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April 23 2012

23:52

How to Set Up A Chat Using CoveritLive

Step-by-step directions for setting up a live chat between readers and panelists using CoveritLive. [...]
23:50

Kick It Old School: Engaging Your Community Through Live Chats

The live chat is, in a sense, the original social media. Here are a few best practices and tips to reintroduce you to this kinda old school tool. [...]

April 18 2012

14:03

Coloring books and puppets: California Watch unveils a new section just for kids

It’s often said that kids today aren’t interested in the news. Could it be because traditional newsrooms aren’t reporting stories with them in mind?

Most third-graders may not need or want comprehensive coverage of, say, tax reform. But there’s a case to be made for tailoring some important news to a pint-sized audience. That was nonprofit California Watch’s attitude when it included a coloring book in its 2011 series on seismic safety.

Now, California Watch has a whole news section just for children. It’s a place where “you can color, watch videos and learn about issues our reporters cover.” It’s also the latest move in the nonprofit’s longstanding effort to distribute their work through nontraditional channels as a way to reach people who need the information they’re reporting. To meet that goal, California Watch’s strategy incorporates multiple platforms, translating work into different languages, and collaborations with media and community partners to get the word out.

“One of the things that I love about California Watch is we’re focused on actual communities because we have a solution-oriented focus,” the site’s public engagement manager, Ashley Alvarado, told me.

So the California Watch reporting strategy isn’t just about putting the information out there — it’s also about empowering people, grown-ups and kids, to do something about what they’ve learned. The star of the “Ready to Rumble” coloring book, Sunny the dog, makes a return for the Junior Watchdogs section, which features an online version of the original coloring book that kids (or, ahem, Nieman Lab reporters) can color using a digital palette.

There’s also a video puppet show — complete with felt props, knitted finger puppets, music and voiceovers — about clean water issues. The three-minute film explores pollution, and how people affect water quality. (This is truly a team effort: Listen for reporter Lance Williams as the voice of the owl scientist.) Next week, California Watch is debuting the Spanish-language version of the video.

The Junior Watchdogs site features a map called “Where’s Sunny?” that shows all of the places where California Watch has shipped its “Ready to Rumble” coloring book. Most of them went to coastal cities in the United States but at least one batch got as far as New Zealand. Another story in the works for the junior audience is based on a 2010 series about unsafe levels of lead in toys, jewelry, and back-to-school products.

The unusual storytelling approach is only one component. California Watch also has to make sure that people know about its work, and that’s Alvarado’s job. There may be an opportunity to tap into a network of schools at some point, but first she’s going to hit the streets. Alvarado has been putting together community toolkits, which she’ll “hand deliver, person by person” to various areas. Each toolkit will contain:

• A DVD featuring the puppet show and a slideshow (an alternative format for those without Internet access)

• Printed versions of an article or articles applicable to the community

• Worksheets to help answer questions that community members might have about the issue that California Watch reported about in their area, including contact numbers for government agencies

• A primer on working with the media

• A one-page information sheet about California Watch and the Center for Investigative Reporting

In much the same way that government agencies and other institutions provide reporters with press kits to help them understand the issues they have to write about, California Watch is giving informational kits to the community based on what it has reported.

Alvarado will start with 100 kits for her trip to two mobile home parks in Coachella, and will distribute kits that include an article about grim living conditions there. There is also a toolkit built designed to serve the Maywood community based on coverage of water quality, and a toolkit for unincorporated communities across the state.

“We’re not just writing about a community for another community,” Alvarado says. “That means nontraditional distribution. That means whether we’re putting a story on a postcard, putting a story in a coloring book, attending community meetings, whatever we have to do to become their own advocate.”

A contrasting example she gives: The New York Times might produce a brilliantly reported piece of journalism. But what if it’s about people who don’t read the Times? Which news organizations are looking out for their interests?

“I always joke and say we’re so old school we’re new school,” Alvarado says. “We are putting an emphasis on actual human-to-human interaction, which is — for whatever reason — becoming endangered.”

May 10 2011

20:18

Lessons to be learned from TBD: International Edition

During my professional sabbatical in the month of April, I had the opportunity to travel to Moscow, Russia to talk with Eurasian journalists about community engagement.

This is my name in Cyrillic!

On April 22-24, the New Eurasia Media Program held its annual International Conference, where I, along with other journalists and bloggers from around the world, shared [...]

May 02 2011

21:18

The Bin Laden story and real-time engagement

Please allow me to think aloud on the past 15 hours.

We all acknowledge that the news of Osama bin Laden’s death broke on social media. We’ve all got stories about Twitter’s impact, roundups of Twitter reactions, tweet timelines and Storification galore – but did anyone in the heat of the developing news last night start engaging readers on [...]

April 02 2011

13:54

Making community engagement an everyday process

This presentation is aimed at reporters to help them better connect with audiences, brand themselves and work more efficiently in the social sphere. I hope others may find it helpful/interesting. [...]

December 14 2010

16:00

Meet your host: Inside TBD, where engaging the audience is a new beat

Editor’s Note: Our sister publication Nieman Reports is out with its winter issue, which focuses on changes in beat reporting. We’re highlighting a few entries that connect with subjects we follow in the Lab, but we encourage you to read the whole issue. In this piece the community engagement team from TBD talk about their jobs and what “engagement” means.

The job of engaging with those formerly known as “the audience” is in some ways becoming a new online “beat” — one in search of a simple moniker to describe what it is, the skills required, and the tasks entailed. Four of the six members of TBD’s community engagement team describe what they do at this local news site that came to life in the summer of 2010.

Nathasha Lim:

“I’m a community host at TBD.” That’s what I say when people ask what I do. Hearing this, they smile, sort of, and nod their heads, and then they ask again what it is I really do. By now, this routine is all too familiar — but I can appreciate why. Until I started this job, I hadn’t heard of a community host either. Unlike the previous positions I’ve held — reporter, producer, video journalist — this one was unfamiliar, with responsibilities undefined and always evolving.

While I don’t have a clear definition for my title, in the short time I’ve been doing it, one thing is certain: What I do is unpredictable and diverse. On any given day I will keep an eye on local bloggers and interact with the community via social media. I stay on top of local news by relying on a combination of traditional and new sources. Then I use social media and digital tools to bring accurate and useful news and information to the public — quickly.

Keep reading »

November 30 2010

15:00

Making social gaming scale: Lessons from the Democrat and Chronicle’s adoption of alternate reality

Just over a year ago, Rochester’s Democrat and Chronicle launched an ambitious Alternate Reality Game (ARG) called Picture the Impossible. The seven-week game was a collaboration with the Lab for Social Computing at the Rochester Institute of Technology, and it built web, print, and real-life challenges over a fictional storyline designed to connect players with with Rochester’s history. Participants were divided into three teams that competed against each other to earn money for three local charities. The players completed a scavenger hunt in a local cemetery, created recipes for a cooking contest focused on local ingredients, and earned points each week for both web-based games like jigsaw puzzles and print newspaper challenges like assembling a mystery photo. The game concluded with a Halloween costume party for the top players.

Over 2,500 people signed up for the game in all, and it attracted a highly engaged core of about 600 people, including members of the young professional demographic that the Democrat and Chronicle had been most hoping to attract. But running an ARG was also very resource-intensive. I talked with Traci Bauer, the Democrat and Chronicle’s managing editor for content and digital platforms, about what the paper learned from Picture the Impossible, and how they are building social gaming into the paper’s day-to-day operations.

Picture the Impossible emerged through a collaboration between Bauer and RIT professor Elizabeth Lane Lawley. It was funded through sweat equity from both organizations and a donation from a local charity and Microsoft Bing. (Kodak, which is based in Rochester, provided cameras and printers as weekly prizes.)

The game attracted players of all ages, including families, students brought in through RIT, and plenty of Baby Boomers. (“They’re easy,” Bauer said. “Boomers do everything.”) Two-thirds of the players were women. The most important strengths of the game were the collaborative team structure and the focus on earning money for charity. Team spirit was high on the message boards for the three different “factions,” and players strategized ways to maximize their weekly point totals. The scavenger hunts and real-life games (some powered by the text-messaging/smartphone app SCVNGR) were popular, as was the cooking competition, which brought in 104 entrants. When I spoke with Bauer and Lawley last year, they had also been very excited about the way the game used the print paper as a physical element of play.

Bauer said the newspaper had learned enough from the collaboration that the experiment would have been worthwhile even if the game flopped. It didn’t.

“The beauty of it wasn’t in the volume of players, but in the amount of time that they spent in the game,” Bauer said. “In the end we had 62 minutes on-site per unique, and that’s compared to 30-35 minutes on our core sites.”

Bauer came out of the project believing that the news industry needs to harness gaming strategies. “There’s something in there, for sure,” she said.

Her goal is for the Democrat and Chronicle to always have some kind of social gaming presence. When Picture the Impossible closed last Halloween, “I wanted to quickly get another initiative out there,” Bauer said. “I hate when you build something and it’s a success and you put it up on a shelf and don’t pay attention to it for years.”

The problem was that Picture the Impossible had taken a huge amount of time and resources. The newspaper’s collaboration with RIT had ended, and the pressures of making social gaming a normal part of newspaper operations meant figuring out a more pared-down, sustainable model.

For the Democrat and Chronicle, that has meant abandoning the Alternate Reality Game model, with its fictional storyline that united the different elements of the game and propelled it forward. As a news organization, Bauer said, creating fictional scenarios didn’t really fit with their mission. It also meant fewer real-life challenges, even though they were very popular with players. RIT had been “instrumental” in making those in-person activities work. “It’s not what we’re really good at, organizing baking contests and things like that,” Bauer said. “It wasn’t what we’re about.”

This time around, the Democrat and Chronicle’s new social gaming project, score!, is focused around one of the newspaper’s core activities: political coverage. Launched in June, score! focuses on the November elections, and consists mainly of politically-themed web games and quizzes. One new game, Headline Hopper, has players propel little politicians through a landscape of quotes, Mario Brothers-style.

As in Picture the Impossible, players accumulate points and earn money for charity, and the profiles of score! players note whether they participated in Picture the Impossible, to build continuity between the two games.

This time, Bauer said, they thought the team loyalty that had powered Picture the Impossible would be formed around political parties, the Democrats competing with the Republicans. But that team structure flopped when only four Republicans signed up. As a result, Bauer said, they’ve mostly abandoned the team focus. The in-person component of score! has also been scaled back; players can get “stalker” points for snapping photographs of politicians at local events, but Bauer said the challenge hasn’t really taken off. Part of the problem is that candidates are unpredictable, so it’s hard to get information about possible stalker events until the very last minute.

The election focus has been one of the strengths of score!, in part because it gives the game a natural theme that’s easy to build content around, and in part because the games build on the status that comes along with being well-informed about politics — and with having other people know that you are.

“In the forums they talk about how much they’ve learned about the election, and how they feel like smarter voters because of it,” Bauer said.

Players now need to log in to the game through Facebook, which has generated about a dozen complaints from people who can’t play — not enough to be a real concern. And the benefit of the Facebook platform is that it allows players to compare their scores with friends.

Like Picture the Impossible, Bauer said that the 2,300 score! players fall into three tiers: a smaller group of 250 hardcore players, a middle tier of casual players, and then the remainder — who scored a few points and then didn’t come back.

“That’s really our target, is the causal player,” Bauer said.

One of the biggest challenges of running games when you’re not a full-time gaming company is negotiating the relationship with the hardcore players versus the larger group of more casual ones. The most devoted players are also the ones who post the most complaints on forums and Facebook. “We have to keep reminding each other as a team [that] this is an initiative that is going to be constant on our site, and we can’t wear ourselves out catering to five people,” Bauer said.

At the same time, those small number of hardcore players are responsible for a lot of the games’ energy. “That’s where the conundrum is,” Bauer said. “We owe all of our success to those kinds of people.”

When score! ends, Bauer will evaluate the game’s analytics to see which parts of it generated enough engagement to make the time invested in it worthwhile, and continue to think about how to automate parts of the game to make it more sustainable. The next game will debut sometime early in the winter, Bauer said, and it may involve competition between players in Rochester and other cities.

So far, the Democrat and Chronicle is the only Gannett paper to implement a major gaming initiative, Bauer said. She said this was disappointing, but not surprising, since the success of Picture the Impossible didn’t translate into a bump in revenue. (Unlike Picture the Impossible, score! has advertising on its site.) As much as she believes in making social gaming part of a newspaper’s toolbox, Bauer said, “it certainly doesn’t produce a lot of revenue, and until it does, it’s not going to get a lot of attention.”

November 15 2010

17:00

Comments and free samples: How the Honolulu Civil Beat is trying to build an audience (and its name)

“You’re starting from absolute scratch. That’s a big hill to climb.”

That’s not an excuse, but it is the reality of the news startup that John Temple is describing. Temple is the editor of the Honolulu Civil Beat, the online-only news source that made a big splash earlier this year because of its pay-first mentality. As envisioned by Temple, and by Civil Beat founders Pierre Omidyar and Randy Ching, most of the content on the Civil Beat site sits behind a paywall.

As far as startups go, the Civil Beat had news futurists curious about whether a media organization could get readers to pay for news upfront — particularly since Civil Beat has the advantage/disadvantage of starting from a paid subscription model out of the box, as opposed to introducing one after the fact. The big question — it almost seems like a sphinxian riddle — is how do you get people to pay for your work if they can’t readily access it?

In the first six months, the answer seems to be a lot of hustle on the part of Temple and his staff. They’ve aggressively pursued coverage on land use and money issues, placed an emphasis on data, and are engaging readers on and offline. And one other thing: They’re giving away free samples on CivilBeat.com.

“When you’re working at an established organization, you’re building on so much tradition. And here you’re not. You’re developing everything,” said Temple, who is more than familiar with established organizations having been editor and publisher of the departed Rocky Mountain News.

Doling out free content

Where Civil Beat has to be creative, Temple told me, is in making a connection to readers and turning them into site members. “The challenge of course is to have enough people feel that you’re essential that they want to support you and pay for your services,” he said. (Temple said they aren’t releasing numbers on Civil Beat memberships or site traffic just yet. Though he did say this: “People who are willing to sign up at the early phase of a new news product like this with high aspirations — there’s low churn rate with those people.”)

The paywall also sprouts leaks on certain days, when some Civil Beat stories are viewable to the public — generally reporting on the government or elections, Temple said. The Civil Beat homepage, as well as its Twitter feed, also provide a basic understanding of the day’s news in a less-than-closed off way. Temple said it’s been important, as a matter of marketing as well as gaining the public’s trust, to demonstrate to readers that their news is not completely hidden away.

Which is why they went one step further, offering the equivalent of “free ice cream sundaes!” with complete free access to the site on certain days. The free content days are timed around stories the staff believe are in the public interest or enterprise stories they’d like to see reach a wider audience. Temple said they recognize that in order for readers to decide whether they want to spend money on the Civil Beat, they should be able to sample it first.

What the Civil Beat shares in common with many news organizations is the belief in the strength of their journalism as the primary draw for the public, be it land development and environmental stories or campaign funding news. It’s a mix of news basics in new forms, with the Civil Beat reporter/hosts fact-checking (similar to PolitiFact) statements from politicians and parsing data for document-driven reports on subjects like public employee salaries.

“We share with the readership the experience in gathering those records and encountering government agencies,” Temple said. “In some ways that has been very provocative, because we’ve written about how difficult it is to get information and how government agencies treat us.”

Building community

As a small news organization willing to experiment with coverage areas, reader engagement, and ways readers can pay for content, Temple said it was necessary to have an open dialogue with members about changes to the Civil Beat. The company blog has become a place to discuss their journalism and ask for suggested interview questions. Temple said it’s also been useful as they’ve also tinkered with the subscription levels and pricing, offering a 15-day trial for $0.99 and adding a $0.99 cent per month discussion membership to take part in comments. (Comments are free to view, just not to leave.)

And speaking of comments, Temple says they have nothing but good things to report. Discussions have largely remained civil, even while spirited. Members use their real names or can use a screen name (though Civil Beat staff know members’ real identities, thanks to the subscription process). And what may be most surprising to editors dealing with comments elsewhere: “We don’t even have a profanity filter on our comments — anybody can post anything in our comments. It’s all self regulated,” Temple said.

The Civil Beat seems to be making its biggest bet on reader engagement, not just as a method of outreach, but also as content for the site. The debates between readers, ranging from education reform to a proposed Honolulu rail project are filled with long, thoughtful posts, often citing links for background. In turn, Civil Beat staff will invite members to write blog posts spun off from discussions or on other topical issues. “Obviously, the core content is the journalism that we produce, but the comments and the discussion create a whole other level of content,” Temple said.

They’re also reverse engineering the idea of comments as the new “public square,” by holding events (called “Beatups”) on issues like the judicial nomination process and the merger of the Honolulu Advertiser and Honolulu Star-Bulletin. The events are open to members, with non-members able to join for as little as the $0.99 commenting subscription.

Temple wants to not just inspire the daily conversation, but be a part of it — and yes, to get people to help pay for their work along the way. By making select stories open and comments visible, the strategy appears to be letting outsiders have just enough of a taste (or get them riled up for a debate) to pique their curiosity. The idea for the Civil Beat is to prove its worth as a news organization through their work while being open with readers about how they operate. And with substantial financial backing, it can afford to give its strategy some time to develop.

“If you look at most news organizations, and of course they’ve all evolved over the years, there’s still a pretty defensive posture,” Temple said. “We don’t think that’s a healthy way to approach it and I think our members have responded really positively to that. They want to feel that they can talk to you.”

September 29 2010

15:00

David Beard on leaving Boston for National Journal: “I just didn’t want to live my life managing decline”

Sad news for The Boston Globe today — but great news for the ever-expanding National Journal. David Beard, Boston.com’s editor for the past four years, is joining the National Journal Group as deputy editor-in-chief and online editor. He’ll start October 18.

Beard will be joining — and in many cases overseeing — a staff with an impressive, even daunting, journalistic resume. There’s Marc Ambinder from The Atlantic, Michael Hirsch from Newsweek, Matt Cooper from…tons of outlets, Major Garrett from Fox, and many, many more — all overseen, of course, by Ron Fournier, the former head of the AP’s Washington bureau. The term “Dream Team” comes to mind.

That stellar staff was part of the appeal of the move, Beard told me this morning. But another aspect of it was being part of an organization that, with its digital-first approach to news reporting, will focus on innovation. “It’s the hoariest of journalistic cliches to say, but I want to make a difference in my career and in my life,” Beard says. In America, “we’re talking about declining reporting capabilities on institutions and watchdog efforts.” A move to Washington is an attempt to be part of the solution.

The specifics are still being worked out — but one big aspect of Beard’s role at the Journal will be “in translation”: to facilitate dialogue between NationalJournal.com, the open web site, and the members-only, mobile-focused version of its product. He and his staff will focus on a live-blog model of news reporting, with an emphasis on social media — essentially, Beard says, “to take these enormous resources and get more of it out there in real time.”

One particularly nice resource: the Journal’s partnership with its fellow Atlantic Media-owned outlet, The Atlantic. “So if we see an Andrew Sullivan piece we like, we’ll put it on our site,” Beard points out. “And [Atlantic.com editor] Bob Cohn will put our stuff on his site.”

Community engagement, both direct and indirect, will be a big part of that. “Every community has its own personality,” Beard notes — “and you have to listen as well as lead.” At the Globe, “we’ve really tried to develop the sense that if you want to know Boston, you want to connect on Boston.com — because we speak the language,” he says. The site, he says, tried to explore the reasons “to live in a place with such crummy weather and high rents. We’d try to come up with a reason every day.”

He’ll try to apply that same reason-focused logic to the Journal, only with a narrower focus: politics. While, at the Globe, “we’ve been all things to all people,” the new gig will require, for the most part, being all-things-politics to politics junkies. Or, as Beard puts it: “It’s sort of like running a Benetton, not the whole department store.”

At Boston.com, Beard has been known for fostering young talent in the digital world — Amalie Benjamin, for example, with her Red Sox coverage, and Meredith Goldstein with her relationship-advice column — and he’s looking to continue that trend down in Washington. The focus, though, will be digital engagement, saying he’ll reward someone with top-notch social media skills “just as heavily as somebody who’s just going to trade on their thirty years of experience.”

As Beard sees it, the move to DC will represent something of a back-to-the-future move in his relationship with journalism. “In many ways, this was a dream job for me,” he notes. “It’s almost like being an editor 50 years ago” — one with the resources to make a difference and change journalism for the better. He read The Trust, Alex Jones’s book on the early days of the NYT “and I thought about the first Times owner…and how much he really dreamed up new ideas and thought like an entrepreneur — as opposed to a manager of an extant company,” Beard says. “I didn’t want to live my life managing decline.”

Still, “I’ve loved my four years on the job,” Beard says — “particularly the last two years, with the emphasis on building socially: building our audience ourselves, and responding to them.” And, having worked with Marty Baron for nine years, it’s a great thing, Beard says, to “come to work knowing that there’s a person who cares as deeply about the product as you do.” With Baron, “you knew every minute, every hour of the day that he cared.”

But in a time of tumult, the Journal is an organization whose relatively vast resources will, presumably, help it to be a voice of accountability during a time when watchdog journalism is challenged. It’s an outlet “with 100 sets of feet on the street,” Beard says, “covering government, policy — not just the horserace. It can give an answer to the question: ‘What’s government for?’”

September 27 2010

17:30

Block by Block: Once you’ve launched, what’s Phase 2 of a community news startup?

Jay Rosen called it “entrepreneur atomization overcome.” And, for an event that put nearly 100 formerly disconnected community news publishers together in one place, it’s an apt description. When those publishers got together in Chicago on Friday to share their experiences in publishing — to talk, in particular, about on-the-ground matters like audience engagement, advertising strategies, and, of course, revenue generation — there was a prevailing sentiment: Why didn’t we do this earlier?

The Block by Block Community News Summit, principally organized by the Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Michele McLellan (a former Nieman Fellow), was thankfully well-recorded, through means both ephemeral (its Twitter hashtag), slightly less so (its CoverItLive’d live blog), and much less so (its official blog). I don’t want to reinvent the wheel here, and if you’re at all interested in community news — and if you’re interested in the future of news in general, you probably should be — I highly recommend checking those out. In the meantime, though, here are some of the core ideas that emerged during the conference’s jam-packed day of panels, breakouts, and room-wide discussions.

Know — and grow — your role in the community

Community news sites, just like their larger and more established counterparts, need to be able to provide an answer when someone — a would-be reader, a potential advertiser or funder — asks, “So why do you exist?” As West Seattle Blog’s Tracy Record put it during the conference’s panel on engagement: “You have to think how different your publication is…what need is it filling?” Starting out, answering that question could involve filling a particular niche in terms of content, or simply stepping in to contribute community coverage that a local paper is no longer willing or able to provide. (As virtual attendee Whitney Parks noted in the conference’s Twitter stream, “ask your community what they want to know about and what issue they want covered.”) But the purpose has to be clear, and easily articulated. It’s the foundation of a site’s brand, which, in turn, is the foundation for its success or failure.

Embrace a new relationship with readers

During the conference’s closing session, Jay Rosen invoked that classic de Tocqueville line: “Newspapers make associations, and associations make newspapers.” In another context, and in another conference, that reference might have been laughably romantic hyperbole; at Block by Block, though, it fit right in. There was a sense — to engage in just a smidge of laughably romantic hyperbole myself — of symbolism in the room. In some ways, Rosen pointed out, the publishers in the room are going back to the early days of American journalism, in which the connection between publications and the communities they covered was implicit, and therefore intimate — and vice versa.

And that relationship, the conference’s modern-day publishers said again and again, should translate to sites’ interactions with advertisers and other members of their local business communities. As the Patterson Foundation, one of the conference’s sponsors, noted in a tweet, “Small sites have an opportunity to create a closer relationship with users b/c a brand is not standing in the way.” Mike Orren, from Dallas’s Pegasus News, agreed — if in a roundabout way. In the ability they have to rally people around particular events, he noted, “we’re a lot more like radio than like newspapers.” Local sites have the ability to summon people, to engage them — to join them together into communities. And they should leverage that power. As David Boraks of Davidson News put it: “We are not writing about the community anymore; we are writing for the community.”

Embrace a new relationship with advertisers

Local advertising is a $100 million business, GrowthSpur’s Mark Potts noted, and he said Google and AOL have more than 50 percent of that market. Their services are easy to use, but taking the time to develop relationships with local businesses — which is to say, fellow local businesses — is worth the investment, many publishers agreed. The key is humanizing the transaction. As Windy Citizen’s Brad Flora, a 2010 Knight News Challenge winner for a real-time advertising project, put it: “We don’t sell eyeballs — we sell introductions.” What that suggests is a shift, if a slight one, in the ancient wall dividing editorial and advertising. The Loop, a hyperlocal site in NYC, does sponsored stories — clearly identified as such. Santa Barbara’s EdHat prominently invites readers to advertise on the site, and, via a single button on the homepage, makes it easy for them to do that. And many publishers agree that word-of-mouth is key to success with advertisers. As Baristanet’s Liz George put it, “Your readers are probably your best salespeople.”

Branding matters more than traffic

Advertising is based on relationships. Brand matters more than abstractions like CPM and traffic, publishers agree. While national ad sales rely on CPM, “local advertisers cannot spell CPM,” said GrowthSpur’s Potts. And while metrics like traffic stats “provide a baseline for understanding,” Pegasus News’ Orren noted — proof that you’re generally legit as a news organization — they’re functionally meaningless for advertisers. “There’s actually an inefficiency in the market,” Potts noted. Because they don’t understand CPM — mention it, and “they’ll go running from the room.” West Seattle Blog’s Tracy Record agreed. “Advertisers don’t care about metrics,” she said, “but they do care about your mission.” Convince them of your mission — and your reputation — and, she said, “they’ll buy ads to support you.”

Collaboration will lead to participation

Collaboration isn’t just a way to get more and better content for a site; it’s also a way to inspire engagement among readers. As OJR put it, tweeting a comment from Dave Cohn, “One key to engaging=collaboration w/audience and others says @digidave. Actually attracts others to participate.” And that’s true for the local sites themselves. Several participants expressed the desire to continue the conversations at other conferences, and online. They’ve made it through Phase 1, the creation stage.

But as VTDigger’s Anne Galloway put it during the conference’s wrap-up session, “We need a Phase 2 guidebook.” The publishers want a systematized way to share information and best practices. During the conference, there was a wealth of wisdom in the room; participants agreed in their desire to aggregate that wisdom. “It would be good to have tipsheets,” Galloway said. It would also be good, they agreed, to continue the conversation via further conferences. The Block by Block participants are already planning a meetup at next month’s Online News Association conference, during which they’ll consider more ways to consider the conversation; here’s hoping even more good things will come from that.

May 17 2010

20:49

Wanna Come Out and Play? Community Engagement & Technology Development

When my old friend and collaborator Leo Burd returned to MIT as a research scientist for Center for Future Civic Media's (C4FCM), we started to gather some like-minded folks to discuss how media and mapping tools and youth civic engagement can intersect in the world of the Media Lab. Both of us have often been called a bridges or a translators between technology developers and underserved community members.  We see a value in equalizing the power that comes from self construction, blurring the role of creator and user.

At first, we just wanted to be part of multi-directional conversations and find creative ways to document the ideas exchanged.  Across what seemed like a very disparate set of projects, we found a common value in finding or making new technologies that are appropriate for youth use directly reflect on and affect change in their everyday worlds.   Our individual place-based approaches didn't hinder us from talking about replicability across complexities of culture, politics, and context, in places like Rio, Lima, Gaza, and Roxbury.  These conversations and ideas became a new kind of renewable fuel for further development of new or more appropriate technology tools for youth in underserved situations.

At heart, we wanted to create processes of development where innovation happens iteratively with community educators, activists and youth as collaborators not end users. Many of us come from the Media Lab's Lifelong Kindergarten (LLK) school of constructivism, project and personal interest-based hands-on learning.  In a world of imagination and play, invention is without limits and most importantly FUN.  New half-baked technologies, like new toys, lets us be kids again.  Through a collaborative process of software development, tinkering can equalize the role of inventor and user and harken us back to a space where imagination and creativity can win you the power of attention and solidarity.

You could make an argument that play is just play, but many child development researchers would argue that play is an essential part of children developing into social and productive human beings.  Linking play, and the innovation it can produce, with tangible utility and action in a certain place is an exciting opportunity.  So when we reviewed Kate Balug's class project proposing a new city department focused on youth mapping their own safe play spots in their own neighborhoods, the Department of Play moniker and a vision was born.

Belfast Computer Clubhouse, Ireland 200

Playing games in a public space are more fun with different kinds of players and if they keep happening over time.  Early on, we prioritized outreach and relationship building as an essential building block of our community engagement approach at the Department of Play.  This approach is essentially the next generation of LLK and Computer Clubhouse Green Table.  At each Clubhouse and later at the Media Lab at monthly meetings of coordinators and MIT students, the Green Table was both a literal and symbolic "village green," a space for open assembly and participation.   This spring, the core members of the Dept. of Play facilitated conversations and new relationships, sparked in weekly researcher meetings across fields and department and in a monthly meetups where we invited local Boston community organizers and educators into the mix.  Then we started to reach out to other theoretical thinkers or experts in the fields of children's rights, international development, and community based change.

Time and time again, we told our own personal stories of creating tools for change in a place, with the idea that mutually beneficial relationships can yield the best cycles for feedback and development.  We centered conversations about functionality and use around everyday issues, not because we wanted to just observe or validate our own ideas and tools.  We want to build a community of creators who will take to play with innovations that worked in one place and vision if they could apply in other contexts.

My City, My FutureA perfect example is a new curriculum we're developing, aimed at bringing Jeff Warren's grassroots participatory and activist mapping techniques to the favelas of Rio de Janeiro via the MIT IDEAS Competition winning My City, My Future project and behind the walls of Gaza and the West Bank via Voices Beyond Walls new Re-Imagining Project.  In all these places, we'll be taking lessons and technologies developed in action-based research and asking new groups of youth and adult mentors to add their own new ideas to developing tools for storytelling and visualization.  These three collaborators will work with youth on the ground to help us develop a neighborhood mapping tool on top of Jeff's Cartagen framework, then we'll bring this software to the youth here in Boston to try to adapt it to the context of their community centers and affordable housing developments.

Beyond finding resources to support projects and software development, the most challenging aspect of this approach is the TIME and effort it takes to build relationships and trust.  Groups like C4FCM are formed to take MIT innovations beyond ideation to sustainable civically-minded implementation.   At the Department of Play, we take it step further, trying to put that action in the hands of the youth with a spirit of purpose, curiosity and the joy of learning that adults too quickly grow out of unfortunately.

So Leo, mysef and the rest of the DoP team will keep purposely playing on the two teams of MIT and the youth community.  Come join us! http://departmentofplay.org

May 05 2010

12:00

Media Consortium offers members cash for collaboration

The Media Consortium, a network of about 45 progressive-leaning independent media organizations wants to get its members to do some real-world testing of the future-of-news ideas we all talk about. The best way to get their members on board: Pony up some cash.

The consortium is taking applications to sign on to three separate collaborative projects that cover exploring new revenue streams (members are both non- and for-profit), moving into mobile, and community engagement. Outlets will work in cross-organizational teams to come up with testable projects, which the consortium will then support with at least $5,000-$12,000 in seed money to get projects off the ground. The consortium will also provide some administrative and logistical support as needed. When all is said and done, the wrapup findings will be made public.

I asked Tracy Van Slyke, the project director at the consortium, which outlets are on board so far. She laughed and said the deadline to apply is May 12, and she is expecting the bulk of applications to land that day. The consortium has been in one-on-one talks with members, who Van Slyke said seem interested — which is not surprising as the the three research areas came out of discussions at their annual meeting, and a consortium report, The Big Thaw, which looked at trends in independent media, including its member organizations. Van Slyke also noted that they’re only inviting member organizations to apply, but perhaps they’d be open to the right partner signing on. (That is: If you’re interested, it can’t hurt to contact her).

Most consortium members are relatively small operations. For example, my last two employers, the nonprofit Washington Independent, with a staff of about ten people, and Talking Points Memo, now up to 20 or so, both belong. All news organizations are struggling to innovate, but smaller shops face an even higher hurdle. When a swamped staff is busy with day-to-day operations, and the technical development team is one person — or nonexistent — collaboration offers huge potential.

“The point is that usually, these organizations wouldn’t necessarily have the money or the staff time, or the resources in terms of brainstorming to do it on their own,” Van Slyke told me. “So we want to do it collectively and be able to put the money in to actually experiment. It’s not enough to talk about it. You have to actually experiment.”

The mission of the consortium is wrapped up in the project. Van Slyke wants to see organizations thinking strategically about revenue, mobile, and audience engagement to amplify their work as media organizations. “How is it going to help them, a, build their audiences, b, identify new revenue generating opportunities, and, c, ultimately build out their impact.”

April 08 2010

15:46

Introducing the Department of Play

[This post originally appeared on the MIT CoLab Radio blog, in Danielle Martin's Media Mindfulness column.]

The Department of Play (DoP) is a working group of researchers, developers, and community practitioners at the MIT Center for Future Civic Media (C4FCM) bonded by a common value: the design of new technologies and methodologies to support youth as active participants in their local urban neighborhoods.

We might glance at the teen sitting next to us on the bus with a smart-phone and think: “Wow, the digital divide is shrinking.”  My first thought goes to all the youth who don’t have access to mobile phones, who also have things to say.  But I do see the divide diminishing when I see the wide smile of a Peruvian youth playing around with a big red balloon with a makeshift camera rig he made himself, to make his own map of his favela neighborhood.

While higher broadband speeds and affordability recommended by the FCC’s recent national broadband plan should increase access to internet tools in under-served communities, we still need to consider the increased digital literacy and local facilitation necessary to use fully tap the power of these tools. While access is important, much more is needed to make sure technology can be used to empower young people.

GrassrootsMapping in Peru

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