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April 04 2013


Announcing Scoopshot as latest sponsor of news:rewired


We’re pleased to announce Scoopshot as the latest sponsor of news:rewired, which takes place on Friday 19 April.

The one-day digital journalism conference will be held at MSN UK’s offices in Victoria, London.

Scoopshot helps news outlets gather images and video from users who can submit content and state the cost to use it. Media companies can also set “tasks” to request specific content via its mobile app.

Chief executive of Scoopshot Niko Ruokosuo will join the participatory communities session panel at news:rewired. The session will look at engagement with news communities and developing contributory networks.

“Scoopshot looks forward to sharing with the news:rewired audience how a community of a quarter of a million mobile contributors can be used to get instant, unique and authentic image content about anything from anywhere in the world,” the company said.

The rest of the panel includes Blair Hickman, social media producer at ProPublica, Jo Kelly, communities editor for Trinity Mirror regionals and Sarah Brown, a producer at CNN iReport.

The full agenda can be found online, and there is still time to join us on the day. The remaining tickets can be bought at this link for just £130 +VAT each.

April 19 2012


How the Pomegranate Center Is Transforming Communities Through Collaboration

"I work with communities of place ... just people who happen to live together in the same neighborhood, same city, same town, who come from different cultures, ideologies, religions, tastes and values. In my philosophy, those differences are the greatest untapped asset we have in our society. In what conditions can those differences lead to something productive?" --Milenko Matanovic


Milenko Matanovic is a self-described recovering artist whose Pomegranate Center in Issaquah, Wash., is using collaboration to transform communities nationwide.

The center, which Matanovic founded in 1986, is a non-profit organization that works with communities "to imagine, plan and create shared public places designed to encourage social interaction and to build a local sense of identity." Why the emphasis on public spaces? "Unintentional encounters happen in intentional places," the center's website explains, noting that "modern U.S. communities may be among the first ever to be built without town squares or commons or central gathering places."

The Pomegranate Center is currently working with tornado-ravaged Tuscaloosa, Ala., for example, to create an amphitheater and picnic shelters constructed primarily of materials salvaged from the ruins. Over the course of 2011, the center worked with 781 volunteers, who gave 8,000 hours of time to conceptualize, design and build gathering places in five different communities in the Seattle area. Here's a video explaining how the center worked with Walla Walla, Wash., to turn an area rampant with drug and gang activity into a thriving community park:

I first learned about Matanovic when I stumbled on this interview with him on the PopTech blog, which includes a video of his excellent 2011 PopTech talk:

Solving Problems (Instead of Arguing)

In the PopTech video, Matanovic describes the tension that inevitably arises in any collaboration between pragmatism and idealism -- between the people in the room who want to focus on what's doable, and others who want to focus, instead, on articulating a full-bodied vision of what should be done. As someone who's managed a number of collaborative projects, this observation rang true, and I wondered -- what does the Pomegranate Center do to resolve, or at least negotiate, this tension?

The key to resolving this and other tensions, Matanovic said, is to establish clear ground rules for discussion that steer the group toward active problem-solving, and away from simply advocating pre-existing positions.

The center invites each community it works with to contribute ground rules, but has a core set of rules it takes from project to project. Rule No. 1: Participants need to agree to listen. Matanovic is quick to point out that "listening" isn't just about waiting for your turn to talk; instead, it's about "being courageous enough to allow new thoughts to enter one's awareness." In other words: Be willing to change your mind based on new information. The best solutions usually come in what Matanovic calls the "second or third generation of ideas, when people start improvising and riffing off each other."


The center also establishes at the outset of its meetings that there's no blaming allowed. And it's not enough to say no to something; it's much more courageous to propose something better instead. (Matanovic calls this turning "opposition into proposition.") Another of the center's ground rules: Be respectful, and be mindful of giving everyone time to talk. Having this ground rule established at the outset lets the facilitator keep the discussion on track without being combative. For example, if someone is dominating the discussion, the facilitator might say, "Remember, there are 40 people here, and we only have an hour, so please bring your comments to a close."

The real success, Matonovic said, is when the group takes responsibility for their code of conduct, encouraging each other to be constructive and creative.

Facilitation is Key

Matanovic emphasized that facilitators need to be "assertive and firm" in enforcing how the conversation is being conducted, while remaining neutral on the substance of the conversation. (The Pomegranate Center firmly believes that the community needs to have full control of the project's vision, in order to feel ownership of the final product.)

Facilitators also need to ask questions that steer discussion in a constructive direction. For example, at the first community meeting in Tuscaloosa, each of the approximately 60 attendees started out promoting that the planned project should be built in their own neighborhoods. The facilitator quickly intervened, asking, "If the project wasn't built in your neighborhood -- then what neighborhood should it be built in?" Matanovic remembers how in that instant, a woman who had been advocating her neighborhood suddenly shifted gears, naming a lower income neighborhood as the best location for the project. Others quickly followed suit.

The facilitator then emphasized that the question wasn't, "Where should the project be located?"; rather, the question was, "Where should we locate this first project to increase the chances of creating additional gathering places in the future?" "Our goal," Matanovic said, "is to stimulate a movement in the city -- to start with a pilot project, then mentor other people to replicate our work, until it becomes a normal standard of conduct in the community."

Respecting Multiple Intelligences


In addition to tensions between idealists and pragmatists, a host of other common tensions arise in town after town: tensions between those who make decisions based on data, and those who are more motivated by intuition, for example, or between those who talk in terms of concrete details, and those who prefer to speak more broadly, emphasizing values. These tensions, Matanovic said, stem from bringing together people with multiple intelligences. "People are smart in different ways," he said, "and we take that seriously. That's why we build things -- we don't just talk." This last point is critical: "Once hands and bodies get involved," he said, "a whole other layer of participation and collaboration is possible than if we just talked."

This emphasis on action and results is key to the Pomegranate formula. People are tired of attending endless meetings without seeing results, Matanovic said, noting that everywhere he travels, people seem to be getting skeptical about the idea of visioning; too often, they've been asked what they think, without evidence that anything happens with their input. This, he said, does not bode well for participatory democracy; people need to feel good about participating, and they need to know that their input matters. "That's why we move very succinctly through our process," Matanovic explained, with a limit of three to four meetings maximum per community. "Most talented people will disappear after two to three meetings," he said. That's enough time to arrive at the "essence of a vision," at which point Pomegranate staff can begin the design process, based on a community's vision.

Collaboration: Alone, Together

"I learned that what I need to do is both listen to the community -- so I'm open to understanding what's going on -- and then I shift to become a design team leader, and I need to make sense of all that information I just absorbed," Matanovic said. The latter, he observed, is "very individual work" (which often happens in the middle of the night) -- and yet, even this individual work is part of the collaborative process, in his mind. "It's like jazz," he said. "The teamwork and individual virtuosity are completely intertwined -- the greater one, the greater the other ... You build on each other."

He referenced the January New York Times article, "The Rise of the New Groupthink," which generated a lot of buzz, in which author Susan Cain argues passionately for the importance of solitude, in a culture she feels overly champions teamwork. Collaboration, Matanovic says, is typically associated with teamwork, and to him, this is a mistake. "Even in solitude, we can collaborate," he argued. How's that? "Collaboration is a state of being," he said, "that allows new information to penetrate my being -- allows otherness to enter my fixed assumption. It's a very courageous state of being that allows new things to happen. That is the foundation for me. And then some people like to collaborate physically -- and we call that teamwork -- but even in solitude, we can collaborate."

The Theater of Collaboration

"I'm not a proponent of collaboration as the only mode of expressing creativity," Matanovic said, "but I am a proponent that in this day and age, we need to be courageous about stepping beyond our assumptions. We need to find a way to work with each other's differences. This is the cutting edge of human evolution: Be centered in yourself, and be open to new information and insights at the same time."


In Tuscaloosa, the visioning meetings -- which began in early December -- are over, and the design process is coming to a close. Now, the center is waiting to get the permits it needs to begin building; some grading is planned, along with some work on the site's concrete foundation. Then, for 10 days in June, a mix of local volunteers and volunteers from the center and its funder, Tully Coffee, will build a gathering place for the community, complete with an amphitheater, two picnic shelters, gateways, a new path, handcrafted banners and tiles.

Speaking of theater: Matanovic said that because of his roots in the art world, in some ways, he thinks of the center's work with communities as theater, "where people witness each other, and invisible ideas become visible."

Making invisible ideas, visible, by bringing people together -- isn't that ultimately what all collaboration is about?

Connections to Journalism?

How can news organizations apply the Pomegranate Center's model? Are there ideas here that we can apply to our work with citizens and communities as we shape products and services to meet their needs? What about collaborations between news orgs -- how can we honor that mix of "teamwork and individual virtuosity" that Matanovic describes? Share your ideas using the comments feature below.

Keep up with all the new content on Collaboration Central by following our Twitter feed @CollabCentral or subscribing to our RSS feed or email newsletter:

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Amanda Hirsch is the editor of Collaboration Central. She is a writer, online media consultant and performer who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. The former editorial director of PBS.org, she blogs at amandahirsch.com spends way too much time on Twitter.

Photos courtesy of the Pomegranate Center, except for the photo of an empty stage, which is courtesy of Flickr user Simon Scott.

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March 29 2012


Creating a Taxonomy of News Partnerships

In collaborative journalism right now we can see media theorist Clay Shirky's urge towards vast experimentation manifested. The journalism partnerships emerging around the country vary in size and type, and the practices that define those partnerships are still being negotiated and hashed out in newsrooms and communities.

Some partnerships bring together very different news organizations in order to provide expanded coverage, while others coalesce around similar newsrooms to cut down on duplicative efforts. Some focus on local or hyperlocal news, while others focus on regional and national reporting. Some bring the resources of multiple organizations together to focus on one issue in depth, while others partner with the public to capture a range of different angles on one issue.

This diversity in approaches to collaborative journalism is one of its strengths -- and one of its great challenges.

A Collaboration Framework

Journalists, editors and managers at news organizations are trying to navigate the parameters of these new kinds of partnerships as they happen. Developing a framework to categorize journalism collaborations is useful as practitioners look for lessons and models to replicate and build on. The dynamics between different newsrooms, and their various motivations for partnering, shape how a given collaboration is structured. While some collaborations may defy categorization, a few basic partnership models have emerged:

  • Commercial News Collaborations: These partnerships tend to be contractual agreements between commercial news organizations such as television stations and newspapers. They are often defined by the legal deals that structure them: Shared Services Agreements, Local News Sharing Agreements, Newspaper Broadcast Cross-Ownership, Joint Operating Agreements, etc. Many of these agreements consolidate resources, equipment, production and even newsroom staff. These kinds of commercial partnerships and near-mergers pre-date the larger collaborative trend we've witnessed across newsrooms since 2008.

  • Non-Profit and Commercial Collaborations: These partnerships are usually between public or non-commercial entities and a private news organization. This model gained significant attention during the Comcast-NBC merger debates because Comcast promised to expand local news coverage on NBC stations through partnerships with non-profit journalism organizations. Other examples include the New York Times' local news partnerships with non-profits in major media markets and sites like California Watch, whose model is based on these partnerships. In these arrangements, the commercial news outlet often serves as the distributor of content the non-profit produces. However, more complex and expansive non-profit and commercial reporting collaborations are also emerging.

  • Public and Non-Commercial Collaborations: These partnerships connect multiple public media outlets or bring public radio and TV stations together in collaboration with other non-profit newsrooms. The networked nature of the U.S. public media system, in which stations across the country are both producers and distributors, has meant that partnerships within the system are built into the DNA of the organizations. In recent years, innovative public media producers have built on that history and taken collaboration to the next level. We have also seen inventive partnerships between public media broadcasters and non-profit digital news startups.

  • University Collaborations: University partnerships with local news organizations are engaging journalism and mass communications students in hands-on reporting efforts that are producing some great journalism. This model takes many forms, from curricular-based service-learning efforts to campus-based investigative reporting workshops, and involves both commercial and non-commercial news organizations.

  • Community and Audience Collaborations: Journalists are also collaborating with their communities in new and important ways. Crowdsourcing and crowdfunding -- as exemplified by projects at The Guardian, ProPublica and public media's Public Insight Network and Spot.Us -- are finding new ways for audiences to contribute to the funding, research and editorial decisions that shape the news. At their best, these projects are not just transactional, wherein the audience hands over something (money, information) and gets something in return (a story or other journalistic product); they are transformative for both journalists and participants -- as in the case of Departures, a web-based documentary series about Los Angeles developed by public media station KCET in close partnership with community members.

This taxonomy focuses primarily on editorial collaborations around the production of specific news products; however, each collaborative model listed above also encompasses cases in which news organizations can and do collaborate around shared infrastructure. Examples of infrastructure-driven collaboration include: broadcasters sharing equipment, such as news helicopters; two non-profits sharing the costs of developing a mobile app; and universities acting as fiscal agents for journalism organizations. Organizations like J-Lab, the Media Consortium and the Investigative News Network are all helping facilitate both editorial and infrastructural partnerships.

No One-Size-Fits-All Solutions

silver-bullet.jpgToo often, in debates over the future of journalism, we get caught up looking for a silver bullet -- the one business model to rule them all. Some debates about collaboration echo this narrow focus, assuming there will be a universal set of practices or guidelines that newsrooms can replicate and scale across the country. The categorization above should highlight the vastly different approaches to journalistic collaboration that exist.

We are still at the early stages of experimentation with large- and small-scale collaboration across the news and journalism ecosystem. Partners differ, motivations differ, needs differ and funding differs. This list isn't meant to suggest that news organizations only draw lessons from partnerships that most closely resemble their own -- indeed quite the opposite is true: We should be drawing on the lessons from across models, but we should do so with an awareness of the unique context of each collaboration. Each of the various models outlined above present unique challenges and opportunities that deserve to be unpacked and detailed in more depth.

Do you think these five categories are comprehensive or would you add others? Or would you suggested categorizing collaboration more by the type of journalism than the structure of the newsroom? For example, we might reorganize the list above to highlight similarities and differences between collaborations organized around investigative reporting, niche journalism, covering local beats, etc. Let me know how you would organize the field in the comments below.  

Photo of silver bullet by Flickr user Ed Schipel.

Josh Stearns is a journalist, organizer and community strategest. He is Journalism and Public Media Campaign Director for Free Press, a national, non-partisan, non-profit organization working to reform the media through education, organizing and advocacy. He was a co-author of "Saving the News: Toward a national journalism strategy," "Outsourcing the News: How covert consolidation is destroying newsrooms and circumventing media ownership rules," and "On the Chopping Block: State budget battles and the future of public media." Find him on Twitter at @jcstearns.

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December 01 2011


LocalWiki Launches First Pilot, Announces Major Software Release

Hey friends! We've got two extremely exciting announcements for you. Our first focus community, serving Denton, Texas, has launched. And we're making the first major release of the new LocalWiki software today!


The LocalWiki project is an ambitious effort to create community-owned, living information repositories that will provide much-needed context behind the people, places, and events that shape our communities. We were awarded a 2010 Knight News Challenge grant to create an entirely new sort of software to make our vision of massively collaborative local media a reality.

Launching our first pilot

The DentonWiki, serving the community of Denton, Texas, has officially launched to the public. Check it out.


Denton is a small, college-focused community in North Texas, about an hour from Dallas. Being a college town, it's easy to see parallels to Davis, Calif. But it's a radically different place than Davis, as anyone who's been to the Dallas area can attest.

Folks in Denton had been building up and playing around with their project for a few months. With the new LocalWiki software at a good point, and a solid amount of interesting pages on their project, I packed up and headed out to Denton for two weeks to help them get their project ready to launch.

We held several marathon editing/hang-out sessions while there, met with lots of local Denonites, got a feel for the community, and did a bunch of work to prep the site for launch.


The Denton project has already seen a higher level of participation and usage than DavisWiki did in its early days. And we're really seeing our extreme focus on usability pay off -- I watched many non-technical people simply get handed a laptop and just immediately start creating great stuff without any guidance.

If you want to read more about DentonWiki and the launch process there, check out some information we're compiling on our guide site.

This first focus community launch -- the first of many -- is a huge milestone for the project.

LocalWiki software released

Today we are also excited to announce the first major release of the LocalWiki software! Check it out at localwiki.org. Make sure you watch the video.


Starting today, any community can create a local wiki using our new software. The software is designed to be installed by someone who's somewhat technical -- someone who's had some experience working with Linux, for instance. We worked hard to make the software as easy to install as possible.

Most people will simply use the software -- not install it, though. We're hoping that over the coming months many technically-savvy community champions will set up LocalWiki for their communities. The localwiki.org site is currently focused on targeting these sort of technically minded folks.

There's a list of communities currently running LocalWiki here (and a map here). We'll let you know as more come online, develop and launch!

There's so much more we have planned for the LocalWiki software -- but this day marks a significant step toward realizing the dream of collaborative, community-run media in every local community.

Philip & Mike

A version of this post first appeared on the LocalWiki blog.

June 30 2011


Big society research

About 12 months ago I was asked by a colleague if I’d like to participate in a project called Big Society research.

After the political rhetoric in the run up to the election last year it seemed at the very least like an opportunity to find out how the legacy of people working together to create better neighbourhoods, improve public services and adapt to constantly changing economic, social and cultural situations was somehow different to the way they might do that in Cameron’s so called ‘Big Society’.

Four themed workshops for researchers and none academics aim to collect together the raft of existing research which might provide some pointers to what Big Society might be about – whilst recognising that the vast majority of work in this area substantially pre-dates attempts by any political party to badge it as a policy initiative. And this is where most of the tension lay as researchers and others disassociate themselves with the party political posturing in order to get on with the business of collating evidence through past papers, case studies, interventions and ongoing projects by people who never thought they were doing was anything other than trying to work out why things don’t work as well as they might – and in some cases – how this could be changed so they did.

Amidst the media ripples of discontent among colleagues in the research community over the relative distance between central government (funding) and researchers in relation to ‘Big Society’ a friend of mine offered some helpful thoughts. His view was that intellectually he could not ignore the possibilities of new thinking purely because he was extremely uncomfortable with the ‘language of the right’. He gave me a concrete apolitical example from work he’d been doing in India where villagers – not health professionals – support new mothers and babies. His work identified the response of the villagers as cultural. There to deepen the ties of existing relationships and encourage others to share responsibility for care. Uncovering the essence of how this practice emerged and how it continues is surely a worthwhile intellectual pursuit regardless of its apparent mapping with the cost saving agenda of policy makers. Not exactly a justification for research into ‘Big Society’ but a compelling argument nevertheless and one that ought to persuade some that perhaps the biggest challenge of this new context is how to retain the integrity of work in this area for its own sake and how to frame and present it in such a way that it cannot be hi-jacked by ‘policy wonks’ and political band wagoners to further a spurious cost saving agenda.

April 19 2011


What do librarians know about apps? Plenty.

Today I had the great pleasure of sitting in a room--a small room--with the FCC Chairman, Julius Genachowski, as he announced a new project in collaboration with the Knight Foundation: Apps for Communities. This exciting new venture will put $100k of prizes in the hands of folks who dream up creative and useful ways to capitalize on existing public data and connect local folks to local data that solves local issues.

While Chairman Genachowski likely didn't have librarians in mind when nurturing this idea with the Knight Foundation, my first thought was: librarians! You might be thinking, "but I'm not a coder," and that may be true, but you have ideas. And you know your community. And you're crafty, innovative, and smart. What does your community need?

From the FCC:

This challenge is an effort to drive the great technical skills we have in our country out into our local communities. A particular goal is to build new applications to improve access for people who struggle with accessing information and services online: Seniors, non-English speakers, people who are uncomfortable with technology, and others. This contest seeks to bring the value of broadband to people who are, up until now, less likely to be online."

These people are in your library, using your library's services. What do they need? Do they need access to information during a disaster? Do they need to know where urgent care facilities exist and how to get there by public transportation? These were just two ideas shared during the press conference and discussion, but you likely have better, more focused ideas because you know the patrons who walk through your doors.

But what to do with your idea? Well, here's an idea:

One of TechSoup's projects, NetSquared, holds monthly offline events for anyone interested in technology and social impact. These local gatherings are an opportunity to share ideas, learn from one another, and collaborate on projects to create real world impact. What's more, they take place in 80 cities around the world, and if one doesn't exist near you, you can start on AT YOUR LIBRARY! How cool is that? Perhaps this FCC/Knight Foundation challenge is just the venue for you to share your idea with folks who could really make it happen. Try it. Or let me know why not. Or share your idea in the comments. Or just plain get in touch.

December 21 2010


Videos: news:rewired keynote from Joanna Geary, the Times

Courtesy of the BBC College of Journalism, we’ve got video footage from all of our sessions at news:rewired – beyond the story, 16 December 2010.

We’ll be grouping the video clips by session – you can view all footage by looking at the video category on this site.

Joanna Geary

December 16 2010


Community editors should be an integral part of the newsroom, says Media Wales’ Ed Walker

Community editors must not be sidelined in the newsroom, Ed Walker, online communities editor at Media Wales, told news:rewired delegates today.

Responding to @datamineruk, who described how digital staff at her workplace are based in a different part of the newsroom to other journalists, Walker said he sits next to an experienced senior reporter and can tap into his knowledge.

Walker founded Blog Preston, where he found that tapping into readers’ local knowledge helped to generate traffic to the site because it produced content that people want to discuss. A regular topic was local character “Toxic Terry”, a man who drinks petrol on the high street in Preston. Rumours of his demise sparked a spike in traffic, which only ebbed when someone saw him alive on the high street.

Walker had a number of suggestions about what makes a successful online community. One is focusing on popular topics like local history and getting input from experts. He also suggested making journalism a two-way street using interactive features like pothole maps.

Neil Perkin, founder of Only Dead Fish, said he has learned more about communities from being a blogger for four or five years than anything else. He unveiled a list of things to avoid when building communities:

  • Not having a clear objective – if you have clarity on your purpose, the people in that community have a reason to be there.
  • Avoid fixation on numbers – social media a source of referrals but don’t chase numbers at the expense of saturation.
  • Don’t broadcast at your community – to quote Clay Shirky, it’s about creating an environment for supporting people.
  • Forget the idea that it’s all about the technology – it’s about the people. Understand who are the authoritative people in your market. People like something to do and respond to openness.
  • Avoid not being a part of it yourself.

Anthony Thornton, group digital editor at IPC Inspire Men and Music, started his presentation with the depressing figure that 99% of attempts to start a community end in failure. Anthony, who was instrumental in the launch of the online version of the NME, said that communities exist already, it’s just a matter of finding one.

He also discussed how building a community around a book that he was working on helped it to gain a place in the Sunday Times’ Top 10 Bestsellers list. The book, which focused on the indie band the Libertines, was embraced by fans after Anthony connected with them on Myspace ahead of publication. Sharing cover ideas and other content helped fans form a relationship with the book giving it an edge over a rival title, which was published at the same time.

September 08 2010


Updates and social media vampires

I’ve been updating the blog including a change of theme. It needed some spring cleaning which includes an update of my blog roll. It’s now down at the footer of the page.

The blog roll is generated automatically from my google reader subscriptions (it is now I set it up). These are by no means complete. So, if you have vanished from my blogroll, sorry! You’ll be back as long as you are still posting to your blog or have an active feed via twitter or posterous etc.

In the process of cleaning up I got rid of some draft posts that have been kicking around. I thought I would share this one with you. It’s from 2008 and I’m pondering what I still ponder a lot on these days: Integration and how journalists work with communities:

It’s been said that journalism holds a mirror up to the world. But what happens when the world holds that mirror up to journalism?

Increasingly they expect to see themselves reflected back. After all thats what good journalism claims to do:- reflect the audience. Perhaps they expect to see themselves improved or more informed. Perhaps they expect to see themeselves more liberal or hard-line based on the media they chose.

One thing is for certain though, the media right now seems to cast little or no reflection when it’s the other way round.

How can you tell if someone is a vampire? They show no reflection. What do vampires do? They suck the blood out of their victims.

Why did I raise that?

When we talk about integration we generally mean, integrating print and online activities. But the true integration comes online itself. The integration between journalists and citizens. Of course, there should be no distinction between them. But journalists still wish to see themselves as a class apart.

It’s all too easy for people from a traditional media background to see community as a place – something off to the side where the readers go, while the journalists sit over here in the real part of the site. They are content-focused, not people or community-focused.

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August 24 2010


April 14 2010


Newspaper Comments: Forget Anonymity! The Problem Is Management [Scott Rosenberg]

From Scott Rosenberg’s Wordyard: “The great mistake so many newspapers and media outlets made was to turn on the comments software and then walk out of the room. They seemed to believe that the discussions would magically take care of themselves.

If you opened a public cafe or a bar in the downtown of a city, failed to staff it, and left it untended for months on end, would you be surprised if it ended up as a rat-infested hellhole?”

More at Wordyard

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April 07 2010


At Snopes, A Quest To Debunk Misinformation Online [NYTimes]

From the NYTimes: “The popularity of Snopes – it attracts seven million to eight million unique visitors in an average month – puts the couple in a unique position to evaluate digital society’s attitudes toward accuracy.

After 14 years, they seem to have concluded that people are rather cavalier about the facts.

In a given week, Snopes tries to set the record straight on everything from political smears to old wives’ tales.”

Read more at NYTimes.com

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January 20 2010


How to Use Meta-Stories to Engage the Newsroom, Community

How do we create a community? This question is frequently asked by editors as well as by marketing managers and other business people. More and more, I don't think you can create communities.

Communities already exist. You can try and offer them a news service or a platform that the community finds useful and engaging, but forget trying to control that community or shape it to meet the needs of your media company. The community calls the shots, not you or your company.

In December, I attended the LeWeb conference in Paris. I was impressed by Chris Pirillo, who told us that people who view communities as "tools" are tools themselves. Control is an illusion. (In fact, during his passionate presentation, Pirillo said "control is bullshit.")

With that in mind, I'd like to suggest a simple way to make your newsroom or website do a better job of connecting with the community you serve: writing meta-stories.

Meta-stories are stories about what's happening on your website, and about what happens in the newsroom. They're a great way to engage the community.

Tell a Story From Forums, Comments

We allow people to post comments directly to our newspaper's website, but we intervene and moderate whenever the debate gets personal or off-topic. This is a story in itself. I have started writing a daily story about the comments on our site and in our discussion forums. I've been amazed by the hidden gems of insight I've found. It really is a story in itself to examine how people react when a story breaks, and how the discussion evolves.

It's also important to have a forum where people can come together and interact. This is a way for them to help tell a meta-story. Using CoveritLive, I hold chat sessions each weekday (for between 30 and 60 minutes) with or without a special guest. (We're a financial newspaper, so mostly we chat about what happened with the markets.) This synchronous contact with our community builds trust. Beyond that, often people make very useful suggestions, like "why don't you publish that investment guide each quarter instead of only once a year, we really like and need it." Or they suggest interesting new angles for news stories.

Allow the Community to Listen In

My next way to create a meta-story is very simple: I talk to my colleagues. I ask them what they're up to, and what their thoughts are about ongoing stories. I just jot down a list of topics and ideas and post them on our financial blog. This becomes a story about what's going on inside the newsroom as we prepare our reporting.

Go Where Your Community Is

Once I've written my meta-stories, I share them on Facebook and Twitter in order to try and reach an even broader group of interested people. But even though I use Facebook and Twitter, I suggest focusing on the places where the community tends to focus its presence and attention.

For our paper, we generate the most debate and comments on our website, rather than on Facebook or Twitter. Our audience is interested in finance and economics, which means they have an interest in innovation and technology. But they're not geeks and aren't necessarily tech savvy, meaning that only a minority of them actively use Twitter.

Even though I'm personally inclined to spend lots of time on Twitter, I force myself to hang out more on our site. Maybe it's not the latest in social media technology, but it's where our community hangs out.

They Actually Like It

At first I was afraid that community members would complain about my comment meta-stories: 'Why did you mention his comment and not mine?' It didn't happen. People actually told me they appreciated the effort, even if they weren't the one being featured. I also get the impression some of them have started writing carefully worded comments in order to be included in the comments story.

As for my colleagues, my fear was they would object to being quoted when they are in the early stages of their reporting. It seems, however, they have no objections at all. They actually seem to appreciate the fact that their work is being noted and updated, and all they have to do is to speak to me or to jot down what they're up to -- much like status updates, in fact. It gives the editorial work a stream-like, real-time web urgency.

Keep Things Simple

So forget about complicated community-building strategies. Meet the existing community you want to serve, talk to them, talk to your colleagues, write down the whole process, and put it out there for everyone to read. (This approach works equally well for those who work with sound or video.)

Then combine that with a synchronous session (such as chat) and have real-time interactions. You'll be surprised how much your community will teach you -- not only about the news, but about what you do.


I'd love to hear about your suggestions and thoughts about using meta-stories! Please share then in the comments.

Roland Legrand is in charge of Internet and new media at Mediafin, the publisher of leading Belgian business newspapers De Tijd and L'Echo. He studied applied economics and philosophy. After a brief teaching experience, he became a financial journalist working for the Belgian wire service Belga and subsequently for Mediafin. He works in Brussels, and lives in Antwerp with his wife Liesbeth.

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December 15 2009


In Search of a Community That Takes 'Me' Out of Social Media

As someone who aspires to be a new media expert, I don't actually use many popular social media services. I dislike Facebook, I rarely tweet, and before winning the News Challenge I had never written a blog post. It would seem like I'm downright un-hip; yet I'm a young technologist who has been communicating online for more than half of my life.

Why the disparity? Simple: I care more about community than myself.

I'm sure you've heard people talk about the ego-centric nature of today's social media, which tend to focus on one-to-one and one-to-many communication. Not only does the spotlight on the individual create an unappealing blend of "often boring" and "always noisy," but it also makes it essentially impossible to facilitate real community. In fact, even the systems that are designed for groups leave much to be desired.

We all want to inform, and form, our communities using today's digital tools, but how is this possible if the proper tools don't exist? If there isn't anything out there that can host community on the Internet without sacrificing something important, then maybe it's time to invent something new. I've been thinking about where community stands at this stage of the digital era, and what these new tools, or tool, might look like. Here are some of my thoughts.

Charting Digital Media

I'll try to simplify things by visualizing the current state of social media in terms of "focus" and "scope." (See image below.) The location of each icon on the spectrum is subjective, so don't ruffle your feathers if, for instance, you think Twitter should be closer to the "group" side. The point is to get a sense of where existing services might fall, and start thinking about the costs and benefits of each quadrant.


Focus (Individual vs. Group) describes the type of social interaction users engage in on the system. Is the tool's functionality geared toward private conversations or group discussions? Is content sharing ego-driven, or is there a focus on discussion? For me, if the system is primarily designed for one-to-one or one-to-many communications, then it is individual focused.

Scope (Niche vs. Global) explains the type of people found on the system. Is the site universally attractive, or is there a well defined target audience? Will users tend to find information thanks to common interest, or will they be exposed to a wide range of perspectives?

This setup creates a framework for thinking about online services. Here is what I was thinking about when I tried applying it (why I put the icons where I did):

  • Social networking sites (Facebook, MySpace, and LinkedIn) allow global users to contact one another directly, and create a detailed digital identity. These services provide effective one-to-one communication tools, such as private messages or wall posts, but the group-oriented features often feel shallow and impersonal.
  • News media repositories (Digg, Reddit) let groups share and discover content through collective intelligence. They provide a space for many-to-many conversation, but tend to aim at a global audience, since they rely on network effects to achieve a critical mass.
  • Personal media publishers (YouTube, Flickr, Twitter, blogging platforms) make it easy for users to get their message to the world, and therefore focus on one-to-many communication.
  • Discussion Platforms (Ning, PHPbb, and niche community websites) facilitate communication by creating a space for groups to use. This makes it possible for niche communities to function, though they do so with an element of isolation from the global community.

Looking for Trends

There are a few traits to consider within this framework:

The Noise to Information Ratio: How difficult is it for a user of the system to get the information they want? Intuition tells me that global services have more content, but they also have a better chance of getting enough users to support collective intelligence -- and collective intelligence can help the system route information more efficiently. Niche services, however, have less content and a more specific audience, so there will be less noise in the system.

The Value of Contribution: A participatory system can only exist if it has users contributing content. It seems to me that it is much easier for a user to "freeload" on the activity of others in group-oriented sites by lurking in the shadows. On sites with an individual focus, the user won't get nearly the same experience if they don't interact in some way.

There are also some unscientific generalizations to be made about the four quadrants.

  • Global-and-Individual (upper left) leads to popularity. There is a lot of interest in being able to share your voice to the world, and these sites do exactly that. These are the places online where an individual could become a superstar, or at the very least feel important. If I were a psychiatrist, I'd probably be able to make an argument that people flock to these sites because they secretly like themselves a lot, but I'm not, so I won't.
  • Niche-and-Individual (lower left) promotes personal relevance. If a user chooses to participate in a niche-content system, they presumably belong to that niche (or aspire to). If the interactions are individual-focused, they are probably applicable to the individuals involved. This adds up to a system where most of the messages are naturally relevant to the people that see them.
  • Global-and-Group (upper right) creates and organizes knowledge. There is something to be said about the crowd's ability to organize information. When you have a global user base behaving as a collective, there is huge potential for the creation and organization of knowledge.
  • Niche-and-Group (lower right) facilitates community. Community requires group interaction with an underlying common identity. These sites provide space for exactly that.

Dreams of the Future

Community tools exist, but they are drastically underpowered. The systems lack the popularity of Facebook, the societal potential of Wikipedia, and the personal relevance of email. As a result, they are drowned out by the far more successful alternatives that I outlined above.

To change this, we need something that can:

  1. Host niche communities without isolating them from the rest of the world.
  2. Give individuals a chance to shine without letting their egos dominate the content.
  3. Attract enough people to drive collective intelligence, while maintaining the level of granularity needed to provide a truly personalized experience.

That isn't too much to ask for... right? I personally believe that these systems will be the key to meeting community information needs. As such, I believe this is the direction that news organizations need to move if they want to maintain/reclaim their role as community informer.

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