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June 16 2011

12:00

Are Americans becoming more isolated from each other? Maybe, Pew says, but don’t blame Facebook

The accusations are familiar: The Internet is making us sad. The Internet is making us lazy. The Internet is making us lonely.

Pew has taken all of those ideas head-on with a new study, “Social Networking Sites and Our Lives” — the first national, representative survey of American adults on their use of social networking sites. Pew interviewed 2,255 of those American adults, 1,787 of them Internet users, between late October and late November of 2010; the survey group included 975 users of social networking sites (SNS) like Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, and Twitter. The survey builds on Pew’s 2009 report on technology and isolation, which found that, while there’s been a correlative decline in the size and diversity of people’s closest relationships since the advent of digital technology, the decline hasn’t (whew!) been caused by the Internet.

And today’s findings corroborate that. Americans’ use of social networks has nearly doubled since 2008, Pew notes, and “there is little validity to concerns that people who use SNS experience smaller social networks, less closeness, or are exposed to less diversity,” its report concludes. Furthermore: “The likelihood of an American experiencing a deficit in social support, having less exposure to diverse others, not being able to consider opposing points of view, being untrusting, or otherwise being disengaged from their community and American society generally is unlikely to be a result of how they use technology, especially in comparison to common predictors.”

While it’s still legitimate, I think, to wonder how the structures of social networks play out on the broader cultural level, it’s increasingly clear that our early dystopian fears of an Internet of Isolation are largely unfounded. We may be bowling alone, yes — but we’re also doing a lot of other things together, as a community, online and off.

Trust

In its 2009 survey, to measure how much trust people have in their fellow citizens, Pew asked its participants: :Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people?” And only 32 percent, less than a third of Americans, fell on the “can be trusted” side of things. So the 2010 findings bring good news: This time around, a comparatively whopping 41 percent said that most of their fellow citizens can, indeed, be trusted.

And here’s where things get especially interesting: Internet users tend to be much more trusting than non-users. Of online Americans, 46 percent said that “most people can be trusted.” Only 27 percent of non-Internet users said the same.

There are demographic elements to those findings: Education and race can affect people’s levels of trust in each other independent of communications tools. Even controlling for that, however, Pew found, Internet users are more than twice as likely to think that most people can be trusted.

And, among those users, Facebook-ers seem to be the most trusting of all. “When we control for demographic factors and types of technology use,” the report notes, “we find that there is a significant relationship between the use of SNS and trust, but only for those who use Facebook – not other SNS platforms.” (Twitter, just to be clear, is included among those platforms. Which, hmm.)

The study also found, intriguingly, an apparent correlation between time investment and overall trust: Facebook users who use the service multiple times a day are 43 percent more likely than other Internet users — and about three times more likely than non-Internet users — to agree that “most people can be trusted.”

Viewpoint diversity

Another knock on the Internet is that it isolates its users from the broader world in the embrace of familiarity otherwise known as an echo chamber — and that, in the process, our online existences prevent us from the fullest expressions of IRL empathy. To tackle that idea, the report’s authors measured what psychologists call “perspective taking” — the ability to adopt the viewpoint of another person (or, in the context of politics, to consider “both sides of an issue”) — on a scale that ranged from 0 to 100. And what they found is that social network participation, while it doesn’t necessarily encourage empathy, doesn’t seem to harm it, either. “Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter users are no more or less able to consider alternative points,” the report puts it.

The one exception, interestingly, is MySpace. “Controlling for demographic characteristics and other types of technology use, MySpace users tend to have a greater ability to consider multiple sides of an issue in comparison to other people.” Whether that has something to do with the well-documented cultural differences between, say, MySpace and Facebook would make for more fascinating study fodder.

Meantime, though, there seems to be a similar social-networks-don’t-change-human-behavior phenomenon when it comes to the most obvious IRL demonstrations of social capital: belonging to local groups like sports leagues, religious organizations, and volunteer outfits. While 74 percent of Americans now belong to social networks offline — way up from the 65 percent who said the same back in 2008 — that bump has little to do with social networking online, Pew says. MySpace users actually have a negative correlation with voluntary group participation, even controlling for demographics, and “use of all other SNS platforms does not predict belonging to a voluntary group.”

Civic engagement

And what about more explicit political activity? Demographic factors — age, gender, education — have always been, and are still, the most predictive factors of political engagement. But even accounting for that, Pew found that Internet users, and Facebook users in particular, are more likely to be politically involved than their non-Internet-using-but-otherwise-similar counterparts.

“Controlling for demographic characteristics, Internet users are nearly two and a half times more likely to have attended a political rally (2.39x), 78 percent more likely to have attempted to influence someone’s vote, and 53 percent more likely to have reported voting or intending to vote than non-Internet users,” the survey found. And a Facebook user who visits the site multiple times per day is two and a half times more likely than the standard Internet user to have attended a political rally or meeting. That user is also 57 percent more likely to have tried to convince someone to vote for a specific candidate, and 43 percent more likely to have voted to expressed an intention to vote.

Overall, then, compared with non-Internet users, Facebookers are 5.89 times more likely to have attended a political meeting, 2.79 times more likely to talk to another person about voting, and 2.19 times more likely to report having actually voted.

It’s noteworthy that the engagement metrics here aren’t just about passive participation — clicking a “Like” button on Barack Obama’s Facebook page or otherwise engaging in virtually mindless acts of “hacktivism.” What Pew is measuring are intentional, physical, IRL actions — rallying, voting, arguing — that stew together, physically and palpably, to form a democracy. And Facebook, more than any other major social network, seems to be encouraging those actions. It’s worth wondering why, exactly, that is. And it’s worth considering what news organizations, which share both an economic and civic interest in encouraging public participation, can learn from it.

January 03 2011

18:53

Neighborhood Sites Can Awaken Community Involvement

"When I was first on my own I used to bemoan that my fellow renters could hardly be bothered to return a wave but someone kept stealing my newspaper...," wrote author Laura Grace Weldon in a recent blog post, What Makes A Street Into A Neighborhood?. "Then we moved to a little house. It was silly how hard it was to meet the neighbors. They'd wave but that's about it."

Along the same lines, Sarah Byrnes wrote in YES! Magazine that "In the past, neighbors knew each other and engaged more naturally in mutual aid, sharing common resources and helping those in need. Nowadays, our mutual aid muscles are out of shape and pretty flabby."

The National Conference on Citizenship's Civic Health Index has attempted to bring science into the discussion by measuring things like the percent of people in a place who discuss politics with family and friends (44 percent in Vermont, for example). They found that 9 percent of Americans work with neighbors to improve the community, and 16 percent exchange favors with neighbors a few times a week.

Local Sites Drive Engagement

In their new book, The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods, John McKnight and Peter Block provide strategy and tactics culled from decades of community organizing. The book is chock full of hands-on, face-to-face ideas for pulling neighbors together. The Internet gets a mention, but it should get more.

A recent study out of the U.K. by Hugh Flouch and Kevin Harris found incredible civic engagement impact from neighborhood-focused websites. Among the findings reported by residents who use these websites:

95 percent feel more informed about the neighborhood
92 percent feel useful information gets shared efficiently
82 percent feel people pull together to improve the neighborhood
69 percent feel an increased sense of belonging within the neighborhood

How is this possible? I'm guessing that the sites studied offer highly relevant (that is, very local) content, don't waste people's time, and emphasize relationships and communication among "participants" over simply feeding news to passive "readers." These sites likely move away from social media's 90:9:1 principal, which says 90 percent of visitors are lurkers, 9 percent pitch in a little, and 1 percent create the vast majority of a site's content.

Sometimes even the 1 percent of the content that appears to be user-generated is actually supplied by paid contributors, such as the recent case with Yell.

Front Porch Forum

I see a different pattern with our Knight News Challenge-supported Front Porch Forum. We host a pilot regional network of online neighborhood forums in Vermont with the simple mission of helping neighbors connect and get involved.

In one rural town, we found that half of the community had subscribed to FPF after one year and, remarkably, 66 percent had posted. Instead of 90:9:1, we saw a ratio closer to 34:44:22. In another study in Burlington, Vt., where half of the city subscribes to FPF, 90 percent reported that their local civic engagement had increased due to this online service.

FPF_Particpation.png

Finding quality, timely and accessible local information is a daunting task in our current environment, with traditional media's convulsions and new media's fits and starts. But that's only half the battle. An informed yet isolated and disconnected populace does not make a democracy. We need more efforts like those covered in the U.K. study above that get people connected to neighbors and involved in the places where they live.

That's our mission at Front Porch Forum and we're excited to find growing interest in turning online words into offline local actions. Please share examples in the comments.

October 04 2010

09:18

August 18 2010

19:00

The kids are alright: How news organizations can tap the vast potential of younger consumers

[Christopher Sopher is a senior at the University of North Carolina, where he is a Morehead-Cain Scholar and a Truman Scholar. He has been a multimedia editor of the Daily Tar Heel and has worked for the Knight Foundation. His studies have focused on young people's consumption of news and participation in civic lifewhich have resulted in both a formal report and an ongoing blog, Younger Thinking.

We asked Chris to adapt some of his most relevant findings for the Lab, which he kindly agreed to do. Below is Part 1; we'll post Part 2 tomorrow. Ed.]

There are three “truths” the journalism world seems to acknowledge about the current generation of young people: They like cell phones, they use Facebook, and they never read newspapers. This is frequently interpreted to mean the end of the storied twentieth century tradition of reading the newspaper at the breakfast table, and, therefore, the end of democracy.

Perhaps it’s youthful naivete, but I’m fairly certain there are a few steps between reading the news on a mobile phone and the inability of a people to govern themselves. And this isn’t the first time a generation of young people has been accused of marching the world toward languid doom. The question that matters is this: What will replace the morning newspaper as the news habit of the first generation of Americans to grow up immersed in a digital culture? I recently finished a year of research and review in an attempt to find some answers to this question.

What I found was this:

With a few exceptions, the journalism world hasn’t been particularly effective at connecting its concern about young audiences to better understanding or better action. Which is an unfortunate failure, because young people have a lot to teach — both about themselves as current and future news consumers, and about the social and technological trends that shape the news ecosystem.

The broad summary is that most of today’s young people (the “millennials”) are interested in local, national, and international issues — and a strong majority are at least somewhat engaged with news media, predominantly online, through social networks and on television. Yet there is also great untapped potential resulting from the troublesome fact that most news outlets simply aren’t very good at reaching or serving young audiences.

Without significant changes and experimentation, news organizations are likely to miss the democratic, journalistic, and financial opportunities that are latent in the largest generation since the Baby Boomers. It is a common-sense but regrettably neglected point: If you care about the future of news, you need to care about (and understand) young people.

At the conclusion of my research, I compiled a list of the ten ideas I believe hold the most promise for getting more young people engaged with the news media. The general theme is that news organizations need to create a more usable, relevant, and explanatory experience and combine it with serious support for news literacy and news-in-schools programs that communicate to young people why they ought to use and support journalism. These aren’t complex or novel ideas individually, but if they’re to be effective, they’ll need collective attention.

I’ll explore a few of the most pertinent ideas in more detail in the next post, but I’ll conclude here with three points I think are vital to understanding young people’s relationship with the news.

1. The cliche that becomes the assumption. Too many stereotypes about young people get worked into news experiments aimed at them. One example: while it’s true that most young people feel more comfortable with technology and the Internet than their elders do, we don’t possess some sherpa-like, innate ability to navigate poorly designed, poorly organized information (as the Media Management Center’s excellent research demonstrates). Recreating an old experience in a new format is an ineffective way to reach young audiences.

2. Boring or fluffy. Most sectors of journalism thought have rejected the bimodal theory of news: either it’s inherently boring but deeply important (town council minutes) or entertaining but inane (Lindsey Lohan updates). Yet for some reason the assumption of bifurcation continues to pervade news outlets’ discussion of young people: Journalist types implore young people to eat more broccoli, while most news organizations’ efforts to reach young people assume they’re only interested in candy. (See Chicago’s RedEye or Denver’s failed 2005 experiment, Bias Magazine.) The potential is in the elusive middle ground — which I suppose, to follow my own analogy, would be “tasty vegetables.”

3. Why young people get the news. It’s an obvious, but often overlooked, point that the news needs to be designed with an awareness of how and why the audience experiences it. As for the latter, there are many theories about why young people read the news (and some excellent research, such as this ethnographic study [pdf] by the AP): the social capital theory (also known as “I want to seem smart by being able to talk about the oil spill’s effects on the brown pelican”); the democracy theory; the habit theory. The truth is probably a combination of these three, but they all point to the idea that news is both social and functional. Most news organizations do a poor job of providing an experience that, for young audiences who have a different level of knowledge and experience than older consumers is either of those things.

The point: Journalism needs to focus on young audiences and experiment with new approaches to engaging them. The results of that would be beneficial for everyone involved. Here, again, is my list of ten ideas for making it happen. What would you add?

Image of a paper-reader by foreverphoto, used under a Creative Commons license.

August 03 2010

14:00

California Watch’s distribution model, by the numbers

In mid-July, California Watch posted the results of an investigation by reporter Louis Freedberg: After surveying the 30 largest K-12 districts across the state, Freedberg found that some were cutting the school calendar to as low as 175 days in an effort to balance their budgets.

It’s an explosive story, one that has resonance for an interest group whose welfare everyone has a stake in: kids. And California Watch wanted it to have as wide a reach — and as big an impact — as possible. To do that, the outlet treated its story’s distribution process as an integral part of the editorial process — to the extent that, if you read editorial director Mark Katches’ detailed description of that process, it’s hard to tell where the one ends and the other begins.

As Katches explained:

As we carve our niche in the California-media landscape, we are finding new ways to reach an audience. If we had one word to describe our distribution model it would be this: flexible. We craft a new distribution strategy for each story we produce, depending on the topic and the intensity of local interest.

I was intrigued, in particular, by the sheer numbers behind the distribution effort. Here’s the breakdown:

Media partners for this story: 20

Media partners California Watch has teamed with since its launch: 70+

Languages the story was distributed in: 5 (Chinese, English, Korean, Spanish, and Vietnamese)

Platforms it was distributed on: 4 (print, web, TV, radio)

Individual shows that discussed the story on KQED, Northern California’s public radio station: 3 (“California Report,” “Forum,” “This Week In Northern California”)

Words in California Watch’s original, full-length story: 1,900

Words in the abridged versions of the story tailored for print publication: 1,100-1,200

Versions of the abridged story: 3 (one for Northern California, one for central, one for Southern)

Words in initial story summary circulated to media partners in advance of publication: 335

Weeks media partners has to edit the story for themselves before its embargo was lifted: 1

And, then, the totals:

Estimated newspaper subscribers reached: 1.15 million

Estimated TV viewers and radio listeners reached: 200,000

Of course, “reached” is a tricky metric; eyeballs are one thing, but attention is another. More interesting to me, though, is how California Watch is doing that reaching in the first place: through a collaboration strategy that could almost be called “aggressive.” In a good way. The outfit is making it as easy as possible for other news organizations to use its content. In the past, that kind of generosity would have been, basically, suicide; now, though, with the influence of the link economy and the journalistic culture coming around to collaboration — and, of course, in California Watch’s case, with a nonprofit model that values social good ahead of financial gain — having content used by other outlets is not just acceptable, but something to be strived for. (Their goal: add at least one new distribution partner for every big new story they publish.) It’s a new model of journalistic impact that reimagines replication as the sincerest form of flattery.

August 02 2010

15:00

Following up on the need for follow-up

Matt Thompson, currently of NPR and always of Snarkmarket, left a comment on my post from Friday about the need for follow-up journalism — including a link to a Snarkmarket post he’d written back in 2007. After reading that entry, and the very smart comments-section conversation it occasioned among Thompson and fellow-Snarkmarketeers Robin Sloan and Tim Carmody, I had what is probably the most common thought in the blogosphere: “Damn, I wish I’d seen that before I wrote my post.”

Thompson, who lived in Minneapolis in 2007, looks at the collapse of Minneapolis’ 35W bridge — which killed 13 people, and which was, tragically enough, all too predictable (and, thus, preventable). The press saw it coming; in the end, that didn’t matter. Because “even when our coverage anticipates disaster,” Thompson notes, “it often draws too little attention to avert it.”

I highly recommend reading Thompson’s post, and its comments section, in full; you’ll be hard-pressed to find smarter stuff. But if Instapaper you must, the nut of it is this: As journalism moves beyond physicality — as digitization allows our stories to transcend not just print and air, but atoms themselves — it is also free to move beyond temporality. Again, Thompson:

I think this may be one of the most important and underappreciated realities of journalism right now: Journalism can now exist outside of time. The only reason we’re constrained to promoting news on a minutely, hourly, daily or weekly basis is because we’ve inherited that notion from media that really do operate in fixed time cycles.

We tend to understand the news cycle in analog terms, and so to assume that journalists have basically one chance — via the daily paper, the nightly newscast, the monthly magazine — to share a particular piece of news with their audiences. And the chance to contextualize that news for audiences — to give them a sense of information’s importance compared with the other news of the minute, of the day, of the year — is even rarer. What results is a flattening: the stories of our day, big and small, silly and significant, are leveled to the same plane, occupying the same space, essentially, in the wobbly little IKEA bookshelf that is the modular news bundle. That collapsing of context occurs not just in print papers, but in broadcast and online, as well (as even the most cursory glance at the HuffPost’s homepage — Midterms! Palin! Afghanistan! LiLo! — will make clear). And yet we want perspective; we want to give the public a sense of the relative significance of our stories. So we’ve hacked a workaround: a code of assumption embedded in the stories we tell, a language whose grammar is visual (headline size, font) and whose syntax is graphical (page location).

Semantics, however, suggest sympathy; you have to understand those subtle signs in order to make sense of them. Many readers, for no other reason than that they haven’t gone to journalism school, don’t do the former — and therefore can’t do the latter. A better hack would be no hack at all — a system that doesn’t try to work around temporal constraints, but that, instead, restructures its relationship with the news cycle itself. There’s little implicit or necessary about that cycle; like so many other features of journalism’s core workings, it is for the most part an accident of history.

But as much as journalism has evolved with the web, its epistemology — the assumptions it makes about how best to structure and divide and filter lived experience — has remained fairly static. Even the most dashingly experimental of news outlets have generally cleaved to journalism’s traditional method of portioning the world for mass consumption: topical beats. Most reporters cover a particular, defined space — education, the arts, suburban Jersey — and they do so, significantly, from all angles: factual and conceptual, hard and soft, small-angle and wide-. (So when Brian Stelter, for example, covers “the media” for The New York Times, all the levels of complexity that that topic embodies — from nuggets of breaking news to business-deal analyses to step-back, thinkier pieces — fall under his aegis.) It’s a kind of Linnaean approach to our journalistic infrastructure — the same impulse that views a taxonomy of nature, with its neat families and phyla, not as an imposition of order, but as a metaphor for the one that already exists.

And that’s logical, of course; the most common complaint against digital news being its chaotic nature (and, for that matter, the most commonly accepted assumption about it being that we need better filters to keep it coherent), topic-based journalism makes sense. But it also has a side effect: Because we choose, essentially, topic over time as journalism’s core ordering principle, we don’t generally think about time as an order unto itself. Newness, and nowness, become our default settings, and our default objectives. The “tyranny of recency,” Thompson calls it.

Which ends up translating, less elegantly but more specifically, to the tyranny of the news peg. In our current approach to news, ideas and connections and continuities — context, more generally — often become subsidiary to “now” itself. Newness trumps all, to occasionally devastating effect. There’s an economic reason for that, sure (the core of it being that audiences like nowness just as much as journalists). But we also now have tools that invite an intriguing possibility: new taxonomies of time. We have Twitter’s real-time news flow. We have Wikipedia’s wide-angle perspective. We have, above all, the web itself, a platform that’s proven extraordinarily good at balancing urgency with memory. We’d do well to make more of it — if for no other reason than the fact that, as Thompson puts it, “a journalism unfettered by time would align much more closely with timeless reality.”

July 30 2010

18:00

WikiLeaks and continuity: What if we had a news outlet exclusively focused on follow-up journalism?

In his assessment of the journalistic implications of the WikiLeaked Afghanistan War Logs earlier this week, Jay Rosen made a provocative prediction:

Reaction will be unbearably lighter than we have a right to expect — not because the story isn’t sensational or troubling enough, but because it’s too troubling, a mess we cannot fix and therefore prefer to forget…. The mental model on which most investigative journalism is based states that explosive revelations lead to public outcry; elites get the message and reform the system. But what if elites believe that reform is impossible because the problems are too big, the sacrifices too great, the public too distractible? What if cognitive dissonance has been insufficiently accounted for in our theories of how great journalism works…and often fails to work?

It’s early still, of course, but it’s all too likely that Rosen’s forecast — the leaked documents, having exploded, dissolving into a system ill-equipped to deal with them — will prove accurate. I hope we’ll be wrong. In the meantime, though, it’s worth adding another layer to Rosen’s analysis: the role of journalists themselves in the leaked documents’ framing and filtering. If, indeed, the massive tree that is WikiLeaks has fallen in an empty forest, that will be so not only because of the dynamic between public opinion and political elites who often evade it; it will also be because of the dynamic between public opinion and those who shape it. It will be because of assumptions (sometimes outdated assumptions) journalists make about their stories’ movement through, and life within, the world. The real challenge we face isn’t an empty forest; it’s a forest so full — so blooming with growth, so booming with noise — that we forget what a toppling tree sounds like in the first place.

Publication, publicity

It used to be that print and broadcast culture, in general, offered journalists a contained — which is to say, automatic — audience for their work. When you have subscribers and regular viewers, their loyalty insured by the narrowness of the media marketplace, you have the luxury of ignoring, essentially, the distribution side of journalism. The corollary being that you also have the luxury of assuming that your journalism, once published, will effect change in the world. Automatically.

And investigative journalism, in particular, whether conducted by Bly or Bernstein or Bogdanich, generally operated under the sunshine-as-Lysol theory of distribution: outrageous discoveries lead to outraged publics lead to chastened power brokers lead to social change. (For more on that, give a listen to the most recent Rebooting the News podcast.) Journalism was a lever of democracy; publication was publicity, and thus, as well, the end of an outlet’s commitment to its coverage. The matter of distribution, of a big story’s movement through the culture, wasn’t generally for journalists to address.

Which was a matter of practicality, sure — as a group, reporters are necessarily obsessed with newness, and have always been stalked by The Next Story — but also one of design. There’s a fine line, the thinking went, between amplification of a story and advocacy of it; the don’t-shoot-the-messenger rhetoric of institutional newsgathering holds up only so long as the messengers in question maintain the appropriate distance from the news they’re delivering. And one way to maintain that distance was a structured separation from stories via a framework of narrative containment. Produce, publish, move on.

The web, though, to repeat its ur-observation, is changing all that. Digital platforms — blogs, most explicitly, but also digital journalism vehicles as a collective — have introduced a more iterative form of storytelling that subtly challenges print and broadcast assumptions of conceptual confinement. For journalists like Josh Marshall and Glenn Greenwald and other modern-day muckrakers, to be a journalist is also, implicitly, to be an advocate. And, so, focusing on the follow-up aspect of journalism — not just starting fires, but keeping them alive — has been foundational to their work. Increasingly, in the digital media economy, good journalists find stories. The better ones keep them going. The best keep them burning.

And yet, to return to the WikiLeaks question, that ethos of continuity hasn’t generally caught on in the culture more broadly — among journalists or their audiences. And one reason for that is the matter of momentum, the editorial challenge of maintaining reader interest in a given subject over a long period of time. Political issues caught in congressional inertias, military campaigns that stretch from months to years, social issues that hide in plain sight — their temporality itself becomes a problem to be solved. There’s a reason why, to take the most infamous example, political campaigns are so often indistinguishable from an episode of “Toddlers and Tiaras“: campaigns being year-long affairs (longer now, actually: Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee are probably digging into Maid-Rite loose-meats as I type), journalists often focus on their trivialities/conflicts/etc. not necessarily because they think that focus leads to good journalism, but because they think, probably correctly, that it sustains their audiences’ attention as election season slogs on.

Which is all to say — and not to put too expansive a point on it, but — time itself poses a challenge to the traditional notion of “the story.” Continuity and containment aren’t logical companions; stories end, but the world they cover goes on. The platform is ill-suited to the project.

Followupstories.org?

While addressing that problem head-on is no easy task — it’s both systemic and cultural, and thus extra-difficult to solve — I’d like to end with a thought experiment (albeit a small, tentative, just-thinking-out-loud one). What if we had an outlet dedicated to continuity journalism — a news organization whose sole purpose was to follow up on stories whose sheer magnitude precludes them from ongoing treatment by our existing media outlets? What if we took the PolitiFact model — a niche outfit dedicated not to a particular topic or region, but to a particular practice — and applied it to following up on facts, rather than checking them? What if we had an outlet dedicated to reporting, aggregating, and analyzing stories that deserve our sustained attention — a team of reporters and researchers and analysts and engagement experts whose entire professional existence is focused on keeping those deserving stories alive in the world?

Sure, you could say, bloggers both professional and amateur already do that kind of follow-up work; legacy news outlets themselves do, too. But: they don’t do it often enough, or systematically enough. (That’s a big reason why it’s so easy to forget that war still rages in Iraq, that 12.6 percent of Americans live below the poverty line, etc.) They often lack incentive to, say, localize a story like the War Logs for their readers. Or to contextualize it. Or to, in general, continue its existence. An independent outlet — and, hey, this being a thought experiment, “independent outlet” could also include a dedicated blog on a legacy outlet’s website — wouldn’t prevent other news shops from doing follow-up work on their own stories or anyone else’s, just as PolitiFact’s presence doesn’t preclude other outlets from engaging in fact-checking. A standalone shop would, however, serve as a kind of social safety net — an insurance policy against apathy.

As Lab contributor C.W. Anderson remarked on Monday: “I wonder what it would take for a story like the ‘War Logs’ bombshell to stick around in the public mind long enough for it to mean something.”

I do, too. I’d love to find out.

Photo of U.S. soldiers in Pana, Afghanistan, by the U.S. Army. Photo of Jay Rosen by Joi Ito. Both used under a Creative Commons license.

June 21 2010

14:00

Knight News Challenge: GoMap Riga won’t make much new, just (hopefully) make things work better

The lines between news, civic engagement, and crowdsourcing blur for one of the 2010 Knight News Challenge winners. A project called GoMap Riga wants to build a more active community (in this case in Riga, Latvia) by combining preexisting local communications — like tweets, Facebook wall posts, and news stories — on an interactive map, putting content in geographic context and fostering local engagement.

Perhaps that sounds more confusing than it should. Imagine a tool that pulls in a variety of content and plots it where it happened — a news story, a tweet, or an idea for a project. It doesn’t matter what it is. A user can also directly post a video, a photo, or text. Then community members can discuss the item within the context of the interactive map. The goal is to bring a community together around ideas, projects, and places by weaving together all of the tools we already use. If the tools are working together, they’ll be better tools, and so will the surrounding community.

“Honestly, we’re not innovating the world of journalism right now,” co-winner Kristofs Blaus told me. “What we’re trying to do is empower these existing things to work better.”

Blaus and his business partner Marcis Rubenis received a $250,000 Knight News Challenge grant to build out this idea. They’re starting in Riga, their home city, and hope to see it spread to other cities.

They stressed that they’re developing this project in response to user requests and feedback; they’ve used a meeting format called DoTalk to run the discussion, taking in ideas. And like several other KNC winners this year, they’ll use technology from a previous KNC winner — in their case, using Adrian Holovaty’s EveryBlock tech to pull in local news content on their interactive map.

Here’s a brief introduction to the project from Blaus and Rubenis:

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