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February 28 2012


What Will Bring More Attention to the Civic Value of Journalism?

For this month's Carnival of Journalism I am going to invoke the rule of "no apologies" and change the question a bit. Host Steve Outing asks: "What emerging technology or digital trend do you think will have a significant impact on journalism in the year or two ahead?"

I don't think it will be a technology, but an experience. And what will "save" journalism might not be the experience of consuming journalism.

This is an ongoing thought that comes from the second (or third) time I met Michael Maness when he was at Gannett and he talked about human-centered design and the way people relate to their communities. In short -- people relate more to the local businesses they frequent than they do the civic institutions nearby.

If you asked me where I lived in Oakland, I would tell you, "I live across the street from Bakesale Betty's." If you lived anywhere in Oakland then you knew exactly where I lived based on this reference. Everybody knows Bakesale Betty's.

The irony, however, is that I also lived across the street from the Temescal Library. Not just any library, but a Carnegie library. This is a building designed to be communal and civic. I tested this: If I told you I lived by the Temescal library, I'd get stares and a request for further information. "You know, right by Bakesale Betty's" --_ AHHH, I know where you live_, they'd respond.


This is not a good or bad thing. It's just the thing. But this has consequences. I suspect if Bakesale Betty and the library had competing fundraisers, Betty would outperform the library tenfold.*

A few years later, I've moved to Berkeley.

I now live by a Thai Temple. One would think this would suffer the same fate of the library. It is a communal building, a civic building. Its appeal is seemingly narrow.

But every Sunday the Thai Temple serves brunch. Not just a lame brunch. We are talking a four-star Yelp brunch (474 reviews!). The first sentence of the first review nails it: "There are no words to describe the sense of community you feel when you go to the Thai Buddhist temple for brunch." Come for the brunch -- be nourished by the sense of community. Civic mission accomplished!

When I tell people I live by the Thai Temple they know exactly where I live (although I often have to say "Thai Brunch" for them to really know what I'm talking about).

What is saving the Thai Temple isn't the "Temple" but the experience the community has with it that centers around purchasing food. If that Thai Temple were in peril, people would rally behind it, Buddhist or otherwise.

Local news organizations need to find their Thai Brunch -- so do libraries. In fact, libraries have their "brunch." What I neglected to mention is that the Temescal library (and the new library I live by in Berkeley) both have extensions that are "tool lending libraries." In my experiments telling people I lived by the library, if I focused on the "tool lending" library, people were more likely to know where I lived. It might not be serving their direct "library" mission -- but by creating a tool lending center, both libraries are more central in the community.

So back to Steve's question: "What emerging technology or digital trend do you think will have a significant impact on journalism in the year or two ahead?"

Journalism has a value just as libraries do. But that inherent value doesn't have mass appeal. The question is: Can we find something, a game, an experience, a product whose value proposition draws people in and, as a result, brings more attention to the civic value of journalism? Meanwhile -- can that game/experience/product create money both to sustain itself and perhaps flow into the journalism?

We are still in the early stages of the Spot.Us/Public Insight Network merger, but increasingly this is on my mind. It's great that people will contribute to specific reporting endeavors. But those who are doing this are perhaps narrow. They are the same people who might give to NPR or any other nonprofit news organization. We want to create an experience that draws people in for something different.

It's an experience that will have a significant impact on journalism. That experience will be enabled by technology, true, but that's not what people will remember or why they'll get hooked. I don't know if it'll come in the next two years, and I don't know 100% what it will look like. But I do think that's how we'll define it.

*This is not to pick on Betty who everyone knows is awesome, lets people sell the Street Sheet and/or panhandle right in front of her store. She also gives away free ice lemonade sometimes. So don't think I'm trying to pick on you, Betty -- and please continue to hook it up!

A version of this post first appeared here.

November 14 2011


CNN’s just-revamped iReport: Imagine all the data!

Today brings the launch of an overhaul of CNN’s iReport, the network’s platform for citizen journalism. As of today, iReport will look much less like a straight-up content site…and much more like a social network. One that, CNN.com participation director Lila King told me, “turns the site into something that’s focused on people far more than news stories.”

For a good summary of the overall changes in iReport, check out Mallary Jean Tenore’s overview over at Poynter, which is chock full of detail about how the revamped site will run. Though the idea of a social network for citizen journalism — particularly one that exists within the confines of a sprawling cable news website — is intriguing, I’m especially interested in what the revamped iReport will offer CNN in terms of knowledge about its own audience and participants. The new site will focus on user profiles, a big part of that being the areas of interest and expertise that users have identified. It will offer users, King says, a “very personalized experience that tailors the homepage and iReporters’ profiles toward the sources and the topics and the people that folks are interested in.”

And what that experience will mean, on the back end, is — ostensibly — tons of data about users’ (self-identified) areas of interest and expertise. According to internal numbers provided to me by CNN, iReport currently has 955,000 registered users. If even a fraction of those users go the social media route and register their interests with iReport, that could provide CNN with some immensely valuable information not only about the areas their users are interested in, but also the areas their users care about. For TV news, in particular, which has traditionally been even more detached from its audience than print journalism, that information could be incredibly useful. “In the past, we’ve collected in an ad hoc fashion groups of iReporters around particular areas of the spectrum,” King says. But they’ve never done so “in a publicly designated way.” Opening up the process — essentially, crowdsourcing user data from the users themselves — could allow for communities and itinerant publics to spring up using CNN’s site as their platform.

The core of the new iReport reminds me a lot of the Public Insight Network, American Public Media’s effort to “connect enterprising journalists with knowledgeable sources” — with the significant caveat that PIN focuses on citizens-as-sources, rather than citizens-as-producers. While iReport is focused on direct user participation, there’s also the intriguing possibility that the newly networked site could facilitate more direct collaboration between iReporters and CNN’s reporters — teamwork that makes use of user data and the power of the detailed call to action. “We’ve learned through experience,” King says, “that the best way to inspire contribution and participation is to give people a very specific call to action that’s tailored to them — and that says, essentially, ‘Here’s a story that needs your voice. Here’s how you could contribute.’”

That approach could be especially useful, King points out, for things like focus groups — particularly as the 2012 campaign ramps up — but also for “lots of other topics that we haven’t even dreamt up yet.” And: “I’m pretty sure that it will result in richer, more diverse coverage.”

So while the newly networked iReport can foster user participation with CNN, it can work the other way, as well, by allowing CNN to better connect with its constituents. It “just gives us more tools in our arsenal to include more perspectives in our coverage,” King says. More importantly, it “helps us, in some ways, get at groups of people who aren’t traditionally included in news coverage,” she points out. “Especially in the political arena, you tend to shy away from people who have very strident and public opinions on issues. But the beauty of iReport is that almost everyone who contributes contributes because they feel personally motivated to be part of the story — because it affects them in some way, because they’re living through it, or because it’s an issue that’s near and dear to their part.”

Ultimately, King says, “we’re creating a scenario where people can very explicitly say who they are and what they think and what they want to contribute to.” And as long as CNN’s staff does “the good work of journalists in being very clear and transparent about who people are and where they’re coming from when we include their perspective, I think it’s going to make our stories better.”

October 29 2010


How does audience engagement work in the newsroom?

So…how’s that Twitter thing working out for you? I’m sure American Public Media will be less glib than that when asking journalists how audience engagement works for them.

APM’s Public Insight Network is surveying journalists about their methods of reaching out to readers, but perhaps more importantly, asking them if they think it’s doing them any good.

The survey was launched last week and the Public Insight Network is hoping to poll the most connected journalists they can find this weekend at the Online News Association conference in Washington, D.C. (Though anyone can take the survey online.) They plan to produce a white paper with the findings and potentially find new partners for the expanding network.

I emailed Andrew Haeg, editor of the Public Insight Network, to ask why they want to examine engagement now and why tap ONA. “ONA has become the go-to conference for journalists searching for new ways to create distinctive content that cuts through the noise of the Internet, and audience engagement has emerged as a major piece of any news operation’s efforts to stand out online,” Haeg wrote.

In their zeal to get involved in social media, Haeg said news outlets have taken a “shoot first, ask questions later’ kind of approach. Now that more journalists have audience engagement experience under their belt, we’re curious to find out how efforts are measuring up.”

This seems to jibe with recent signs that more newspapers, magazines and other news outlets are past the introduction phase with social media, as well as the fact that both Twitter and Facebook have people dedicated to working with news organizations. At the same time a number of media start-ups, including TBD, the Honolulu Civil Beat, and Voice of San Diego have made audience engagement a priority from launch.

The insight network’s open-ended survey asks basic questions about journalists’ familiarity and comfort using Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms to reach out to readers. The big question appears to be whether audience engagement is important and a worthwhile use of time. Haeg said they also want to find out what the expectations are when it comes to online outreach and how journalists gauge success in engagement.

“Is it primarily a way to drive traffic?” Haeg asked. “Does it afford journalist the chance to gather new information, get in touch with sources they otherwise couldn’t have, and seek out new stories? Does it feel like a lot of busy work that’s not adding up to much?”

In particular, the question of “what is engagement” may be of interest to future-of-news watchers becoming skeptical of what the word means in relation to news. Is it just using Twitter and Facebook, is it talking to readers in comments, is it publishing user-created content? In looking at what mainstream media outlets are successful in social media engagement, ReadWriteWeb based its recent findings on Postrank’s analysis, which studies RSS feed items and tallies comments, bookmarks, Diggs, and mentions on Twitter. Over at the Reynolds Journalism Institute, Joy Mayer is taking the long view on engagement, examining how various news outlets define the term.

Haeg said they plan to release the white paper after ONA and ask respondents to test out new engagement tools the insight network creates.

March 23 2010


The freedom to fail and the need to experiment: What gives a citizen-journalism project a chance to work

Minnesota Public Radio’s Linda Fantin and the Sunlight Foundation’s Ellen Miller were the stars at an MIT panel a few days ago; I wrote up their discussion. But after the panel, I sat the two of them down to talk a little more about the challenges of running experiments with community-generated journalism. A few highlights:

— Miller: “I think the ability to fail is absolutely part of the culture in which we live. And so, someone will try lots of things, which you know sometimes just don’t work…there’s not much cost to the experimentation.”

— Fantin: “[I]t’s tough to let go of things that haven’t quite reached their potential, but you have to, because there’s so much more coming down the line.”

— Miller: “I think there are all kinds of questions about a community: How do we nurture a community? How do we let them do their own work? Is there top-down control about what they do? What degree? How much can we let go and still have it operating in a single campaign framework? And we all figure these things out as we go along, and no doubt we’ll make mistakes out of it.”

— Fantin: “Talk to anyone who started a citizen journalism site or community. They’ll say, ‘Okay, it took over my life, then it took over my wife’s life, and now we actually have to make money and put food on the table, so we sort of tried to get interns, but we can’t sustain it.’”

Above’s a video of their discussion, with a transcript below. (The video’s soundtrack, if you’re wondering, is an apparently epic game of ping-pong taking place in a nearby rec room.)

Ellen Miller: I think the ability to fail is absolutely part of the culture in which we live. And so, someone will try lots of things, which you know sometimes just don’t work — but because we don’t know how people want to engage with, you know, either fairly wonky information about legislation or critical information, if we don’t build it, we never give people the opportunity to test it. And some of the things have worked far beyond — much better than — what we expected. And some of the websites just weren’t popular, and we couldn’t quite figure out why, and we said, “Oh, they weren’t popular, let’s just take it down.” So there’s not much cost to the experimentation. But partly I think it’s because you have sort of a new and largely successful of the project because Sunlight, you know, is an institution without any legacies. It’s just — it’s really built into the DNA. But it’s something major other institutions, you know, have to work on. Now you can’t really build it into the DNA of reporting a story: Failing, getting the facts wrong, telling the story that’s wrong. But there are certainly elements in terms of engaging citizens, in getting them to tell the stories that work. So, I mean, if it doesn’t work this time, you know, you might try it again or — or not. But we’re beginning to learn.

So one of our examples was — it was successful, but it was a failure in the end. We did a series of distributed research projects in the early days. We do one investigating members of Congress’ spouses, and whether they were employed by their campaigns. And then we did another one on getting people to contribute to a database on earmark requests when they started posting them. And then we realized that if people who worked on Project A, we had no idea if they’ve been secretly working on project B, or who worked on Project C. We said, “Wow, let’s stop that.” We created one platform, Transparency Corps, so that anybody who worked on A or B or C had the opportunity to see what was D, E, and F coming down the road, to begin to build more of a community. Because if you’re interested in these kinds of distributive projects, you’ll be interested in, you know, any number of them, and you get deeper engagement in them. So it worked in the individual pieces, but we knew we were losing these people because we didn’t know quite how to reach out to them again. So I think it’s that experimentation or constantly, constantly iterating on something that worked or that didn’t work until you find things that work.

Linda Fantin: And being able to let go of things that aren’t working as well as they could be and not consider it as a failure.

Miller: Oh yeah, that’s hard. What do you mean? That project is really important. How do we let it go?

Fantin: Right. Right.

Miller: One of the things we discovered partly because Sunlight was so innovative in the early days, we would describe — we would try something and say, “Wow, that’s a cool idea. Let’s do it.” We’d throw it up on the wall and we’d develop it and it would be successful. And then we got another cool idea and then we would do that. And then all of a sudden we realized that we had all these projects. We’d be, “how do we sustain them?” So if you have the image of things sliding down the wall, you know, we’d pick up one and then we became — we realized we had to not just constantly develop new things, that we had to iterate on the things that were successful.

Fantin: Well, absolutely. I mean, I know that I mentioned before we created Budget Hero and launched that in May of 2008, we had no idea that the economy would fall apart and that there would be a $787 billion bailout, and then a stimulus packet, and then suddenly the federal deficit would just bloom, and that there would be new Congressional Budget Office baselines every three months that were significantly different than the months before. And I think probably seven, maybe eight times, we’ve had to do major updates to the game. And that wasn’t something we’d planned on in the financial planning that probably created Budget Hero. And even now, part of it is that in some ways it was a game before its time, because now it’s more important than it ever was before. But, you know, having the funds and the ability to say, “Oh, well, we’re going through all the significant — invest in it yet again” is a big decision. I mean, carrying some of these projects forward, you know — it’s tough to let go of things that haven’t quite reached their potential, but you have to, because there’s so much more coming down the line.

Miller: Yeah, and I think we certainly underestimated, you know — we would always figure out what was the cost to build something, but then to —

Fantin: To maintain it?

Miller: So that’s something we’ve certainly learned. So that’s now all built in to, you know —

Fantin: It’s one of the first questions you asked, which is great: Who’s gonna own this, and who’s gonna do it, and when are we gonna shut it down?

Miller: And that’s why I asked you the question, like: How many people does it take — you built this community. How many people does it take to maintain it and to really use it, in a popular way?

Fantin: It’s a good question because —

Miller: Because most groups don’t think about that thing — about community, and you know, it’s a little like magic, which is: “The community will just thrive.” No, you have to nurture this community. You have to add to it. You have to engage with them.

Fantin: Absolutely.

Miller: There has to be a person or a team of people who work with them, and I don’t think people realize that. There was this idealistic vision of community journalists, right?

Fantin: Talk to anyone who started a citizen journalism site or community. They’ll say, “Okay, it took over my life, then it took over my wife’s life, and now we actually have to make money and put food on the table, so we sort of tried to get interns, but we can’t sustain it.” And in terms of the Public Insight Network, we made this commitment at the offset that we could contact everyone at least once a month. Well, so, two things either have to happen in it if — right now the network grows at 2,000 sources a month without any real effort on our part. That’s just simply with outreach and the spread of information.

Miller: And neighbors sharing with friends.

Fantin: Right. And so the idea is that you either have to increase the number of callouts, or you have to increase the size of the cohort that you make the callout out to. Neither of those is really great. But what’s it allowed us to do is realize: “Hey, what we really ought to do is give more control to the source and let them pick and choose and not actually have them sitting passively, waiting for us to ask them questions.” So sometimes, the problems you bump up against help you see where you need to go and you might’ve not known that was the path you were on.

Miller: As we have launched the Public Equals Online campaign, I mean, I think there are all kinds of questions about a community: How do we nurture a community? How do we let them do their own work? Is there top-down control about what they do? What degree? How much can we let go and still have it operating in a single campaign framework? And we all figure these things out as we go along, and no doubt we’ll make mistakes out of it.

Fantin: Well, Amanda Michel at ProPublica, I think, she’s very open about what she learned from her work on OffTheBus with Huffington Post, and now what’s she doing now with ProPublica, which is sort of use citizens to help do investigative journalism, and what you find is that it’s very, very hard. It’s hard because there is a certain amount of information that you can teach people, but on the back end the fact-checking and other things that have to go on in order to make sure that there’s integrity in what you’re reporting. And I’m not here to say that there’s integrity behind what every paid reporter does now. It’s just that this idea we’re gonna have a citizen corps of journalists — or an army of journalists, who for free, are gonna go out there and do the work that people are doing now is—

Miller: It’s just not quite that easy.


“Fun with data”: Oxymoron no longer! And other lessons from Linda Fantin and Ellen Miller

Say the word “data” in the presence of the majority of Americans, and you’ll most likely be greeted with a blank stare/a glare/an eye roll/an audible sigh. For most people — though we here at the Lab respectfully disagree — data sets just aren’t that awesome.

What data sets are, though, of course, is incredibly valuable. And now that we have more access to more information than ever before, it’s incumbent on journalists and other civic educators to change people’s minds about data: to make raw information relevant for them. And engaging. And — no, seriously! — fun.

The fun factor was one of the many ideas raised in a recent discussion on “Government Transparency and Collaborative Journalism” at MIT. The talk, sponsored by the university’s Communications Forum and its Center for Future Civic Media, featured a conversation between two people who don’t need to be convinced of data’s value (or, for that matter, its fun factor): Linda Fantin, director of Public Insight Journalism at Minnesota Public Radio, and Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation.

“When I framed the event,” said Chris Csikszentmihályi, director of the Center for Future Civic Media and the conversation’s moderator, “I had originally thought that I would frame it as something like this: Sunlight as something that essentially takes information from the top down, at the federal government level, and makes it accessible to the public…and Public Insight Journalism, on the other hand, as something that takes information from the public, puts it together through journalists, and brings it back out. But I think what both of you are doing defies that kind of reduction.”

Indeed, both organizations’ approaches rely on breaking down information’s traditional top-down/bottom-up divide, merging micro- and macro- approaches in gathering, recording, and packaging data. They simply take different paths in the search for the same solution: Sunlight focuses, in general, on information that’s already recorded, but inaccessible — “We’re starting to say that information is only public if it’s online,” Miller noted — and the Public Insight Network focuses, in general, on gathering and analyzing information that is atomized. For both, the core question is public investment in the paths they’ve adopted; and last night’s talk — as so many things journalism-related tend to these days — returned, again and again, to the problem of engagement: how to earn it, how to build it, how to keep it. And also: how to balance journalism’s core mandate — providing narratives and takeaways that people can act on — with its tantalizing new ability to work collaboratively and iteratively with its public. It’s a question Fantin and Miller tackle head-on in their work: What’s the most effective way to marry journalism as a process with journalism as a product?

Sunlight, for its part, “has always been in the engagement business,” Miller noted. She gave a brief run-through of the multitude of sites the foundation has fostered — Fedspending.org, Party Time, the just-launched Public Equals Online, and many, many more — noting that “all of these sites are driven toward communities, to get them more engaged.” The idea is in some ways to take the “data” out of “data set”: to take a jumble of raw information and convert it into a coherent narrative that will be understandable and, yes, engaging to users. “There’s really one test in our office about whether something works,” Miller said: “If Ellen doesn’t get it within ten minutes, you have to go back.” As the audience laughed, she added: “It’s actually known as the ‘Ellen test.’”

That approach — get-ability, user-friendliness and, more broadly, the fostering of emotional connection with information — is central to both Sunlight and Public Insight Journalism. “Part of the thrill of journalism is the aphrodisiac of discovery,” Fantin pointed out: opening new doors, following new paths, learning new truths, etc. And one of PIJ’s goals is to leverage that excitement — to allow non-journalists to experience it, and to write it into journalists’ work. “Sometimes, just talking to people and listening to them can teach you which questions to ask.”

As for the question of collaboration — “Do you still need journalists to do refining and storytelling,” Csikszentmihályi asked, “or is it more a collaborative process?” — Fantin, a longtime print journalist before joining MPR, noted the core value of the declarative voice. “I hear people say all the time that journalism needs to be a conversation,” she said. “Well, I don’t think journalism is a conversation. I don’t think it’s a lecture, either.” It’s both at once. And we need journalists, she said — paid, professional journalists — who have the knowledge and expertise and “journalistic curiosity” to inject conversation into lecture, and lecture into conversation, in a way that clarifies narrative rather than muddling it. “There’s always a need for sense-makers,” she said.

Besides, “people we talk to in our network don’t want to do our jobs for us,” Fantin noted. Their desires, she said, are simpler than that: “They want to be invited into the process, and they want to share what they know.” They want to put their knowledge and expertise and experience and wisdom to work. “As Clay Shirky says, we’re in the middle of a revolution,” Fantin noted — and that revolution is predicated on the we’re-in-this-together approach that both PIJ and Sunlight embody.

“We are all moving into this era step by step,” Miller noted. “It’s okay to try something that doesn’t work.” The point is to try something. And to try something, more to the point, together. “This,” she said, “is a remarkable conversation to be having.”

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