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January 10 2011

20:42

November 09 2010

17:00

Meet Intersect, where storytelling, time, and location get all mashed up

It’s near impossible to tell a story that doesn’t have a place or a time. As readers and just as humans we have a difficult time connecting with a story — be it a friendly anecdote or a news article — that doesn’t tell us where it happened and when. As writing and storytelling has evolved online those two components have largely been relegated to the background — no less important of course, but often useful as metadata, a tag or pin on a map.

Intersect is trying to bring that information to the forefront of storytelling and wants people to build around what happens to them at fixed points in time and space. Part blogging tool, part social network, Intersect lets users tell stories as they are pegged to a certain time and place in a way that would eventually create a timeline for each user. But pulling back wider, Intersect will allow communities to share a more complete narrative of certain events.

An example? How about The Daily Show and Colbert Report’s Rally to Restore Sanity/March to Keep Fear Alive in Washington D.C. The Washington Post partnered with Intersect to tell stories from the event, both from attendees but also reporters:

The Story Lab team will be filing stories throughout Saturday’s events on the Mall via Intersect, a new site designed to collect and present stories live and from the scene. Here on washingtonpost.com and on Intersect’s site, we’ll be documenting the scene and asking those in attendance and those watching at home to weigh in on the politics vs. entertainment question. Please join us.

Let’s consider how this would work without Intersect: Anyone covering the event would hope for a universally accepted hashtag on Twitter, curate the best Tweets from the day, search for any photos on Flickr, and maybe, if they’re crafty, create a Google Map that pins Tweets and photos to locations on the National Mall.

Instead, with Intersect, any user can go in and automatically enter the time and location and proceed to write updates and post photos. (Like, say, the President get a donut while campaigning in Seattle.) But in order for Intersect to work they’ll need to answer two big questions: how to attract an audience to populate intersections, and how to introduce a new routine to users (i.e. get them to write about Intersections as much as they tweet or post to Facebook).

The Post partnership — an example of one potential route to an audience — was promoted online by the Post and Intersect, garnered its share of Twitter buzz and made a splash at the Online News Association conference, all of which seemed to generate interest in using the service on Rally day. Looking over Intersect there are more than 40 stories connected to the rally and the National Mall, each offering a different vantage point, the kinds reporters covering these type of events typically like to seek out.

Post reporters using a beta version of an Intersect iPhone app posted stories and photos that were fed to WashingtonPost.com and Intersect’s site, where they were side by side with updates from other users.

Since the content from the Rally was shared on both sites, Intersect demonstrated its value as both a platform for stories and a tool for crafting them. That may be key to any future success for Intersect, since they’ll need high visibility and a combination of big events and big partners willing to experiment.

Though Intersect is not expressly a platform for journalism, it could be applied to news gathering, as evidenced by the Post’s partnership. Intersect could allow journalists to either tap into an existing community to see what background they can provide for a story, or be used to invite others to tell a story. Guzman gives the example of Seattle’s Space Needle, which celebrates 50 years in 2012. A journalist could begin a story on Intersect about the needle and ask readers to fill in the history of the landmark over the last 50 years.

“It’s this idea of you can actually tell your whole story, go all the way back, see how you’ve changed,” Intersect’s director of editorial outreach Monica Guzman told me. “That’s kind of cool.” Guzman used to work at SeattlePI.com, where she ran its main blog.

Another reason Intersect could be valuable to journalists is that it’s a system set up to provide context in stories. “I think it’s absolutely critical. A lot of new media journalists are seeing that need to bring context back into journalism,” she said.

Intersect does have a social network meets real-world feel to it, as members have a presence online, but one tied to specific places. Instead of simply building online “community,” Intersect could also serve as a means of growing a physical community and connecting people around certain localities, like the story of the change in a neighborhood as told by the people who live there, Guzman said.

If the launch of services like Storify and Intersect tell us anything, it’s that aggregation and collaboration in storytelling may be reaching a new plateau, one where there is a symbiotic relationship between the technology and the craft behind how we share stories.

Guzman sees Intersect as part of the broader change in news, the transition from journalists as the sole keepers of news and information to journalists finding ways to collaborate and reach out to readers. “I learned through the Big Blog just how much news is becoming a conversation,” she said. “It’s about bringing out new voices and perspectives.”

September 13 2010

17:00

#Wherewereyou: WaPo puts the humble hashtag to work

In our new age of two-way news, news organizations sometimes struggle to find a way to foster productive conversation: to move beyond superficial gestures of inclusiveness — empty questions, atomized responses — and to create conversation that is meaningful and purposeful. This weekend, The Washington Post found a way to create that kind of conversation, by way of commemorating Saturday’s nine-year anniversary of September 11: It created a Twitter hashtag, #wherewereyou, asking readers to share where they were when they first learned that the towers had been hit.

Anthony Dale: I was late to work at the Pentagon. I heard the news when I was 10 minutes away.

Katie Roberts: 7th grade gym class.. and they wouldn’t let us turn on the news.

Stuart Berlow: 13th&K, watching the Pentagon smoke behind the Monument

Ethan Horowitz: was in college at the u of md. came out of class & everyone was standing around listening 2 news on a car radio turned way up.

The Post’s solution was elegant and organic at the same time: It took a basic question — a question everyone, anyone can answer — and molded it into a simple but powerful piece of journalism. The tag — a more creative, dynamic version of MSNBC’s yearly replay of its initial, frenzied 9/11 coverage — invited its participants to take part in the yearly ritual of collective memory. And it defined the news organization not merely as a collector of news, but as a curator of experience.

“I think the fact that we have a brand like The Washington Post pushing the conversation helped a lot,” notes Melissa Bell, the Postie who oversaw the effort, “but I think that the Twitter hashtag was something people responded to because everyone felt really passionately about it.”

The idea for the #wherewereyou curation actually started not with the anniversary of 9/11, Bell told me, but rather with the commemoration of another national tragedy: the five-year anniversary of Katrina. On the paper’s Voices section, Bell posted a pastiche of the Post’s front pages during Katrina. (“I love doing that,” she notes, “because it really brings you back to the moment — there’s an immediacy that the front pages give you that I don’t think any other story can tell you.”) In the same post, Bell put out a call for “where were you” stories: “Where were you when the storm hit? When did you realize the real magnitude of the event?” Rather than Twitter, though, the call used a Post community group forum — which solicited some lengthy, thoughtful responses…but not very many of them. Since, Bell notes, “we’re trying to push these things out in the world to get a bigger conversation going,” they wanted to think bigger. When the 9/11 anniversary came along, Bell and the rest of the Post’s engagement and interactivity teams were looking for a call-and-response platform that would feature, in the end, much more “response” than “call.”

The solution: Twitter. And, for that, “we were thinking about a question that would capture that sense of immediacy,” Bell notes. “People remember the John F. Kennedy assassination” — pretty much every American alive at the time has an answer to the “where were you when” question — and “I think, for our generation, ‘where were you on 9/11?’ is something that has a memory attached to it.” So they kept the “where were you” query about Katrina — a more evocative question when applied to 9/11, an event that hit at a single moment, rather than over several days — but sent it out both on the forum…and on the @washingtonpost Twitter feed.

They got a flood of immediate answers. “It was really amazing to see how quickly people responded to it,” Bell notes. Since the team wanted to collect the replies, though — the idea was to curate the most evocative replies on the new Blog Post blog (“The Washington Post’s sounding board for news and conversation that’s reverberating in your world — online, on TV, and in your community”) — they realized they needed a way to round them up. Thus, the #wherewereyou tag.

Within a few hours, the tag was a trending topic in DC. “People have to be engaged,” Bell notes. “They’re not going to respond to a hashtag like #washingtonpost911 or something like that; they have to respond to the simplicity of the hashtag.” The tag needed to be evocative in order to be inviting. And “it seemed like a lot of people would be able to identify what it meant,” Bell notes, “because of the conversation about 9/11 already happening on the web.”

The thing with hashtags, though — their genius and their drawback — is their semantic malleability. Hashtags mean what their users decide they mean; they’re entirely dependent on context. They are context. And a funny thing happened with this one: After the initial burst of 9/11-related answers…the tag lost some of its initial meaning. Tweets like “Where were you when you first heard Glenn Beck exploit 9/11?” and, more commonly, “I was always there when you needed me, #wherewereyou when I was in need of you?” began to pop up in the #wherewereyou stream. Follow the stream now, and you’d have very little idea of its original purpose. If the @washingtonpost Twitter feed was the locus, the current tweets are the spokes — and the further the tag spread from the center, the more the meaning became disconnected from its origin. Users took it and made it their own. (As did other news organizations: On Saturday morning, NBC News asked its followers, “Where were you nine years ago today? #wherewereyou“)

And yet: “The side conversation going on — these sort of plaintive love posts coming out of it — fit, in a weird way, with the conversation that was happening,” Bell notes. “They were totally apart from 9/11, but they were touching in their own heartbreaking way.” The news organization put out a call for responses, curated from that…and then let the initial call resolve on its own, organically. Check the #wherewereyou tag now, and the stream feels more like an indignant love song than an elegy to a national tragedy.

And that’s okay. The point is the conversation, the incitement to expression. The point is a media organization subtly expanding its mandate to include guiding conversations rather than simply providing the raw material for them. “We wanted to really let people know that we were listening, and that we were really enjoying the stories, and they were really touching us,” Bell says. “It wasn’t just being put out into the ether, with nobody paying attention”; on the contrary, “we wanted to let people know that we want to be a repository of conversation — on our site and off our site. We don’t want to exist in a vacuum.”

January 04 2010

10:17

Ten things every journalist should know in 2010

This is an update on a post I wrote at the beginning of last year – Ten things every journalist should know in 2009. I still stand by all those points I made then so consider the following 10 to be an addendum.

1. How to monitor Twitter and other social media networks for breaking news or general conversations in your subject area using tools such as TweetDeck. Understand and use hashtags.

2. You are in control. Don’t become a slave to technology, make it your slave instead. You will need to develop strategies to cope with information overload – filter, filter, filter!

3. You are a curator. Like it or not, part of your role will eventually be to aggregate content (but not indiscriminately). You will need to gather, interpret and archive material from around the web using tools like Publish2, Delicious and StumbleUpon. As Publish2 puts it: “Help your readers get news from social media. More signal. Less noise.”

4. Your beat will be online and you will be the community builder. Creating communities and maintaining their attention will increasingly be down to the efforts of individual journalists; you may no longer be able to rely on your employer’s brand to attract reader loyalty in a fickle and rapidly changing online world (see 7).

5. Core journalistic skills are still crucial. You can acquire as many multimedia and programming skills as you want, but if you are unable to tell a story in an accurate and compelling way, no one will want to consume your content.

6. Journalism needs a business model. If you don’t understand business, especially the business you work for, then it’s time to wake up. The reality for most journalists is that they can no longer exist in a vacuum, as if what they do in their profession is somehow disconnected from the commercial enterprise that pays their wages (one side effect of journalists’ attempts to ‘professionalise’ themselves, according to Robert G Picard). That does not mean compromising journalistic integrity, or turning into solo entrepreneurs; rather it means gaining an understanding of the business they are in and playing a part in moving it forward.

As former Birmingham Post editor Marc Reeves said in his excellent speech to Warwick Business School last year: “You cannot be an editor in today’s media environment without also being a businessman. It might say editor on my business card, but really, I am in the business of making news profitable and budgets, targets and performance are as important to me as words and newsprint.”

OK, you may not be an editor yet but that is no excuse, and it is probably easier to innovate while you are still working on the coalface without managerial responsibilities. Plus, in some cases, your editor may be part of the problem.

7. You are your own brand – brand yourself online! I’m not talking bylines here – you need to build yourself an online persona, one that earns you a reputation of trustworthiness and one that allows you to build fruitful relationships with your readers and contacts. You can no longer necessarily rely on having a good reputation by proxy of association with your employer’s brand. And your reputation is no longer fleeting, as good as your last big story – there is an entire archive of your content building online that anyone can potentially access.

Obvious ways to do this: Twitter, Facebook, personal blogging, but you can also build a reputation by sharing what you are reading online using social bookmarking sites like Publish2 and delicious (see 3).

8. You need to collaborate! Mashable suggests seven ways news organisations could become more collaborative outside of their own organisations, but this could also mean working with other journalists in your own organisation on, for example, multimedia projects as MultimediaShooter suggests or hook up with other journalists from other publications as Adam Westbrook suggests to learn and share new ideas.

9. Stories do not have to end once they are published online. Don’t be afraid to revise and evolve a story or feature published online, but do it transparently – show the revisions. And don’t bury mistakes; the pressure to publish quickly can lead to mistakes but if you admit them honestly and openly you can only gain the respect of your readers.

10. Technology is unavoidable, but it is nothing to fear and anyone of any age can master the basics. If you do nothing else, set up a WordPress blog and experiment with different templates and plugins – I promise you will be amazed at what you can achieve and what you can learn in the process.

    Learn more practical advice on the future of journalism at our news:rewired event at City University in London on 14 January 2010.

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