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June 30 2010


Serving as Media Innovator in Residence at University of Nebraska

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Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.

Flying over Lincoln, Nebraska, aboard a Delta jet, I peered down at the gently rolling meadows, farmlands and the statue on the peak of the high-rise state capitol, which is situated the heart of this cute town.

The state capitol tower, a historic landmark, is one of the few places in the United States where all three branches of government are housed in one building.

I am on my way back to New York City after spending a wonderful and very efficient week at the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln as its first Media Innovator in Residence.

The position is part of the new program being enacted by Gary Kebbel, the new dean of the college who officially starts tomorrow. He invited me to spend six days in town to meet with faculty and students and speak about SochiReporter and the project's developments. The idea was for me to share my experiences and participate in discussions about the future of new media. 

Lectures and Active Discussions

As Kebbel put it, one of the central ideas of this program is that active entrepreneurs -- people who are right in the middle of working on their projects -- visit the college, demonstrate their work and also focus on the questions and issues not yet resolved. One of the main questions that I ponder is how to make our website sustainable. What new media business model -- or combination of models -- will keep the site running after the Knight grant money runs out in a couple of months?

While visiting the school, I gave six lectures that eventually turned into vibrant discussions with  students. In a marketing class we discussed the partnerships that SochiReporter forged with local media, the ways to promote SochiReporter online and offline, and the SochiReporter-McDonald's partnership.

In the design and advertising class, one of the students said she would be interested in working out a plan for the global marketing strategy for SochiReporter. In the reporting class, the students were especially interested in the kinds of stories being generated by our citizen reporters, how the moderation process works, and how we package stories at the website. They wondered which kinds of stories actually cause change and influence the decisions made by the city officials. The students also viewed SochiReporter as an outlet for possible internships next year.

I also spoke to students at the College of Business Administration and with Dr. Sang M. Lee, a distinguished professor and chairman of the Department of Management. We discussed the possible business models based on attracting global and local businesses.

What I found interesting is that in about three weeks Lincoln is hosting a Special Olympics event that will attract thousands of visitors from all over the country. This creates a direct bridge between Lincoln and Sochi, the host of the 2014 Olympics.

I really clicked with Jordan Pascale, a student and staff writer with the Lincoln Journal Star. The newspaper is organizing a new unit to cover the Special Olympics and produce content for the print and the online versions of the paper. Pascale said the plan is to post more original content online than usual and to experiment with it. We talked about the ways of integrating the citizens of Lincoln into covering this event. Some of the school's journalism students will volunteer at the Games and will also be blogging about it.

Trip to Omaha

At one point Dean Kebbel and I took a trip to Omaha to meet with the publisher, executive editor and advertising executives of the Omaha World-Herald, the largest newspaper in the state. It took us 50 minutes driving one way, and I found Omaha to be a fast-developing city with cheerful residents who are excited about the construction of a new, big stadium.


Publisher and company president Terry Kroeger and the vice-president for news and content Larry King (whom I jokingly complemented on his his CNN show when we first met) were open and excited about collaborating with the school. They agreed with Kebbel's statement that the future of journalism builds upon traditional values of quality reporting by using new technologies to enable people to get news in any format, any time, on any device. (The above photo shows Joanna Nordhues from UNL along with Gary Kebbel and Mike Reilly, executive editor of the Omaha World-Herald.)

We spent more than three hours in the newspaper's office, and it was also entertaining to meet with the paper's cartoonist Jeff Koterba. Aside from me, he had a very unusual visitor in his office, as you can see below.


One final interesting fact about the school is that faculty members all just received iPads, and it was great to see them all downloading and trying out applications. 

Serving as innovator in residence was a delightful and enriching experience. Since it's a long-term program, I'll always be the first -- but I definitely won't be the last.

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Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.

November 06 2009


Welcome to Davis, Calif.: Six lessons from the world’s best local wiki

Ah, Davis: home of 60,000 people, 30,000 students, 188 sunny days a year, a 16 percent bike commute mode share and the busiest local wiki in the world.

If I were Omaha World-Herald Publisher Terry Kroeger, I’d be booking my post-holiday flight immediately.

As Gina reported here last week, Omaha’s employee-owned metro daily just bought WikiCity, an Omaha-based Web startup that wamts to provide mini-Wikipedias for every city in the country. Creating a cheap platform for evergreen, user-generated local Web content has been tried, um, once or twice before. But with some notable exceptions, corporations have turned out to be really, really bad at this.

Philip Neustrom hasn’t.

Today, the quirky 500-page wiki Neustrom launched with fellow UC Davis math student Mike Ivanov in 2004 has 14,000 pages and drew 13,000 edits by 3,300 users last month, averaging 10,000 unique visitors daily. More importantly, it’s the best way in town to find a lost cat, compare apartment rental prices or get a list of every business open past 10 p.m. Operating budget, not counting its founders’ part-time volunteer labor: about $2,000 a year.

What’s the secret? Neustrom, who now wrangles code for the Citizen Engagement Lab in the Bay Area, was nice enough to tell us.

Wikis need content to breed content. Or, as evergreen-content guru Matt Thompson put it last week, a wiki written primarily by robots will appeal primarily to robots.

“Starting anything is hard,” said Neustrom, now 25. “The issue is predominantly an issue of outreach, of coordinating people and making sure people understand that they can’t just put something up there and add 50 pages and walk away, and then come back in a month and hope that it’s taken off.”

Instead, Neustrom, Ivanov convinced some of their friends to spend four summer months writing snippets about things that only exist in Davis, like drunken biking through late-night fog, oversized playground equipment and the smell from the cow farm on the edge of town.

“We were just trying to do something that we liked,” Neustrom said. “We certainly weren’t trying to do anything that was very useful.”

Business information is the holy grail. Pages about your local toad tunnel are dandy, Neustrom said, and quirky content kept the site from feeling generic to early users. But the feature that made DavisWiki take off was what the traditional media calls “consumer reporting.”

“After we’d sort of seeded it with 500 pages or something like that, we opened it up to the public,” Neustrom said. “First, it was pretty slow going. Nothing really happened.”

Then, sometime in late 2005, pages on things like lunch specials and Davis’s nicest bathrooms started filling up. Local business coverage has been “a big driving force” ever since, Neustrom said. Today, he said, retail businesses in town often keep their own information on DavisWiki up to date.

A wiki’s strengths kick in after one year. The web craves news like kids crave sugar. Blogs and tweets are gobbled fast and burn quick. But wikis are the whole grains of the web: One year after news breaks, someone will want to find and link to it again — and a wiki is likely to be the only place it’s still hanging around.

“All of the existing online resources for sort of cataloging anything about the town were sort of time-based,” Neustrom said. “After about a year and a half, these things would sort of disappear, even if they’d been around for 100 years, like the local newspaper…So we became the resource of record.”

Start with a subculture, then build out to a general audience. DavisWiki has always aspired to cover its whole town, but it’s always served students best.

That’s all right, Neustrom thinks. If he’d tried to please everybody who showed up, no one would have come back.

“When building something like this, you can’t just aim for this wide spectrum at first,” Neustrom said. Some companies try to launch wikis by writing programs that “crawl through a database, that spit out statistics and create 13 million pages and put that out there and hope that it’s going to stick. You can’t do that. It’s just not going to work.”

Neustrom, who spent 2004 sharing a house with musicians, found his base among the artsy, but he thinks any subculture would do. “You could have, like, a physics grad student start a community for their town, and it’s a bunch of physics nerds,” he said. “And that could spiral out and out.”

Keep your content open source, no matter what. Don’t do it for marketing reasons or out of the kindness of your heart. Do it because it’s the only way to guarantee to your users that if you fold, all their hard work won’t die with you.

Good wikis inspire rabid devotion — if they don’t, they never become good wikis. Neustrom and Ivanov keep their budget online and think of the project as a user co-op. Their users did, too. “There are people on there who literally spend four hours a day looking at DavisWiki,” Neustrom said. “People had free [computer lab] pages every quarter, so they would use their excess printing to print out 400 fliers and staple them to every room on campus.”

People don’t do that for sites they think are “neat,” Neustrom said. They do it for sites they own.

Don’t get hung up on mimicking Wikipedia. Sure, it may be the most useful object ever created by human beings. But as Marshall Poe showed in his terrific biography of Wikipedia’s youth, its rules — universal editorship, neutral point of view, no original research — were forged out of year-long flamewars among the early Wikipedians. Neustrom and his friends didn’t think NPOV was suited to an inherently Davis-centric site, so they ditched it.

Wikipedia’s widely used software, MediaWiki, isn’t perfect either. DavisWiki uses a modified Sycamore platform but it, too, has flaws.

“People want to be able to search for all elementary schools within a certain radius of a certain point, or all of the restaurants that serve vegan food,” Neustrom said. “MediaWiki suffers the same issue [as Sycamore] — it was written before the advent of modern web framework.”

Neustrom is yearning for a modern wiki platform. That’s why he’s been messing around with Django this year. It’s also why he’s incorporating Wikispot, the nonprofit he set up to reproduce DavisWiki for other towns and topics, as a 501(c)3.

Looking for a tax write-off, Terry?

Photo by Arlen used under a Creative Commons license.

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