and washing. This community wants the condition of the Ciliwung River to return to how it once was, and we're getting there -- one piece of garbage at a time.

You can watch a video with English subtitles about the KPC Bogor community here.

More information about KPC Bogor can be found at here or via Twitter @tjiliwoeng and Facebook.com/KPCBogor.

river3.jpg

Een Irawan Putra is currently director of the Indonesia Nature Film Society, coordinator for the Ciliwung River Care Community (KPC Bogor), head of TELAPAK West of Java Territorial Body, member of TELAPAK, and member of LAWALATA IPB (Student Nature Club Bogor Agriculture University). Formerly he was a Forest Researcher in Greenpeace South East Asia Indonesia Office (2005); producer, cameraman, and editor at Gekko Studio (2005-2012), vice director PT. Poros Nusantara Media (2012), and vice president of the Association of Indonesia Peoples' Media and Television (ASTEKI) (2012).

April 02 2013

10:39

How Public Lab Turned Kickstarter Crowdfunders Into a Community

Public Lab is structured like many open-source communities, with a non-profit hosting and coordinating the efforts of a broader, distributed community of contributors and members. However, we are in the unique position that our community creates innovative open-source hardware projects -- tools to measure and quantify pollution -- and unlike software, it takes some materials and money to actually make these tools. As we've grown over the past two years, from just a few dozen members to thousands today, crowdfunding has played a key role in scaling our effort and reaching new people.

DIY Spectrometry Kit Kickstarter

Kickstarter: economies of DIY scale

Consider a project like our DIY Spectrometry Kit, which was conceived of just after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to attempt to identify petroleum contamination. In the summer of 2012, just a few dozen people had ever built one of our designs, let alone uploaded and shared their work. As the device's design matured to the point that anyone could easily build a basic version for less than $40, we set out to reach a much larger audience while identifying new design ideas, use cases, and contributors, through a Kickstarter project. Our theory was that many more people would get involved if we offered a simple set of parts in a box, with clear instructions for assembly and use.

By October 2012, more than 1,600 people had backed the project, raising over $110,000 -- and by the end of December, more than half of them had received a spectrometer kit. Many were up and running shortly after the holidays, and we began to see regular submissions of open spectral data at http://spectralworkbench.org, as well as new faces and strong opinions on Public Lab's spectrometry mailing list.

Kickstarter doesn't always work this way: Often, projects turn into startups, and the first generation of backers simply becomes the first batch of customers. But as a community whose mission is to involve people in the process of creating new environmental technologies, we had to make sure people didn't think of us as a company but as a community. Though we branded the devices a bit and made them look "nice," we made sure previous contributors were listed in the documentation, which explicitly welcomed newcomers into our community and encouraged them to get plugged into our mailing list and website.

newbox.jpg

As a small non-profit, this approach is not only in the spirit of our work, but essential to our community's ability to scale up. To create a "customer support" contact rather than a community mailing list would be to make ourselves the exclusive contact point and "authority" for a project which was developed through open collaboration. For the kind of change we are trying to make, everyone has to be willing to learn, but also to teach -- to support fellow contributors and to work together to improve our shared designs.

Keeping it DIY

One aspect of the crowdfunding model that we have been careful about is the production methods themselves. While it's certainly vastly different to procure parts for 1,000 spectrometers, compared to one person assembling a single device, we all agreed that the device should be easy to assemble without buying a Public Lab kit -- from off-the-shelf parts, at a reasonable cost. Thus the parts we chose were all easily obtainable -- from the aluminum conduit box enclosure, to the commercially available USB webcams and the DVD diffraction grating which makes spectrometry possible.

spectrometry.jpg

While switching to a purpose-made "holographic grating" would have made for a slightly more consistent and easy-to-assemble kit (not to mention the relative ease of packing it vs. chopping up hundreds of DVDs with a paper cutter...), it would have meant that anyone attempting to build their own would have to specially order such grating material -- something many folks around the world cannot do. Some of these decisions also made for a slightly less optimal device -- but our priority was to ensure that the design was replicable, cheap, and easy. Advanced users can take several steps to dramatically improve the device, so the sky is the limit!

The platform effect

One clear advantage of distributing kits, besides the bulk prices we're able to get, is that almost 2,000 people now have a nearly identical device -- so they can learn from one another with greater ease, not to mention develop applications and methodologies which thousands of others can reproduce with their matching devices. We call this the "platform effect" -- where this "good enough" basic design has been standardized to the point that people can build technologies and techniques on top of it. In many ways, we're looking to the success of the Arduino project, which created not only a common software library, but a standardized circuit layout and headers to support a whole ecology of software and hardware additions which are now used by -- and produced by -- countless people and organizations.

Spectral Challenge screenshot

As we continue to grow, we are exploring innovative ways to use crowdfunding to get people to collaboratively use the spectrometers they now have in hand to tackle real-world problems. Recently, we have launched the Spectral Challenge, a kind of "X Prize for DIY science", but it's crowdfunded -- meaning that those who support the goals of the Challenge can participate in the competition directly, or by contributing to the prize pool. Additionally, Public Lab will continue to leverage more traditional means of crowdfunding as our community develops new projects to measure plant health and produce thermal images -- and we'll have to continue to ensure that any kits we sell clearly welcome new contributors into the community.

The lessons we've learned from our first two kit-focused Kickstarters will help us with everything from the box design to the way we design data-sharing software. The dream, of course, is that in years to come, as we pass the 10,000- and 100,000-member marks, we continue to be a community which -- through peer-to-peer support -- helps one another identify and measure pollution without breaking the bank.

The creator of GrassrootsMapping.org, Jeff Warren designs mapping tools, visual programming environments, and flies balloons and kites as a fellow in the Center for Future Civic Media, and as a student at the MIT Media Lab's Design Ecology group, where he created the vector-mapping framework Cartagen. He co-founded Vestal Design, a graphic/interaction design firm in 2004, and directed the Cut&Paste Labs project, a year-long series of workshops on open source tools and web design in 2006-7 with Lima designer Diego Rotalde. He is a co-founder of Portland-based Paydici.com.

September 04 2012

13:13

From Parenting Listservs to Comedian Message Boards, Collaboration Starts With Community

"A proper community, we should remember also, is a commonwealth: a place, a resource, an economy. It answers the needs, practical as well as social and spiritual, of its members..."
- Wendell Berry

In the days immediately after giving birth, I gave thanks for a listserv.

It was Day 4 of my daughter's life, and I was having trouble nursing (sorry if that's TMI [too much information]). In a moment of desperation, I sent an email to the neighborhood parenting listserv: "Need in-home lactation consultant this weekend please." Within minutes, several strangers had emailed me the names and contact information of consultants who lived within a five-block radius of me. Talk about customer service.

A couple of months later, I turned to the listserv for nanny recommendations. One woman replied to me and asked if I might consider daycare; if so, she highly recommended a place about a mile from my apartment. Her email really got my husband and me thinking, and we ended up visiting the daycare and falling in love with it; our daughter is there now, as I type this.

Of course, the way I've described the listserv so far doesn't really illustrate collaboration at work. Fellow listserv members helped me -- and, in other instances, I helped them -- but we didn't exactly "collaborate." We didn't create something together. But wait -- if it takes a village to raise a child (and I believe it does); and if this listserv put me in touch with village members I otherwise wouldn't have known existed; then is it maybe an example of collaboration after all?

In other words, is community a form of collaboration?

I'd posit that the answer is "yes."

Quid Pro Quo

A community can help you do something better than you could have done it alone, whether that something is being a parent or being a journalist. As Josh Stearns of Free Press recently wrote on Collaboration Central, journalists are increasingly coming together to form ad-hoc networks of support. In other words, journalists are helping each other do their jobs, whether by sharing news tips or safety precautions or the best place in town to get a camera repaired. They are forming communities (Stearns uses the term "solidarity"), and collaborating within those communities on matters editorial, legal, and operational.

Back to my parenting listserv. Are we really collaborating with each other, or just helping each other out? Scratch beneath the surface and "help" and "collaborate" may not mean such different things. In an editorial collaboration, one news organization may "help" another by providing complementary resources or expertise. Is this help provided free of charge, out of the goodness of someone's heart? No, probably not.

But the parenting listserv doesn't necessarily run on goodness, either. On some level, I help other members because other members help me. That's human nature. Of course, I'm happy to help another mom if I have information at my fingertips that she needs, or to share an experience. But as a member of the listserv, of the community, I expect the help will flow back to me, as well.

Adios, Silos

silos2.png

Two newsrooms come together to conduct an investigation. They share staff; they share budgets. On the other hand, two freelance journalists come together. They share story leads, sources, lessons learned from the field. Two parents come together. They share daycare recommendations, news about product recalls, and warnings about wayward dentists. (This really happened.) Whether the outcome is a news report, a scoop or an informed parent (or healthier, happier child) -- behind the scenes, the pattern is the same: individuals with a common interest coming together, instead of functioning as silos.

This is remarkable because of just how many silos continue to dominate our world.

In my consulting work, for example, I'm struck by how many organizations still have a culture where departments operate in isolation -- where an employee has no idea that the person in the office next door has information that could help her do her job better. Christa Avampato recently wrote about an innovative way to get executives and lower-level employees talking and collaborating on new product ideas.

It's staggering, really, when you consider how revolutionary it would be for more co-workers to just talk to each other, and for more people to just talk to other people in their field.

It's the People, Stupid

But for now, it's still noteworthy when a community forms, and holds up over time. In public media -- an industry where I've spent a lot of my career -- it took a handful of individuals starting a weekly Twitter chat (#pubmedia chat, R.I.P.) to get many people across the industry to begin to feel like part of a community. Around the time that chat formed, I happened to be the project manager of a multimillion-dollar collaboration funded in large part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). While we learned a lot from that project (I wrote about it here), I honestly think the chat ultimately had a greater ripple effect in terms of increasing collegiality and collaboration industrywide.

ryangoslingpubmedia_1.png

Why? Because relationships, not organizations, fuel collaboration. In fact, the best outcome I saw from the CPB-funded collaboration wasn't one of the contractually obligated editorial deliverables -- it was the relationships between individuals. A producer at the PBS NewsHour now knew who to call over at Marketplace, or NPR, and vice versa. These folks now had history together, and therefore trust, and it was easy to just pick up the phone or send an IM. With those channels of communication open, it became easier for collaborations large and small to take root.

To be sure, public media is no paragon of collaboration -- like most industries, it has a ways to go. But that Twitter chat morphed into a Facebook group, which, as I recently mentioned, I consider an invaluable professional resource. Like the networks Stearns profiled, this community sprung up because individuals saw a need -- and it's lasted.

A Venn Diagram of Communities

I'm a performer, and in addition to public media and parenting, comedy is yet another community in the Venn Diagram of my life. When I lived in Washington, D.C., Washington Improv Theater was the nexus of my community. Since moving to New York City, I haven't felt as strong of a connection to a group of performers, but one organization that helps provide a sense of connection is G.L.O.C. -- aka Gorgeous Ladies of Comedy (recently profiled in the New York Times). G.L.O.C.'s mission is to foster community among female comedians. Another vehicle for community among comedians is the Improv Resource Center, message boards that performers all over the country use to discuss the art of improv and related matters.

And my comedy friends from D.C.? We're currently collaborating on a web series, long-distance, using Google Hangouts.

The human need for community is as old as time. The interwebs just give us new ways to connect. And these connections provide an essential framework for the kind of collaboration that helps us do our jobs better, and with a greater feeling of connectedness ... of not being in it alone. It's almost enough to make a person sing "kumbaya."

Now You

Do you agree that community is a form of collaboration? And are there areas of your life where you find community lacking -- for example, in your workplace? How can you plant the seeds of community in place of silos? What resources do you rely on to help you feel connected to the communities in your life?

"What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured."
- Kurt Vonnegut

Amanda Hirsch is the editor of Collaboration Central. She is a writer, social media consultant and performer who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. The former editorial director of PBS.org, she blogs at amandahirsch.com spends way too much time on Twitter.

Photo above by Flickr user Ed Yourdon.

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August 30 2012

13:13

Post-Disaster, We Can Do More Than 'Feed It to Fix It'

Did something go wrong? Bring a casserole. While the type of barbeque may vary regionally, if you're standing near storm damage, there's likely a home-cooked meal on the way. Following a disaster, competent ladies fill church and school kitchens, turning out hundreds of sandwiches. Restaurants donate buffet trays of wings and lasagna. Community organizations host spaghetti dinner after spaghetti dinner, feeding survivors
and volunteers alike. Quite simply, we live in a casserole culture, and we can harness this tendency for a better local response.

Why, exactly, our knee-jerk reaction as a culture is to bake a pie in the face of
unthinkable loss, is anyone's guess. I have a theory that our Norman Rockwell tendencies are linked directly to what we are told we can and cannot do after a disaster.

'feed it to fix it'

Unless you happened to keep the FEMA National Incident Management Framework around for bedtime reading, you probably have no clue who is in charge of what on the ground after a disaster. Even if you do know what is supposed to happen, the practice is often far different than the plan. As an unaffiliated volunteer, you're often sent home, told off, or simply not answered when you try to help.

foodbank.jpeg

But food -- that makes sense. The Red Cross won't accept home-cooked donations, but local churches will. You're greeted with thanks instead of confusion if you drop off sandwiches and Gatorade at a worksite. We, as a culture, have assumed permission to feed during a disaster, and we get after it. Think: Studs Terkel meets Paula Deen.

I, like you, love a good plate of mashed potatoes. But our "feed it to fix it" tendencies right now fall short of our potential to help out at the community level. Here are a few suggestions for building a better community recovery:

Use your skills

Yes, you can cook. But are you also a lawyer? Bilingual? Great with computers? Those skills are every bit as necessary to the recovery as Dunkin Donuts -- survivors will need tax advice, translation and resource management help.

Use your head

The difference between lasagna and labor is that it is currently a painful process to volunteer skills through large, regional organizations. Your community can independently plan to share skills and resources before a disaster -- just agree upon a system beforehand.

Use your leaders

Your emergency management department and city leadership can use your help. Can you start a Community Emergency Response team? Would you agree to help the EM run social media during a disaster? Get in touch and plan ahead!

Use this recipe: the singular best recipe for chocolate chip recovery cookies I have ever
encountered:

Catastrophe Cookies

  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 3/4 cup tightly packed light brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 large egg, at room temperature, lightly beaten
  • 6 to 7 ounces of chocolate chips
  • Preheat oven to 350 F.
  • Cream butter and sugar together in a large bowl.
  • Add the vanilla and egg, keep on mixing.
  • Mix dry ingredients together, then add slowly to the large bowl of wet ingredients.
  • If you're patient, refrigerate the dough for a couple of hours.
  • If not, just go ahead and bake those cookies for 11-13 minutes.
  • Distribute to sweaty workers, affected families, stressed organizers, and your own family.

P.S. Check out our work in action this week at http://IsaacGulf.Recovers.org.

Caitria O'Neill is the CEO of Recovers.org. She received a B.A. degree in government from Harvard University in 2011. She has worked for Harvard Law Review and the U.S. State Department, and brings legal, political and editorial experience to the team. O'Neill has completed the certificate programs for FEMA's National Incident Management System 700 and 800, and Incident Command Systems 100 and 200. She has also worked with Emergency Management Directors, regional hospital and public health organizations and regional Homeland Security chapters to develop partnerships and educate stakeholders about local organization and communication following disasters.

July 25 2012

09:16

Hyperlocal Voices: Richard Gurner, Caerphilly Observer

For the fourth in our new series of Hyperlocal Voices we head back to Wales. Launched by Richard Gurner in July 2009, the Caerphilly Observer acts as a local news and information website for Caerphilly County Borough.

The site is one of a small, but growing, number of financially viable hyperlocal websites. Richard, who remains the Editor of the site, told Damian Radcliffe a little bit about his journey over the last three years.

 

1.  Who were the people behind the blog?

People tend to be a bit surprised when I reveal that it’s only me behind Caerphilly Observer. We do have guest bloggers (local politicians and business leaders) and we have some sports reports sent in from local teams, but apart from that I do most of the editorial on the site and our weekly newsletter.

2.  What made you decide to set up the blog?

Believe it or not, I originally set up Caerphilly Observer while I was living in Brighton – some 200 miles away from the area.

I was working for daily newspaper The Argus at the time as a reporter and simply wanted to keep up with what was going on back home. I also wanted to improve my digital skills and thought setting up a news website would kill two birds with one stone.

It has always been a dream of mine to own a newspaper and I thought that if the website took off with the readers, then maybe one day I could do it as a full-time job. I never thought that would become a reality until it happened in August 2011.

3.  When did you set up the blog and how did you go about it?

With the intention of this maybe becoming a business one day, I purposely set about choosing a name with a “newspaper” feel. If the website was to be taken seriously then it needed to have a strong brand. After several alternatives, Caerphilly Observer was finally chosen by my wife.

I registered the domain name and went about setting-up a self-hosted WordPress site. With next to no technical knowledge of DNS, PHP, Apache and loads of other things that sounded like they were from Star Trek, I ploughed on.

The learning curve has been steep – especially with implementing a custom WordPress theme – but the knowledge gained has been immensely valuable.

I’m very much a hands-on learning person, so I know a lot of it has stuck and it won’t be forgotten.

4.  What other blogs, bloggers or websites influenced you?

I drew a lot of inspiration from several news websites, in not what to do, and loads of other blogs in what to do correctly.

Lichfield Live (Or Lichfield Blog as it was then called) was a big inspiration as was Bristol 24/7.

5.  How did – and do – you see yourself in relation to a traditional news operation?

I definitely see Caerphilly Observer as part of the local media and I’m very pleased to say the community we cover also sees us in the same light.

Quite often people mistake us for a newspaper and think we’re bigger and more established than we actually are – not a bad thing. Obviously, I can’t cover everything and there have been court cases I would have loved to have covered but couldn’t. I used to beat myself up about not being everywhere but more recently I’ve come to terms with the fact that it’s me against the big media trying to create something sustainable.

There are other aspects of the site that equally need taking care of such as business admin and the small matter of selling advertising to fund what I do.

6.  What have been the key moments in the blog’s development editorially?

You know you’re being taken seriously when people contact you to complain. I won’t go into specifics but during last year’s Welsh Assembly elections we were threatened with legal action. We eventually sorted it out without the need for solicitors but it did go to show that we had arrived. If we were irrelevant then I wouldn’t have had that phone call.

7.  What sort of traffic do you get and how has that changed over time?

Our monthly average over the last six months (Jan 2012 to June 2012) is 37,000 page impressions and 13,340 unique visitors. That’s roughly double to what we did in the first half of 2011.

8.  What has been your biggest challenge to date?

Creating revenue is an absolute huge challenge and fundamental to the sustainable future of Caerphilly Observer.

One of our selling points is that we’re local and independent, but if we’re not getting the numbers for local businesses to themselves get business, they’re not going to advertise and we’re not going to make any money.

Paid-for editorial spots and display advertising make up the bulk of my income, but I still do freelance copywriting and journalism to create my wage. It’s nowhere near where it was when I was working for a big media company but the difference is I’m doing what I think serves our readers and advertisers the best. There is also an unrivalled sense of job satisfaction.

Many in hyperlocal circles and the wider media industry state that creating a paying website is impossible – I love proving them wrong.

9.  What story, feature or series are you most proud of?

Without doubt it was our liveblog during the local election count in May this year. It was a fantastic night grabbing interviews and updating the website and we had a record number of visitors and page views for a single day.

The reaction from and interaction with our readers was what kept me going into the small hours.

10.  What are your plans for the future?

To keep growing. I want to have at least one other member of staff and an office in Caerphilly town centre, but that will take a lot of hard work and dedication.

Most of all, I want Caerphilly Observer to be the primary source for local news in the area and have the mind and market share in the local community that traditional media has.

09:16

Hyperlocal Voices: Richard Gurner, Caerphilly Observer

For the fourth in our new series of Hyperlocal Voices we head back to Wales. Launched by Richard Gurner in July 2009, the Caerphilly Observer acts as a local news and information website for Caerphilly County Borough.

The site is one of a small, but growing, number of financially viable hyperlocal websites. Richard, who remains the Editor of the site, told Damian Radcliffe a little bit about his journey over the last three years.

 

1.  Who were the people behind the blog?

People tend to be a bit surprised when I reveal that it’s only me behind Caerphilly Observer. We do have guest bloggers (local politicians and business leaders) and we have some sports reports sent in from local teams, but apart from that I do most of the editorial on the site and our weekly newsletter.

2.  What made you decide to set up the blog?

Believe it or not, I originally set up Caerphilly Observer while I was living in Brighton – some 200 miles away from the area.

I was working for daily newspaper The Argus at the time as a reporter and simply wanted to keep up with what was going on back home. I also wanted to improve my digital skills and thought setting up a news website would kill two birds with one stone.

It has always been a dream of mine to own a newspaper and I thought that if the website took off with the readers, then maybe one day I could do it as a full-time job. I never thought that would become a reality until it happened in August 2011.

3.  When did you set up the blog and how did you go about it?

With the intention of this maybe becoming a business one day, I purposely set about choosing a name with a “newspaper” feel. If the website was to be taken seriously then it needed to have a strong brand. After several alternatives, Caerphilly Observer was finally chosen by my wife.

I registered the domain name and went about setting-up a self-hosted WordPress site. With next to no technical knowledge of DNS, PHP, Apache and loads of other things that sounded like they were from Star Trek, I ploughed on.

The learning curve has been steep – especially with implementing a custom WordPress theme – but the knowledge gained has been immensely valuable.

I’m very much a hands-on learning person, so I know a lot of it has stuck and it won’t be forgotten.

4.  What other blogs, bloggers or websites influenced you?

I drew a lot of inspiration from several news websites, in not what to do, and loads of other blogs in what to do correctly.

Lichfield Live (Or Lichfield Blog as it was then called) was a big inspiration as was Bristol 24/7.

5.  How did – and do – you see yourself in relation to a traditional news operation?

I definitely see Caerphilly Observer as part of the local media and I’m very pleased to say the community we cover also sees us in the same light.

Quite often people mistake us for a newspaper and think we’re bigger and more established than we actually are – not a bad thing. Obviously, I can’t cover everything and there have been court cases I would have loved to have covered but couldn’t. I used to beat myself up about not being everywhere but more recently I’ve come to terms with the fact that it’s me against the big media trying to create something sustainable.

There are other aspects of the site that equally need taking care of such as business admin and the small matter of selling advertising to fund what I do.

6.  What have been the key moments in the blog’s development editorially?

You know you’re being taken seriously when people contact you to complain. I won’t go into specifics but during last year’s Welsh Assembly elections we were threatened with legal action. We eventually sorted it out without the need for solicitors but it did go to show that we had arrived. If we were irrelevant then I wouldn’t have had that phone call.

7.  What sort of traffic do you get and how has that changed over time?

Our monthly average over the last six months (Jan 2012 to June 2012) is 37,000 page impressions and 13,340 unique visitors. That’s roughly double to what we did in the first half of 2011.

8.  What has been your biggest challenge to date?

Creating revenue is an absolute huge challenge and fundamental to the sustainable future of Caerphilly Observer.

One of our selling points is that we’re local and independent, but if we’re not getting the numbers for local businesses to themselves get business, they’re not going to advertise and we’re not going to make any money.

Paid-for editorial spots and display advertising make up the bulk of my income, but I still do freelance copywriting and journalism to create my wage. It’s nowhere near where it was when I was working for a big media company but the difference is I’m doing what I think serves our readers and advertisers the best. There is also an unrivalled sense of job satisfaction.

Many in hyperlocal circles and the wider media industry state that creating a paying website is impossible – I love proving them wrong.

9.  What story, feature or series are you most proud of?

Without doubt it was our liveblog during the local election count in May this year. It was a fantastic night grabbing interviews and updating the website and we had a record number of visitors and page views for a single day.

The reaction from and interaction with our readers was what kept me going into the small hours.

10.  What are your plans for the future?

To keep growing. I want to have at least one other member of staff and an office in Caerphilly town centre, but that will take a lot of hard work and dedication.

Most of all, I want Caerphilly Observer to be the primary source for local news in the area and have the mind and market share in the local community that traditional media has.

March 30 2012

11:00

The Awesome News Taskforce in Detroit Grows Up

The Awesome News Taskforce Detroit recently had their very first deliberation meeting to choose the winner of their first $1,000 grant. I listened in from my room in Somerville, Mass., 718 miles away.

We've come a long way since my first trip to Detroit in August to sow the seeds for the Awesome News Taskforce project.

On that first trip, I met with as many people doing interesting projects as I could to tell them about our plans, get feedback, and also to learn more about the core issues that shape the city. On the next trip, I interviewed candidates for the Dean of Awesome position and ended up hiring Marshalle Montgomery, a superwoman facilitator, organizer and filmmaker.

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Marshalle and I have worked together since to bring together a passionate, diverse and multi-talented group of trustees to form the core of the Awesome News Taskforce, and I couldn't be more proud of the results. We ended up with a group of 20 trustees who hail from every corner of the metro Detroit area with backgrounds ranging from ethnic media to founding hacker spaces. Over the course of the next month, we're blogging short profiles of all the trustees here -- two of them are up already!

creating an alternative community

The Awesome News Taskforce project is, uniquely, not about making new tech or producing a new type of story. It's about creating an alternative community for people -- journalists and non-journalists alike -- to learn how to shape their own media landscapes together. So our equivalent of that magical moment where your code passes all the tests was the first deliberation, the first time that these individuals who were bound not by professional obligation but by a love of their city came together to discuss what they want to see more of. They discussed the feasibility, impact and implementation of the 45 projects that were submitted in this first cycle.

But in classic Awesome Foundation tradition, they also talked about excitement, joy and wonder. And the best part? I chimed in once or twice, but for the most part they did their own thing.

It's a wonderful feeling for an instigator of a group like this to be obsoleted so quickly!

So what project ended up with the money? It's a secret for now, but we'll be announcing it at the first Awesome News Taskforce Detroit party at the Virgil H. Carr Cultural Center at 6-8 p.m. this Friday. I'll give you a hint, though: It's pretty awesome.

January 04 2012

11:03

2011: the UK hyper-local year in review

In this guest post, Damian Radcliffe highlights some topline developments in the hyper-local space during 2011. He also asks for your suggestions of great hyper-local content from 2011. His more detailed slides looking at the previous year are cross-posted at the bottom of this article.

2011 was a busy year across the hyper-local sphere, with a flurry of activity online as well as more traditional platforms such as TV, Radio and newspapers.

The Government’s plans for Local TV have been considerably developed, following the Shott Review just over a year ago. We now have a clearer indication of the areas which will be first on the list for these new services and how Ofcom might award these licences. What we don’t know is who will apply for these licences, or what their business models will be. But, this should become clear in the second half of the year.

Whilst the Leveson Inquiry hasn’t directly been looking at local media, it has been a part of the debate. Claire Enders outlined some of the challenges facing the regional and local press in a presentation showing declining revenue, jobs and advertising over the past five years. Her research suggests that the impact of “the move to digital” has been greater at a local level than at the nationals.

Across the board, funding remains a challenge for many. But new models are emerging, with Daily Deals starting to form part of the revenue mix alongside money from foundations and franchising.

And on the content front, we saw Jeremy Hunt cite a number of hyper-local examples at the Oxford Media Convention, as well as record coverage for regional press and many hyper-local outlets as a result of the summer riots.

I’ve included more on all of these stories in my personal retrospective for the past year.

One area where I’d really welcome feedback is examples of hyper-local content you produced – or read – in 2011. I’m conscious that a lot of great material may not necessarily reach a wider audience, so do post your suggestions below and hopefully we can begin to redress that.


December 27 2011

15:20

Public Media: A Wish List for 2012

What's the No. 1 innovation that's needed in public media in 2012?

I posed that question to the public media group on Facebook, as well as to some additional colleagues via email. The responses ranged from a focus on cultivating a culture of innovation, to calls for more innovative content approaches, to the need to grow public media's audience to provide greater support for our existing innovations. And according to some, what's needed more than anything -- more than any individual innovative approach -- is a shared, collective vision of where public media needs to go next.

Here's a selection of the responses I received:

"I think what's still needed most is a change in the culture so that innovation and risk-taking are supported and encouraged." - Ian Hill, community manager, KQED

Several people agreed with Ian, only some of whom were comfortable being quoted in this piece. Adam Schweigert, who recently departed public media (a temporary hiatus, he insists!) after 7-plus years in the system, said creating a culture of innovation "will do a lot to help recruit and retain new voices, increase diversity, (and) lead to further innovation in content and technology ..."

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Need for Resources

Veteran journalist Max Cacas, currently defense editor at Signal Magazine, but with long ties to public media, argued that a culture of innovation is well and good, but we first need the resources to support such a culture. He offered a specific recommendation:

"I think what is needed is an 'innovation seed bank' that public radio/TV/media outlets in smaller markets can tap into so that they can make efforts to serve new audiences without compromising their existing and ongoing services."

Which raises a great question (one that was still being debated on Facebook, last I checked): Does building a culture of innovation create resources to support said innovation ... or do the resources indeed need to come first?

Kelsey Proud, online producer at St. Louis Public Radio, noted, "Some things can be done without money, but others, like equipment purchases, simply cannot."

Yoonhyung Lee, director of Digital Media Fundraising at KQED, feels that we have plenty of innovation in the system ... What's needed are bigger audiences to help translate innovation into sustainability:

"(Innovations) don't necessarily pay the bills. And they don't necessarily garner the kind of audiences that ONE prime-time program, ONE hour of drive-time listening would. Innovations are great, but if we can't find the audiences to support them ... well, does that falling tree make a sound if no one is listening?"

Tech Not Always the Driver

Of course, when you ask a question about innovation, people tend to respond with their own definitions of the admittedly broad term. Some emphasized that while "innovation" often connotes "technology" in this day and age, technology should not necessarily be the driver:

"While it is a significant driver of change, technology for technology's sake has little meaning. Our imaginations must lead technology. Media makers must first decide what difference they want to make, and for whom -- then figure out the tools to get them where they want to go." - Sue Schardt, executive director, AIR

On Facebook, producer Stacy Bond agreed, voicing her opinion that we should be using technology "to innovate on-air (and in ways that are truly cross-platform, not just safe ways of paying lip-service to cross-platform)." Scott Finn, news director at WUSF in Florida, wants to see expanded digital reporting and original investigative reporting at the state and local level; "then," he said, "we need to develop the digital infrastructure to share stories across stations and with NPR."

Public media veteran Michael Marcotte agreed that sharing was key, but wants to see it on an even broader scale. While he agrees resources and culture change are key issues, he thinks the main innovation needed in 2012 is a shared vision, and a plan to go with it:

"We share the mission of public media, but we don't act in coordinated fashion for the long-term success of the entire system. I think 2012's innovation should be a national, collective, shared effort to define and refine the vision that drives strategy, policy and investment approaching 2020."

In a recent piece for Current, Melinda Wittstock -- founder of Capitol News Connection, a startup that recently closed its doors -- called public media a "cozy, clubby world," where "risk is a four-letter word." What do you think? Is public media risk-averse? Do we need to begin taking more risks in 2012? If so, which risks should we take?

What risks will you be taking in the new year?

Amanda Hirsch is a writer, online media consultant and performer who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. The former editorial director of PBS.org, she blogs at amandahirsch.com and spends way too much time on Twitter.

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This is an edited version of a post that originally appeared on the Integrated Media Association's Public Media Innovators Project, a weekly blog series about the people and projects that are helping make public media a relevant and viable media enterprise for the 21st century.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

October 05 2011

12:05

3 Key Reflections From Knight-Mozilla's Hacktoberfest in Berlin

Last week, the Knight-Mozilla News Technology Partnership invited 20 developers, designers, and journalists to take part in a week of hacking and making in Berlin. I forget at what point in the planning one of the participants jokingly called it "Hacktoberfest," but the name stuck. And so now that the jet lag has worn off for the most part, I thought I'd reflect on three of my standout moments of Hacktoberfest and how they're influencing my thinking moving forward on the Knight-Mozilla project.

Working in the open

Sitting in a meeting with our news partners, I got to witness a great moment. At the start of that meeting, a discussion cropped up around the Partnership's core belief that code produced by Knight-Mozilla fellows should be open-sourced. There was hesitation on the part of some partners, worried that open-source code would reveal too much. An hour or so later, there was a discussion about possible collaborations among partners' newsrooms, but it wasn't making much headway, as collaboration with possible competitors is not the normal order of business.

But then it dawned on everyone: Open source made that a non-issue. By working in the open, fellows won't simply be producing things for their host organizations, but for any news organization that wants to use the code. You could see people linking back to the earlier conversation about open source and realizing that it meant far more than just code -- it meant a new way of working, of embracing collaboration, and of blazing a real way forward.

Quit yakking and start hacking

Sitting in the back of our main hackspace at Betahaus, watching team after team get up and present their work, it dawned on me how awesome it was to spend four days seeing people with disparate skill sets truly collaborate around building something.

Too often we orient getting people together around having a drink or listening to a speaker. "Quit yakking and start hacking" was the order of the day, and it worked. Multiple projects went from just an idea to a functioning demo in a matter of days. It's gratifying to me that there is a GitHub repo full of code from the week. Even more so that it was built through open collaboration among so many different types of people.

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A new community

After dinner one evening, we took both the Hacktoberfest participants and representatives from our news partners to Cbase, a storied (and slightly ramshackle) hacker space in Berlin. Standing at the bar next to a guy with a huge beard and a leather kilt, I looked out over the main room and was genuinely moved as I watched many from our group moving a table strewn with their laptops over to join in with a table full of German hackers. My eyes adjusted to the blacklight, and I saw hackers, journalists, developers and news partners all sitting around together, socializing and drinking and making. It was awesome -- a real lasting image of a new community built in Berlin.

So what does all this mean for the Knight-Mozilla News Technology Partnership moving forward? Well, in the short term, Hacktoberfest was the last step in a lengthy process to arrive at our 2011 fellows -- expect an announcement in a few weeks. But longer term, I think there are some real lessons to be learned from the event in Berlin, and some real ways those lessons will help to shape the Partnership in 2012:

  • I think the news partners really enjoyed feeling a part of the process, of meeting people and being engaged in the ideas being bandied about. Definitely getting the news partners to be partners throughout the year, instead of simply hosts for fellows at the end is a key step.
  • Additionally great: More opportunities to make code. The paths blazed by the Partnership in 2011 centered around design challenges and learning labs, which I think were both successful and should be replicated, but there wasn't anywhere near enough hacking going on, so more code in 2012 I think is a great goal.
  • Finally, building community is important. It's easy to get focused on process and look inwardly for community, but figuring out ways to intersect with the community around news innovation and making, as well as with the many other developer, design and open gov communities and others that very much intersect with journalism, is crucial.

Three moments, three lessons learned. Let's hear it for a successful Hacktoberfest!

A version of this story first appeared here.

September 15 2011

20:46

August 02 2011

08:33

August Net2 Think Tank: Surveying Your Community

As changemakers in our communities, it's important to take the time to learn from the communities that we serve about their impressions of our services. Whether your community is of volunteers, members of the public, internal stakeholders, or international organizations, it is valuable to ask them what they think of your work and invite them to help shape the future of your programs. In this month's Net2 Think Tank, we look forward to learning from you about surveying your community!

Topic:

What are your tips for creating community surveys? What types of questions are valuable? What distribution tools are available? What are the best ways to use community surveys to inspire a positive change to services? And, if you have an example of your own community survey, please share that too!

Deadline:  Saturday, August 20th

How to contribute:

  • Post your response online: Leave a comment below, write on your own blog or website, post on the NetSquared Community Blog, or share your feedback on Facebook or Linkedin.
  • Tag your post, comment, or tweet with net2thinktank.
  • Email Claire Sale the link to your post.
  • Have you written about this topic in the past? Great! Simply add the net2thinktank tag to your post and email us the link.

Be sure to get your submission in by emailing Claire the link to your post by Saturday, August 20th.

The roundup of contributions will be posted on the NetSquared blog on Monday, August 22nd.

About the Net2 Think Tank:

The Net2 Think Tank is a monthly blogging/social networking event open to anyone and is a great way to participate in an exchange of ideas.  We post a question or topic to the NetSquared community and participants submit responses either on their own blogs, the NetSquared Community Blog, or using social media.  Tag your post with "net2thinktank" and email a link to us to be included. At the end of the month, the entries get pulled together in the Net2 Think Tank Round-Up.

August 01 2011

13:00

The Vidiots strategy: From commodities to communities

The Times had a noteworthy article in yesterday’s paper, about the approaches independent video rental stores are taking as they battle behemoths like RedBox and Netflix. While many indie shops have simply shut down — R.I.P, Kim’s — others, as the video-world equivalents of Amazon and Walmart encroach on their formerly solid business models, are choosing fight over flight. And they’re fighting, specifically, by reinventing themselves and the products they sell. As corporate Goliaths undersell them — with prices that are, some cases, pretty close to full-on free — some indie stores are simply changing the products they offer.

It’s an old story, to a large extent — much of the article has a 2002 called, wants its trend back vibe to it — but it’s one whose thesis is made fresh by Netflix’s recent announcement of its updated pricing, which could have a big (and good) effect on smaller video stores. (Not only has the move provoked ire in some customers, leading them to defect from the brand altogether; there’s also “the notion that Netflix’s future appears to be in online streaming, not DVD’s, may return some business to video stores, given that fewer movie titles are now available via streaming.”)

For the Lab’s purposes, though, the main story here isn’t just that the video stores are adapting themselves to a new video-consumption environment, but how they’re doing it: through creating community around the products they’re selling. Vidiots, a popular video-rental spot in L.A., opened a community space, the Annex, last year. It uses the space to hold classes (“Film Studies“) and to host events: lectures from filmmakers, spoken-word performances, movie sing-alongs (yesterday’s: Jesus Christ Superstar), and more. (Vidiots also rents out the space when it’s not being used.)

“We felt that with Netflix and the Internet, what we should be focusing on was community and people talking to each other,” Patty Polinger, Vidiots’ co-owner, tells the Times’ Nicole Laporte. “We just wanted to go the other extreme and be more interpersonal.”

Vidiots is a unique case compared to, say, national news organizations: It’s in L.A., and so has special access to filmmakers and their fans; and it deals in movies, which are leisure activities and inherently social and so lend themselves rather seamlessly to in-person cultural events. Still, though, the store’s success (“success,” at this point, in the sense of “survival”) could be instructive for news orgs. Vidiots isn’t just engaging in community for community’s sake, desperately carving out a new revenue stream for itself; it’s taking what you could call its core mission — providing people with entertainment — and simply translating that mission into a new source of sustainment. It’s changing the product it sells, subtly: from movie rentals to movie-based experiences.

Or, in business terms, it’s reconsidering what customers actually “hire” a movie to do. In his course at Harvard’s Business School, the innovation theorist Clayton Christensen tells the story of a fast-food chain that wanted to improve its milkshake sales. It hired one of Christensen’s fellow researchers to analyze how, exactly, people were using milkshakes — and discovered that a whopping 40 percent of the chain’s shakes were purchased first thing in the morning, largely by commuters. Though the customers’ moms would be horrified by this, what the researcher discovered was that, to them, the shakes weren’t actually “milkshakes” at all, but rather portable breakfasts that they could nurse through long drives, easily and without mess. The customers weren’t just ordering shakes; they were, essentially, “hiring” the shakes to do a job. Once it had that insight, the chain could focus on offering products that could do that job for its customers.

That simple shift in perspective — thinking in terms of jobs accomplished rather than products offered, and profiting from it — is key to what Vidiots is doing. And it’s intriguing to consider what the shift might look like when applied to journalism. News outlets are certainly getting into the community game — through social media, of course, but also through IRL events like the NYT’s TimesTalks, the Journal’s Weekend Conversations, the Texas Tribune Festival, the Register-Citizen’s newsroom cafe, and on and on — but often those happenings are presented as subsidiary products, as events that are separate from the news itself. They’re just another revenue stream — just another product sold, just another milkshake.

But: What if they were more than that? What if news outlets were to consider themselves as doing a job rather than selling a product? What would happen to organizations’ business models if we started to think of “the news,” at its core, not as a product, but as an event?

July 16 2011

08:45

FAQ: How can broadcasters benefit from online communities?

Here’s another set of questions I’m answering in public in case anyone wants to ask the same:

How can broadcasters benefit from online communities?

Online communities contain many individuals who will be able to contribute different kinds of value to news production. Most obviously, expertise, opinion, and eyewitness testimony. In addition, they will be able to more effectively distribute parts of a story to ensure that it reaches the right experts, opinion-formers and eyewitnesses. The difference from an audience is that a community tends to be specialised, and connected to each other.

If you rephrase the question as ‘How can broadcasters benefit from people?’ it may be clearer.

How does a broadcaster begin to develop an engaged online community, any tips?

Over time. Rather than asking about how you develop an online community ask yourself instead: how do you begin to develop relationships? Waiting until a major news event happens is a bad strategy: it’s like waiting until someone has won the lottery to decide that you’re suddenly their friend.

Journalists who do this well do a little bit every so often – following people in their field, replying to questions on social networks, contributing to forums and commenting on blogs, and publishing blog posts which are helpful to members of that community rather than simply being about ‘the story’ (for instance, ‘Why’ and ‘How’ questions behind the news).

In case you are aware of networks in the middle east, do you think they are tapping into online communities and social media adequately?

I don’t know the networks well enough to comment – but I do think it’s hard for corporations to tap into communities; it works much better at an individual reporter level.

Can you mention any models whether it is news channels or entertainment television which have developed successful online communities, why do they work?

The most successful examples tend to be newspapers: I think Paul Lewis at The Guardian has done this extremely successfully, and I think Simon Rogers’ Data Blog has also developed a healthy community around data and visualisation. Both of these are probably due in part to the work of Meg Pickard there around community in general.

The BBC’s UGC unit is a good example from broadcasting – although that is less about developing a community as about providing platforms for others to contribute, and a way for journalists to quickly find expertise in those communities. More specifically, Robert Peston and Rory Cellan-Jones use their blogs and Twitter accounts well to connect with people in their fields.

Then of course there’s Andy Carvin at NPR, who is an exemplar of how to do it in radio. There’s so much written about what he does that I won’t repeat it here.

What are the reasons that certain broadcasters cannot connect successfully with online communities?

I expect a significant factor is regulation which requires objectivity from broadcasters but not from newspapers. If you can’t express an opinion then it is difficult to build relationships, and if you are more firmly regulated (which broadcasting is) then you take fewer risks.

Also, there are more intermediaries in broadcasting and fewer reporters who are public-facing, which for some journalists in broadcasting makes the prospect of speaking directly to the former audience that much more intimidating.

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July 12 2011

12:16

Learning about community strategies: 10 lessons

Back in February I blogged about the process of teaching journalism students to think about working with communities. The results have been positive: even where the strategy itself wasn’t successful, the individuals have learned from its execution, its research, or both. And so, for those who were part of this process – and anyone else who’s interested – I thought I would summarise 10 key themes that came through the resulting work.

1. A community strategy isn’t something you can execute effectively in one month

Perhaps the number one lesson that people drew from the experience was that they should have started early, and done little, often, rather than a lot all at once. There was a tendency to underestimate the needs of community management and a need for better time management.

Communities needed time to “grow organically”, wrote one; it wasn’t a top down approach. Members might also have felt they were being “manipulated” when weeks of inactivity were followed by a flood of posts, links and questions.

2. The importance of real world events

Many wrote of the strong effect that attending meetings, events, conferences – and even the simple knocking on doors – had. Get out there and shake hands.

3. Look at your analytics – and adapt

Some of the most useful pieces of learning came from close inspection of the metrics surrounding a website, Twitter account or Facebook page – whether during the project or after. One, for example, changed the content they were creating for a Facebook page when they noticed that the use of visuals was having “a significant impact” on the community’s life. They created a YouTube channel linked to the Facebook page to capitalise on that.

Another, who created a website for rating the performance of referees, noted how traffic was affected by a referee’s performance – giving them a useful insight into the types of subject matter that generated the most debate.

4. Content alone isn’t enough…

One student put this particularly well, admitting that he had misconceived his role and assumed that the content he was providing was good enough to draw a community “on its own merits”. Seeing the results of his peers, he realised the importance of “being active in the establishment and strengthening of a community”.

Others noted that “A community need not focus around a singular blog” and the best way of tapping into a community was “through relationships built with others” – reading others’ blogs, commenting and retweeting them, and asking for advice.

It seems like common sense that people are more likely to be interested in you if you are interested in them, but that’s something that needed to be discovered in a journalistic context.

Many had particularly well developed and impressive content strategies based on Richard Millington’s useful ‘How To Write A Practical Online Community Plan’ and other readings of the literature around community management. Those who didn’t frequently hit problems that might have been easily avoided.

5. …But engagement is hard without content

Some realised they had made the opposite mistake: focusing so much on building relationships that they missed the need for content. One noted the dangers of simply ‘collecting’ people. That was easy, they remarked. “It’s creating and keeping those valuable relationships that is the difficult part.”

A clear objective beyond simple membership helped with community-building, another pointed out, identifying fundraising as just one objective that could be adopted to help build connections.

Similarly, for a third student research by McMillan and Chavis came in useful: communities, they said, needed to create a sense of “integration and fulfillment of needs, [a] feeling of being supported by others”.

6. Think about sustainability

The timescale wasn’t long enough for this to become an issue, but it was worth considering. One strategy quoted the following “Online groups die without new members to replace those who leave”.

7. Find your role

It is sometimes better to fill a much-needed role in a community than to try to usurp someone else’s – especially when you don’t have the same access or knowledge (yet). When one person realised that they “couldn’t be one of the news breakers”, for example, they decided that their best bet was to become involved in the community and introduce talking points. They built social capital through helping out on Twitter, answering tweets or by asking questions. “By doing that I became known in the community.”

Likewise, another found that “offering to do a little bit of work went a very long way” and a third realised that they had been too focused on their own needs and should have been looking more closely at what the community needed. “I focused too much on herding a market as if they were sheep, and not enough on actually developing a community.”

8. Think about how people use the medium and whether that fits your objectives

A significant number of people seemed to feel that they had to choose between one medium and another, which led to the later realisation that one medium wasn’t enough, or wasn’t appropriate.

Tumblr, for example turned out (for one user) to be a medium where people did not engage on much more than a superficial level (they also realised that they needed a more specific goal beyond getting people to the site returning).

Many discovered the limitations of Twitter for continuing deeper discussion. And one noted the problems in Facebook’s connectedness where people “might not want to advertise their ambitions so openly to their friends.”

Identifying leaders in a community – and the platforms that they used – was a strategy adopted by a number of students, some of whom changed their initial choice of technology as a result of research.

And looking beyond generic blogs, Twitter and Facebook proved an intelligent move for one person, who found Yelp a good place to attempt crowdsourcing.

9. Think about what contributes to a person’s standing in a community

Different communities have different ways of behaving, and having an understanding of this can make a big difference as you try to build relationships. This was quite an eye-opener, as we can often assume that what contributes to someone’s standing in the tech blogging community, for example, can be applied to others.

In one particular online financial community, for example, one student noted that new users have to build up a track record of either neutral contributions or correct predictions in order to be accepted. They also outlined specialised language used to describe online manipulators.

Another noted of a different community that to gain genuine membership of one community they needed to be posting “entertaining reviews, regularly”. A fellow user helped her understand “that you could not be stand-offish in this community” – she threw herself in.

And a particularly good piece of research into photo sharing groups noted their “unwritten codes of conduct”, including an emphasis on extremely high standards before acceptance into the group photo pool; not complaining too much when photos aren’t accepted; and the importance of contributing by joining discussions, adding useful links and understanding emerging trends.

10. Community management experience is useful

Finally, it was particularly heartening to read, over and over again, of the success stories that came out of people’s experiences – especially as the assignment had been greeted with such scepticism by some, and active antipathy by others. At least 2 students obtained jobs at major broadsheet newspapers as a result of their community experience, and a third at a major magazine publisher. A fourth sold her blog to a publisher as it had already become their biggest rival.

Many wrote about how they had changed their impression of community management through the process of executing the strategy. In particular the strategy had benefits in terms of building contacts and relationships, meeting and interviewing people for their project and building networks of contacts – not just in the UK but internationally.

A couple identified both strengths and weaknesses in this approach, which are not new to journalism. For one, relationships of trust meant that they received stories and releases before anyone else. But the same relationships meant that “there were times when I couldn’t use the information I did get.” Another noted how relationships could “take away your objectivity – or be broken if what you publish is not to the liking of the community”.

Others spoke of how involvement in a community broadened their scope, introducing them to new perspectives on their field.

It also helped drive traffic – many noticed a very strong impact on analytics, with traffic doubling and even tripling in some cases. One, who was writing for another site, found out that they had the most-visited story on it.

And there was an impact on engagement, with newcomers “turned into regulars” when they were asked to contribute.

Finally, and particularly importantly for aspiring journalists, engaging in a visible way helped raise students’ profiles and lead to work opportunities and conversation points. One made radio and TV appearances as a result of their involvement; they were approached to write articles for industry magazines, and are in discussions with a major publisher about content exchange. Another found their blog listed as a magazine’s blog of the month.

Many found that the reputation built in a particular community opened doors in terms of gaining access to interview subjects, events, and publishers.

And of course the project provided a useful talking point at interviews, with one interviewee at a mid-market newspaper specifically asking “what it had taught me about writing for a specialist subject and locating communities of interest online.”

I hope the above 10 points help provide a useful basis for further exploration. For my own part, I’ll be building on this with next year’s class – for which I already have some ideas…

Meanwhile, many thanks to all the students at City University who persevered with this assignment and who taught me so much in the process.

If you can add any other experiences or areas you think have been missed, let me know.

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July 03 2011

21:02

Updated gear, tool & book guide, bonus mobile tools included too

Photo courtesy Stéfan Le Dû on Flickr

So as the school year has come to an end I’ve had several requests form graduating seniors for advice on what gear they should purchase to add to their arsenal  to get them ready for the next step of their career. A long time ago I set up a gear guide to help people with this, but it’d been a while since I’d updated it, until this weekend. So take a gander if you’re curious, looking for some interesting summer reading or in the market for new multimedia, mobile gear or books, check it out.

I also added a couple more categories to better split out the topics into more clear buckets: Design, development, mobile/tablet tools, management & leadership, social media & community, video/audio/photo gear and video/audio/photo training. … Oh, and “Nerdtastic stuff”… my favorite category of quirky nerd tools and gifts.

Full Disclosure: That is an affiliate link, so if you make a purchase I’ll get a 4% kick back, which I’ll use towards hosting costs for the site. It doesn’t cost you any more, just sends a little cash my way for helping create the resource.

Flickr photo courtesy Stéfan Le Dû

June 15 2011

14:00

Michael Skoler: Community, not audience, is a new business model

Editor’s Note: Our sister publication Nieman Reports is out with its summer 2011 issue, “Links That Bind Us,” which focuses on the role community plays in journalism. We’re highlighting a few entries that connect with subjects we follow at the Lab, but go read the whole issue. In this piece, Michael Skoler writes about the (monetary) value of community.

Nieman Reports summer 2011 coverA few years ago, Public Radio International coaxed its most popular host, Ira Glass of “This American Life,” into digital cinema. Ira had already expanded his famed radio program into a traveling stage show that toured a dozen cities a year. With this new idea he would perform one show and beam it live to hundreds of movie theaters around the United States at the same time. Efficient, yes, but would it be appealing, Ira wondered.

After all, people came to see him and even hoped to meet him. Radio is an intimate medium, and with Ira, so is a live show. What would be appealing about watching him on a screen from thousands of miles away in the company of a hundred strangers? This wasn’t a sporting event — the main draw for digital cinema — it was journalism, storytelling journalism. And people could already watch Ira on DVD.

So would they come and pay $20 a ticket?

They came in droves. More than 30,000 watched the first digital show at hundreds of theaters across the U.S. and Canada in the spring of 2008. The next year, 47,000 turned out. They came to be with other fans, experiencing something they all loved together. The success wasn’t so much the power of Ira, but the power of his community.

Keep reading »

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