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April 20 2011

14:00

The writing on the wall: Why news organizations are turning to outside moderators for help with comments

When a news organization decides to have someone else to deal with their online comments, it’s sometimes seen as waving the white flag or the equivalent of dumping a problem child at a boarding school. (And that’s before the word “outsourcing” starts getting thrown around.) But look at it from the angle of time and resources in a newsroom: Would you rather have online staff spend their time playing traffic cop in the comments or producing work for the site?

It’s straightforward arithmetic, though somewhat slanted depending on the value you place on comments (i.e., whether you think they contribute to your site) and whether you have money. To borrow a line from The A-Team, “If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire…comment moderators.”

Most recently, The Boston Globe joined NPR and the San Francisco Chronicle as clients of ICUC Moderation Services, a Winnipeg-based company that deals in, as the name hints, moderating online content. The sacrifice in going outside is giving up the hands-on approach to building online community — but some news orgs probably don’t want to put their hands into something they consider a cesspool.

Keith Bilous, ICUC’s president, says hiring outside help with comments not only frees up newsroom resources, but also makes outlets consider what they want out of comments. “The focus is on getting more better-quality comments and conversation on sites instead of ‘let’s just get as much comments as we can,’” Bilous told me.

Defining the goals of comments

And that’s because the first order of business when you hire a company like ICUC is to layout your commenting guidelines and procedures — essentially what Bilous calls “the Bible to how we manage the content and community.” While this is a necessary step for ICUC’s moderators to know what’s fair or foul, it’s also a chance to clarify why to have comments and what role they play on a site, he said. There’s a need to guard against slander or libel in your comment threads, not to mention the ever-swelling and always creative list of naughty words — but beyond that things start to vary.

“Moderating for the CBC is different than moderating for The Boston Globe or The San Francisco Chronicle,” he said. “They’re all very unique in the way their content is managed.”

One area where sites diverge is on whether to moderate comments before or after being published. There’s a case to be made for both approaches — the idea of honoring the audience’s ability to have their say immediately versus the ability to carefully tend the garden as it grows. Bilous argues either can work.

“Look at TSN, by volume of comments that come to the TSN website and CBC site — which are through the freakin’ roof frankly — they’re all pre-moderated and going up every month,” he said.

If there’s a more pressing question news sites should be dealing with, it’s knowing when to throw the off switch on comments. Not in the “Christmas is canceled” way, but in the “maybe this isn’t the best story to include comments on” way. Bilous calls it “situational comments,” because he’s seeing more sites become selective with what stories they’ll allow comments on. A number of newspapers, like the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, automatically turn off comments on stories about topics like suicide, race, or gay rights. The challenge for editors, Bilou said, is knowing when stories can lead to useful community discussion and when they’ll descend into chaos.

With that in mind, Bilous has three pieces of advice for editors and managers to consider about comments: Be transparent about your policy and decisions. Always be willing to ask if comments are needed on an individual story. And, maybe most importantly, don’t be afraid to take a hit if bad things are said about your publication.

“We’re never going back to a web that is static, as in ‘here is a story no one can comment on,’” he said. “The audience is only being encouraged and conditioned to participate.”

April 14 2011

14:00

Love me, love my NPR: Public radio listeners can show off their loyalty

NPR executives have been known to brag that theirs is just about the only news organization to show up in people’s personal ads. For example: “I am in need of some intelligent male company…I am an avid reader, npr listener, talkative, curious and always up for trying something new.”

Media companies salivate over that kind of loyalty and identification with the brand. “People not only have an affinity for NPR but an affinity for each other, as listeners,” Kinsey Wilson, NPR’s general manager of digital media told me. “We’re the only news organization where public trust has increased over the last decade.”

While there is as yet no dating site for public radio nerds — though Wilson said the idea has come up — his development team recently whipped up a way for listeners to show off their support and discover friends with similar passions. A new Facebook app called I Heart NPR asks fans to put themselves on a map with thousands of others. Users can play games, such as Name That NPR Theme Song (I earned four-of-four virtual tote bags, thank you), and then share the results with friends. Secret games will be “unlocked” with every 100,000 new users, Wilson said.

NPR is already among the most “liked” news organization on Facebook, with 1.4 1.6 million fans. So what’s different about this? “The NPR Facebook page is first and foremost an extension of our news brand,” Wilson said. The I Heart NPR app, he said, is for fans of the organization itself and what it represents to them — the NPR personalities, the weekend rituals, the shared values that bring together like-minded people on a first date.

At the top of the Facebook app is a Twitter-inspired #gopublic stamp, which the network uses as branding on all social platforms. Local stations can also use the stamp and embed the Facebook app on their own sites.

I Heart NPR was conceived, Wilson reassured me, prior to the controversy that forced out two NPR executives and intensified a debate about federal funding of public broadcasting. (It looks like that funding survived the 2011 budget, by the way.)

Wilson said this is a lighthearted experiment and he chose not to define any hard goals for it. “We’re not trying to promote this in an aggressive way. We’ve put it out there and if it takes off, fabulous.” A half-dozen programmers, working part-time, built the app in about two weeks.

NPR’s digital team works on a bold schedule: Programmers work on two-week coding cycles to encourage rapid development. These so-called sprints encourage both failure and innovation. It’s what allowed NPR to develop its iPad app in one month, or two sprints, just in time for the iPad’s launch in April 2010. (That app just surpassed one million downloads.)

I asked Wilson, who used to run digital operations at USA Today, why it can be so difficult for other large organizations to churn out new projects — and how he’s able to do it now. “From my perspective, it comes from long, hard experience doing it badly,” he said. “Resources are always tight and so there’s probably a fear of burning too many cycles on something that either doesn’t go right.” But he said the rapid-release schedule encourages unconventional projects like I Heart NPR, and very few ideas are swatted down.

“The digital media staff here is about half the size of the one I had at USA Today and probably produces twice the output,” he said.

April 13 2011

15:30

Newsgames Can Raise the Bar for News, Not Dumb It Down

Earlier this month a group of journalists, game designers, and academics gathered at the University of Minnesota for a workshop on newsgames. I was there, as was fellow Knight News Challenge winner and San Jose Mercury News tech business writer Chris O'Brien. After the event, Chris wrote a a recap of the meeting here on Idea Lab. TechCrunch's Paul Carr penned a grouchy reply, and O'Brien responded in turn.

As an early advocate and creator of newsgames who has spent the last several years researching and writing about the subject, I'm encouraged to see debate flaring up on the subject. But it's important to note that there's not one sole position for or against newsgames. For my part, I can't embrace either Carr's critique or O'Brien's defense.

Carr's riposte boils down to this: If people can't process news without having it turned into a game for them, something's tragically wrong. That's not the position I advocate, of course, so it's heartening to see O'Brien respond so quickly with objection.

But O'Brien's response isn't right either. His retort amounts to: Games are an increasingly popular medium that can keep people engaged; since news doesn't seem to be doing so, why not try something that does?

He's not fundamentally wrong, of course. Games are becoming increasingly popular, and they can capture people's interest differently and sometimes more effectively than other media.

How Games Engage

But vague ideas like popularity and engagement aren't the interesting aspects of games.

newsgames cover.jpg

In fact, there are many different sides to newsgames. My co-authors and I identify seven different approaches to the form in our book "Newsgames: Journalism at Play," including current events, infographics, documentary, literacy, puzzles, community, and platforms.

But the most interesting aspect of games in the context of news is their unique features as a medium. Games communicate differently than other media: They simulate processes rather than telling stories. For this reason, games are great at characterizing the complex behavior of systems.

While traditional methods of newsmaking like writing and broadcasting may seem more sophisticated and respectable than videogames in theory, the opposite is true in practice. In fact, the type of knee-jerk, ad hominem rejoinder and rapid-fire retort that Carr's and O'Brien's posts represent offer a superb example of precisely what's wrong with news today -- online or off. Personality and gossip reigns, while deliberation and synthesis falter.

Because complex characterizations of the dynamics underlying events and situations are already scarce in the news, to accuse games of trivializing civic engagement risks hypocrisy. But it's more than that: The forms of traditional storytelling common to written and broadcast journalism just can't get at the heart of systemic issues. They focus instead on events and individuals, not on the convoluted interconnections between global and local dynamics.

Yet, systemic issues are the most important ones for us to understand today: economics, energy, climate, health, education—all of these are big, messy systems with lots of complex interrelations. As we put it in "Newsgames": "Games offer journalists an opportunity to stop short of the final rendering of a typical news story, and instead to share the raw behaviors and dynamics that describe a situation as the journalistic content."

Intoxication with Games

Despite their recent dispute, O'Brien and Carr share something in common: an affiliation with Silicon Valley-oriented publications. Over the past year, the Valley tech sector has become intoxicated with games, particularly the runaway growth of social network games and the promise of "gamification," the application of arbitrary extrinsic rewards for desired actions on websites or smartphones.

In championing newsgames, I'm advocating something different and more sophisticated than low-effort user acquisition, blind trend-hopping, or crass incentives. It is a value completely at odds with both Carr's critique, and one that O'Brien's defense doesn't adequately capture.

Newsgames don't make news easier and more palatable; that's the negative trend the media industry has embraced for three decades, from USA Today to Twitter.

Instead, newsgames make the news harder and more complex. We shouldn't embrace games because they seem fun or trendy, nor because they dumb down the news, but because they can communicate complex ideas differently and better than writing and pictures and film. Games are raising the bar on news, not lowering it.

April 02 2011

19:31

Lessons on how to engage with audiences

Jim Brady, former editor of TBD.com and WashingtonPost.com, set the tone for a professional panel on engaging the audience at #ISOJ by saying they were going to stick to time and leave plenty of time for questions.

First up was Espen Egil Hansen, editor-in-chief of VG Multimedia, Norway. He started by stating that he tells his journalists to spend a minimum of 10% of time interacting and engaging with readers.

Three-quarters of Norwegians visited the site in February, with 87% coming to the homepage, compared to only 4% from Google.

VG’s approach has been to figure out how we can help the readers help each other.

Hansen highlighted how last year during the travel disruption caused by the Icelandic volcano, a developer created a quick and dirty site to help people help each other get home.

In return, readers sent in stories and pictures about their journey home.

VG also has a tool that lets a selecte group of readers correct typos.  5,000 readers applied to correct typos and 400 were selected to fix typos on the site. 17,000 typos were reported last year, said Hansen.

Another example cited by Hansen was the paper’s response to the disaster in Japan.  VG set up a paper with a live feed of Japanese TV, but also updates from journalists and from readers.

He also showed how during the swine flu, VG created a wiki site inviting users to let others know where they could get a flu shoot.

Hansen said the paper had progressed from a monologue to dialogue. But today, there is another viral layer which taps into social media.

He said VG wanted to be something in the middle between traditional journalism and social media.

Washington Post’s approach to Twitter

Amanda Zamora, social media and engagement editor, The Washington Post, described her job as taking the “earmuff off this sleeping giant.”

She talked about how reporters are using social platforms such as Twitter as a newsgathering tool.

“We’ve learnt a lot from Twitter,” she said, for example by using the hashtag to actively frame the conversation.

She outlined the approach as call, response, reward.

The sign of success is if you issue a call, you get a response, said Zamora, not the number of followers. People who take part are rewarded by bring that content back into the Washpost site.

The paper uses Google forms as a way for people to send in what they know on specific stories, for example on power outages in DC.

One of the ways the Post is experimenting is using Intersect, which can blend accounts from both journalists and readers.

 

 

April 01 2011

14:38

This Week in Review: Navigating the Times’ pay-plan loopholes, +1 for social search, and innovation ideas

Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news.

Putting the Times’ pay plan in place: If you read last week’s review, the first half of this week’s should feel like déjà vu — lots of back-and-forth about the wisdom of The New York Times’ new online pay plan, and some more hand-wringing about getting around that plan. If you want to skip that and get to the best stuff, I recommend Staci Kramer, David Cohn, and Megan Garber.

The Times launched its pay system Monday with a letter to its readers (snarkier version courtesy of Danny Sullivan), along with a 99-cent trial offer for the first four weeks and free access for people who subscribe to the Times on Kindle. Times digital chief Martin Nisenholtz gave a launch-day talk to newspaper execs, highlighted by his assertion that the link economy is not a win-win for content producers and aggregators.

Meanwhile, the discussion about the paywall’s worth rolled on. You can find a good cross-section of opinions in this On Point conversation with Ken Doctor, the Journal Register’s John Paton, The Times’ David Carr, and NYTClean creator David Hayes. The plan continues to draw support from some corners, including The Onion (in its typically ironic style, of course) and PC Magazine’s Lance Ulanoff. Former Financial Times reporter Tom Foremski and Advertising Age columnist Simon Dumenco both made similar arguments about the value of the plan, with Foremski urging us to support the Times as a moral duty to quality journalism and Dumenco ripping the blogosphere’s paywall-bashers for not doing original reporting like the Times.

And though the opposition was expressed much more strongly the past two weeks, there was a smattering of dissent about the plan this week, too — some from the Times’ mobile users. One theme among the criticism was the cost of developing the plan: Philip Greenspun wondered how the heck the Times spent $40 million on planning and implementation, and former Guardian digital head Emily Bell wrote about the opportunity cost of that kind of investment. BNET’s Erik Sherman proposed that the Times should have invested the money in innovation instead.

A few other interesting thoughts about the Times’ pay plan before we get to the wall-jumping debate: Media consultant Judy Sims said the plan might actually make the Times more social by providing an incentive for subscribers to share articles on social networks to their non-subscribing friends. Spot.Us’ David Cohn argued that the plan is much closer to a donation model than a paywall and argued for the Times to offer membership incentives. And Reuters’ Felix Salmon talked about how the proposal is changing blogging at the Times.

PaidContent’s Staci Kramer said the Times is fighting an uphill battle in the realm of public perception, but that struggle is the Times’ own fault, created by its way-too-complicated pay system.

The ethics of paywall jumping: With the Times’ “pay fence” going into effect, all the talk about ways to get around that fence turned into a practical reality. Business Insider compiled seven of the methods that have been suggested: A browser extension, Twitter feeds, using different computers, NYTClean and a User Script’s coding magic, Google (for five articles a day), and browser-switching or cookie-deleting. Mashable came up with an even simpler one: delete “?gwh=numbers” from the Times page’s URL.

Despite such easy workarounds, the Times is still cracking down in other areas: As Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan noted, it blocks links from all Google sites after the five-articles-per-day limit is reached. The Times also quickly (and successfully) requested a shutdown of one of the more brazen free-riding schemes yet concocted — NYT for a Nickel, which charged to access Times articles without paywall restrictions. (It also established a pattern for unauthorized Twitter aggregators and bookmarklets: You’re fine, as long as you don’t use the Times’ name.)

So we all obviously can crawl through the Times’ loopholes, but should we? A few folks made efforts to hack through the ethical thicket of the Times’ intentional and unintentional loopholes: Times media critic James Poniewozik didn’t come down anywhere solid, but said the Times’ leaky strategy “makes the paywall something like a glorified tip jar, on a massive scale—something you choose to contribute to without compulsion because it is the right thing” — except unlike those enterprises, it’s for-profit. In a more philosophical take, the Lab’s Megan Garber said the ethical conundrum shows the difficulty of trying to graft the physical world’s ethical assumptions onto the digital world.

A possible +1 for publishers: Google made a big step in the direction of socially driven search this week with the introduction of +1, a new feature that allows users to vote up certain search results in actions that are visible to their social network. Here are two good explainers of the feature from TechCrunch and Search Engine Land, both of whom note that +1′s gold mine is in allowing Google to personalize ads more closely, and that it’s starting on search results and eventually moving to sites across the web.

The feature was immediately compared to Facebook’s “Like” and Twitter’s retweets, though it functions a bit differently from either. As GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram noted, because it’s Google, it’s intrinsically tied to search, which is both an advantage and a disadvantage. As Ingram said, it’s smart to add more of a social component to search, but Google’s search-centricity makes the “social network” aspect of +1 awkward, just as Buzz and Wave were. To paraphrase the argument of Frederic Lardinois of NewsGrange: if your +1′s go into your Google Profile and no one sees them, do they really make a sound?

All this seems to be good news for media sites. Lost Remote’s Cory Bergman said that if they essentially become “improve the SEO of this site” buttons, media companies will be pretty motivated to add them to their sites. Likewise, Poynter’s Damon Kiesow reasoned that +1 could be a great way for media sites to more deeply involve visitors who arrive via Google, who have typically been less engaged than visitors from Facebook and Twitter.

Shrinking innovation to spur it: This month’s Carnival of Journalism focuses on how to drive innovation, specifically through the Knight News Challenge and Reynolds Journalism Institute. Most of the posts rolled in yesterday, and they contain a litany of quick, smart ideas of new directions for news innovation and how to encourage it.

A quick sampling: City University London and Birmingham City University j-prof Paul Bradshaw proposed a much broader, smaller-scale News Challenge fund, with a second fund aimed at making those initiatives scale. J-Lab Jan Schaffer said we need to quit looking at innovation so much solely in terms of tools and more in terms of processes and relationships. British journalist Mary Hamilton and Drury j-prof Jonathan Groves both focused on innovation in training, with Groves proposing “innovation change agents” funded by groups like Knight and the RJI to train and transform newsrooms.

Also, University of British Columbia j-prof Alfred Hermida opined on the role of theory in innovation, Lisa Williams of Placeblogger advocated a small-scale approach to innovation, and the University of Colorado’s Steve Outing had some suggestions for the RJI fellowship program.

The mechanics of Twitter’s information flow: Four researchers from Yahoo and Cornell released a study this week analyzing, as they called it, “who says what to whom on Twitter.” One of their major findings was that half the information consumed on Twitter comes from a group of 20,000 “elite” users — media companies, celebrities, organizations, and bloggers. As Mathew Ingram of GigaOM observed, that indicates that the power law that governs the blogosphere is also in effect on Twitter, and big brands are still important even on a user-directed platform.

The Lab’s Megan Garber noted a few other interesting implications of the study, delving into Twitter’s two-step flow from media to a layer of influential sources to the masses, as well as the social media longevity of multimedia and list-oriented articles. A couple of other research-oriented items about Twitter: a Lab post on Dan Zarrella’s data regarding timing and Twitter posts, and Maryland prof Zeynep Tufekci more theoretical exploration of NPR’s Andy Carvin and the process of news production on Twitter.

Reading roundup: Plenty of other bits and pieces around the future-of-news world this week:

— New York Times editor Bill Keller wrote a second column, and like his anti-aggregation piece a couple of weeks ago, this piece — about the value of the Times’ impartiality and fact-based reporting — didn’t go over well. Reuters’ Felix Salmon called him intellectually dishonest, Scott Rosenberg called him defensive, and the Huffington Post’s Peter Goodman (a former Times reporter) said Keller misrepresented him.

— A few notes on The Daily: Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici said it was downloaded 500,000 times during its trial period and has 70,000 regular users, and a study was conducted finding that it’s more popular with less tech-savvy, less content-concerned users.

— Journal Register Co. CEO John Paton talked about transforming newspapers at the Newspaper Association of America convention; he summarized what he had to say in 10 tweets, and Alan Mutter wrote a post about the panel. The moderator, Ken Doctor, followed up with a Lab post looking at how long, exactly, newspapers have left.

— I’ll send you off with Jonathan Stray’s thoughtful post on rethinking journalism as a system for informing people, rather than just a series of stories. It’s a lot to chew on, but a key piece to add to the future-of-news puzzle.

Image of a fence-jumper by like oh so zen used under a Creative Commons license.

March 25 2011

19:30

Journal Register’s open advisory meeting: Bell, Jarvis, and Rosen put those new media maxims to the test

We watchers of media — analysts, theorists, pundits, what you will — make assumptions about journalism that have become, along the way, tenets: Openness and transparency will engender trust…. The process of journalism matters as much as the product…. Engagement is everything…. Etc. We often treat those ideas as general truths, but more accurately they’re simply theories — notions that speak as much to the media environment we’re hoping to create as to the one we currently have.

In that respect, one of the most interesting media outfits to watch — in addition to, yes, the Googles and Twitters of the world — is a chain of community of newspapers dotted along the East Coast. The Journal Register Company, which declared bankruptcy in 2009, has been attempting over the past year to reverse its fortunes with a “digital first” approach to newsgathering that involves a healthy does of New Media Maxim: It’s using free, web-only publishing tools whenever possible. It’s established an “ideaLab,” a group of innovation-focused staffers to experiment with new tools and methods of reporting and engaging with readers. It’s been sharing profits with staff. And it’s convened a group of new media all-stars to serve as advisors as its papers plunge head-first into “digital first.”

Yesterday, those all-stars — Emily Bell, Jeff Jarvis, and Jay Rosen — gathered in the newsroom of JRC’s flagship paper, Torrington, CT’s Register Citizen (home of the famous newsroom cafe, the community media lab, and, as of this week, a used bookstore), to talk innovation strategy with Journal Register staffers. The confab was literally an inside-out version of a typical, closed-door Advisory Board session: Rather than taking place in a closed-off meeting space, the conversation happened around a desk smack in the middle of the Register Citizen’s open, airy newsroom, with the clacking of keyboards and the clicking of microfilm reels and the general hum of journalism being done serving as soundtrack to the discussion.

Most importantly, the meeting was open to the public. Community members (twenty or so of them, including librarians, an assistant schools superintendent, a UConn professor, a state senator, and a representative from the Chamber of Commerce) sat in chairs loosely situated around the advisory board’s oblong desk. (The atmosphere was casual: “We have a bit of an agenda today,” Journal Register CEO John Paton said during his introduction, “but the advisory broad usually works best when it’s just talking about issues.”) And to accommodate the members of the paper’s virtual community, the meeting was also live-streamed, both on the Register Citizen site and on UStream (370 total views). Situated directly above the meeting area was a wall-mounted screen that streamed tweeted questions and comments about the proceedings — from JRC employees and the broader community — via the #JRC hashtag.

As Bell tweeted after the confab concluded: “Never quite been to a meeting like that before.”

I highly recommend watching the archived video of the discussion (above or here): Rarely do journalism’s wide array of interested parties — journalists themselves, business-side executives, academics, analysts, and, of course, community members — come together in such direct dialogue. The conversation that resulted is both telling and, I think, fascinating. But if “Read Later” you must, here are some broad — but, be warned, not even close to summative! — takeaways from the proceedings.

The tension between journalism-as-process and journalism-as-product

During the board’s discussion of engagement and transparency, Emily Olson, the Register Citizen’s managing editor, described a recent experiment in which the editorial staff asked the paper’s readers what they would like the paper to fact-check. The responses, she noted, weren’t gratitude at being asked to participate in the process, but rather sarcasm and indignation: “Why do we have to do your jobs for you? What are you getting paid for?”

While the table generally agreed that a more targeted question — “What do you want us to fact-check about X?” — might have been more effective in terms of eliciting earnest responses, Olson’s experience also hints at one of the broad problems facing news outlets that have so many new engagement mechanisms available to them: How do you serve a wide array of audience interest, not only in terms of content, but also in terms of presentation? How do you accommodate different “levels” of audience, not only when it comes to background information about stories, but also when it comes to the desire for participation? To what extent do people want to participate in the process of journalism, and to what extent do they prefer information that is simply presented to them?

“People,” of course, is anything but monolithic — and that’s the point. Some folks are thrilled, cognitive surplus-style, to have new opportunities to participate in the creative process of journalism. Others, though, want a more sit-back experience of news consumption. They don’t want here’s-how-we-got-the-story or here’s-how-you-can-help; they simply want The News, the product. If you’re a media outlet, how do you enable participation from the former group…without annoying the latter?

The power of data

In a post-meeting discussion, the table agreed on the power of data — not only as a valuable journalistic offering, but also as a means of increasing JRC papers’ pageviews, and thus the company’s bottom line. Rosen noted the telling experience of the Texas Tribune, where a whopping two thirds of total site views come to its data pages.

Data presentations, Rosen noted, can be successful because they bridge the gap between what’s available and what’s accessible in terms of information. Sure, data sets are already out there, so in focusing on them, you might not be adding new information, strictly speaking, into the communal cache of knowledge; but “packaging, framing, explanation, user-friendliness: that’s the value added.”

The Register Citizen recently posted the county schools budget on its site, its publisher, Matt DeRienzo, noted — which was, the board agreed, a good first step in the data direction. The paper could try similar experiments, they suggested with any number of similar data sets, from the already-accessible to the need-to-be-FOIAed. Ultimately, “become the Big Data place,” Jarvis advised.

The benefit of hedged experimentation:

One of JRC’s chief infrastructural advantages — one shared, in various ways, by other media companies — is that it holds several different properties under its auspices. In other words, it has an entire chain of newspapers that it can experiment with, testing everything from those news-innovation-y tenets to more notional what-ifs. If Journal Register, as a whole, wants to figure out the best way to run comments, the Register Citizen could implement Facebook Comments, say, while the New Haven Register could experiment with a HuffPo-style community moderation approach, while the Troy Record could see what happens if comments are turned on for one type of story and disabled for another. For the company overall, risk can be essentially mitigated through experimental diversification — and, on the other hand, the lessons learned from the experiments can be applied company-wide. And, in that way, amplified.

The commenting conundrum

The board’s discussion — as happens a lot — spent a lot of time focused on the ideal way to run comments systems. How do you reward helpful participation while punishing — or, at least, discouraging — trolls and other conversation-killers? “Every community is going to have bozos,” Jarvis noted. “The Internet’s just a community; so it’s going to have bozos.”

A more productive approach than one focused on troll-fighting, the board suggested, might be to focus instead on rewarding good behavior — the Gawker/HuffPo approach that empowers community members to elevate the good comments and demote the bad. Utlimately, though, no one’s “figured out” how to do comments; and that’s partially because each community is different when it comes to the kinds of conversations it wants to conduct and convene online.

What the board — and, from the sounds of things, community members — did agree on, though, was that it’s a good idea to expand the notion of comments beyond the-things-that-follow-a-story. Reframing commentary from the reactive to the more productive — instead of “What did you think of this story?” something like, “How should we write this story?” — could be a useful exercise not only in terms of conversation, but also of engagement and transparency. And, of course, it could keep improving the overall quality of the journalism. “I’m going to be honest — it used to be a joke,” Melanie Macmillan, a reader who’d come to the meeting, noted of the Register Citizen. But now, with the strides it’s making toward openness and involvement, “it’s something I’m proud of.”

March 15 2011

15:49

Social media: cutting both ways since the 1990s

Originally posted at my own blog.

Social media -- those avenues to send instant, short, widely-distributed messages and images -- cuts both ways:

  • It can be used to organize protesters, but it can also be used to identify protesters and arrest them.
  • It can be used to spread information, but it can also be used to spread MISinformation.
  • You can use it to promote your organization and cause, and others can use it to tear down your organization.

And it's been used to organize protests since the 1990s - so can we stop now with how "new" it all is?

Back in 2001, while working for UNDP/UNV, I researched how handheld computer technologies were being used, or could be used, in community service / volunteering / advocacy. It wasn't called "social media" or "micro volunteering" back then, but even without the snazzy jargon, I knew something very exciting was going on, something that was changing the way communities are engaged and mobilized. Among the discoveries in my research was that grassroots advocates had used handheld computer or phone devices to help organize and direct protesters during the 1999 Seattle demonstrations against the World Trade Organization, and that in 2001, protesters in the Philippines used cell-phone text messaging to mobilize demonstrators to help oust President Joseph Estrada. In addition, in China, also in 2001, tens of thousands of followers of the spiritual group Falun Gong continued to exist-despite a harsh crackdown-in a vibrant community fed by the Web and encrypted text messaging. I created a web page just on the subject of using text messaging for advocacy - but I was not the first to do so, as you will see on the page.

I also noted in that page that hand held technology can lead to widespread misinformation as well: "Musician and U.S.A. Green Party activist Jello Biafra noted in an article on Zdnet.Uk: 'Be careful of the information gossip you get on the Internet, too. For example, late in 1997 I discovered out on the Internet that I was dead.'"

We're not hearing enough about how effective Web 2.0 tools are in promoting misinformation and negative speech. For instance, micro-blogs, tweets, texts and other technology spread misinformation about and within Haiti, as well as other disaster zones (it will be interesting to see what misinformation gets spread in Japan). During the swine flu panic in the USA a while back, we saw Twitter's power to misinform, and rumors still affect polio eradication campaigns. So-called "new" media has helped spread misinformation to derail government health initiatives here in the USA rapidly and efficiently.

It's not just the misinformation that's a problem in trying to use social media to mobilize community activists and educate the public: in an interview with Radio Free Europe, Evgeny Morozov, author of The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, noted that internal security agencies welcome the use of new- and social-media tools. “The reason why the KGB wants you to join Facebook is because it allows them to learn more about you from afar,” he said. “It allows them to identify certain social graphs and social connections between activists. Many of these relationships are now self-disclosed by activists by joining various groups.” Al Jazeera profiled cases in Azerbaijan, Tunisia and Moroccans where the government or those opposed to any change in government were, indeed, using Facebook accounts to anticipate protests and easily monitor and arrest protesters.

And then there's social media, like YouTube and blogs, being used by GOTCHA media advocates, as I blogged about yesterday: there could be just one person in your community with a video camera and a dream of humiliating your organization right out of existence, and social media makes that easier than ever to do.

Don't roll out the comments saying I'm anti-social media. Don't start pulling your hair and gnashing your teeth, chanting, "Jayne hates Web 2.0!" I love the Interwebs. But it's long-overdue for a reality check on all these "Twitter revolutions." Yes, there are lessons to be learned - but we're not focusing on the right lessons. Back in 2001, the Ruckus Society featured Longwire's Communications Manual for Activists on its web site, and included tips for using various hand held devices and avenues-two-way radios, CB radios, cell phones, pagers, satellite communications and more in community organizing. Those lessons from a decade ago could teach current activists a lot about using social media tools effectively.

March 04 2011

17:25

World TV Revamps Site to Entice a Younger Audience

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How can public media spur multi-platform engagement through a national TV channel? That's the challenge that was posed to the team developing WorldCompass.org, the companion website for the World TV channel, a news and documentary channel now available in parts of 32 states.

The World channel, originally called PBS World, was piloted in 2007 in the northeast U.S., putting PBS programs (mostly documentaries) that were still in rights on a 24-hour channel. The channel went national in 2007. In 2009, WGBH instigated an effort to turn the channel into a multimedia project that invited new voices to public media. (To date, the World channel has not conducted national ratings, although a plan to obtain national numbers is in the works.)

Funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the World channel is the result of a collaborative partnership. The channel is produced and distributed by WGBH Boston, WNET New York and American Public Television in association with PBS and the National Educational Telecommunications Association, which is more commonly known as NETA.

The website has a slightly different makeup of partners. WorldCompass.org is managed by WGBH, with American Public Television overseeing marketing and managing relationships with stations. The site has also pulled together a team of informal advisors from across the system to offer feedback on a multi-platform strategy.

New Media Mission

Part of World's mission is "to create a new model of content creation and delivery for public media 2.0, one that exemplifies diversity, digital media and dialogue." WorldCompass.org builds upon the broadcast offerings by offering its own curated content, blogs, and social media features.

Despite facing many of the common public broadcasting challenges -- most importantly, a small staff and a wanting budget -- WorldCompass.org has made clear strides since the beta launch and the staff is optimistic for the future. A revamped version of the site just launched in response to lessons learned through the initial beta site, which had been in operation since July 1, 2010. Expanded features include more integrated social media tools and organized menu items that help to reinforce the relationship between broadcast and online platforms. The updated site hopes to take advantage of new tools to engage with "hip" 30- to 45-year-olds and capture the elusive 18- to 34-year-old demographic.

"Currently, a majority of our viewers are your usual PBS demo of 50- to 60-year-olds," said Matey Odonkor, WorldCompass.org's manager of online communications. "Not that this is a bad thing."

Still, World TV has a different mission and audience in mind. "We want to offer age-relevant programming to young adults who grew up watching PBS programs with their parents but stopped watching," said Odonokor.

Cross-Platform Integration

Like the World channel, WorldCompass.org aggregates content around monthly themes (The Skin You're In, Diaspora, etc.), including audio documentaries, feature length films, video blogs, television episodes, and other media. The monthly themes highlight connections among a wide range of stories -- both big and small, and objective and subjective.

This month's theme is Land, and content includes a selection of audio (like this State of the Re:Union broadcast on Greenburg, Kansas) and video features (like this American Experience episode featuring the Civilian Conservation Corps), plus a request for users' own stories about their experiences with land. There are currently no responses for this request, although it's still early in the month. However, February's request for users' own childhood stories only garnered one user response during that month.

"The fun part," said managing editor Kavita Pillay, "has been connecting with emerging voices in public media -- people like Glynn Washington, Hari Kondabolu and Zadi Diaz."

Hari Kondabolu is an up-and-coming comic, who recently starred in a "Comedy Central Presents" special. His videoblogging for WorldCompass is more intimate and personal than his stand-up but no less funny. Here's a contribution he made to the Diaspora series:

'Thematic Evolution'

"The hope is to give the user/viewer an 'I never thought of it that way' moment as they go through a theme," Pillay said.

Currently, the topics are chosen by WorldCompass.org's staff and advisors. But, said Pillay, "at some point, we're considering a 'thematic evolution,' meaning that we'll retain the creative approach to themes but maybe present them in a different way or on a different calendar. And we'd love to start taking theme suggestions from users!"

Integration between the website and the channel has increased with the relaunch. Streamlined menu options include TV schedules and "Where to Watch" options. The site also now includes video previews and written summaries for films and programs airing on the World channel. WorldCompass.org producers are looking to increase this type of cross-platform promotion by highlighting broadcast content through more live chats, excerpts, deleted scenes and online exclusives.

On the broadcast side, the World channel runs regular interstitials sending viewers to the website for engagement activities and online extras. And, added Odonkor, "The presence of World's crop of talented and funny videobloggers on TV and the website helps to tie the two platforms together."

Increasing Engagement

WorldCompass.org pairs content pieces with crowdsourcing activities. Such "Call-to-action items" include polls, quizzes, trivia, weekend assignments, and live votes. These often link users to WorldCompass's Facebook page or a partner website. For example, this Faces of America video includes a poll item about Henry Louis Gates' lineage. To find the correct answer, users are directed to an ABC News story.

In addition to its Facebook fan page, which currently has 285 fans, WorldCompass has integrated social media with a Twitter account (96 followers), and a YouTube channel (44 subscribers). While these numbers are small, the staff is experimenting with ways to increase them.

"When we can, we try to be creative with our use of social media -- for example, we organize Facebook live chats [with] viewers and producers," Odonkor said. "For what we do online, curating shorts, it's important we provide extras to engage users and invariably increase time spent on the site or the Facebook page."

WorldCompass.org also employs social media to promote partners' work. For example, the organization teamed up with the National Black Programming Consortium to promote Season 3 of the AfroPop Series that is airing on World TV.

Looking Ahead

So far WorldCompass.org's focus has been on introducing more appealing content -- and engaging users with it -- rather than convening citizens around particular issues or problems. The tone mirrors other productions and channels aimed at this smart, mobile, multi-ethnic demographic, such as Current TV or IFC. It may be too early to tell how well this approach is working, or whether the site has succeeded in attracting viewers who don't already watch the channel. PBS has long been attempting to court a younger, hipper demographic with less than stellar results.

Stay tuned for additional videobloggers joining the team over the next few months. In addition, WorldCompass.org is about to increase its original content in the near future, using a combination of licensing, commissioning, and crowdsourcing.

"The site and the channel are works in progress," said Pillay. "We know that there's a wonderful opportunity for us to find new ways to bring together content from users and emerging producers as well as from established folks."

Katie Donnelly is Associate Research Director at the Center for Social Media at American University where she blogs about the future of public media.

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February 02 2011

21:00

“Serendipity and surprise”: How will engagement work for The Daily?

All of us here at the Lab watched the unveiling of The Daily (even those of us who are on a beach sipping umbrella drinks).

But there was something that News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch said that seems significant now that the genie is out of the bottle. He said this about today’s readers:

“They expect content tailored to their specific interest to be available any time, anywhere. Too often this means that news is restricted, only to interest that have been predefined. What we are losing today are the opportunities for true news discovery. The magic of newspapers and great blogs lies in their serendipity and surprise, and the deft touch of a good editor.”

There’s a lot to unpack in that statement, but what is interesting to me is how it jibes with what we are learning about how engagement will work on The Daily — specifically how they plan to use comments and social media, and to access the greater Internet.

The Daily deserves credit for making strides to meet expectations of social functionality we see on news sites: You can share stories with your friends via email, Twitter and Facebook, and you can leave comments within the app. (Something we’re particularly interested in here at The Lab is audio comments. Seems to open up all kinds of questions — for example, what do trolls sound like? And can the comments be turned into more content, a comments podcast, perhaps? But I digress.)

Similar to The Washington Post iPad app, The Daily will be able to deploy Twitter feeds in stories or other features. Further, editor Jesse Angelo said today, they plan on linking out and pulling in HTML5 content as needed.

As Jon Miller, the News Corp. digital chief presenting The Daily, said, “The Daily is not an island. It definitely will be a part of the entire web discourse and the social world.”

The Daily seems to fit that description, but I can’t help but wonder: Can you really link to stories from The Daily? In the questions following the demo, Miller and Angelo gave the impression that access to The Daily from the greater web would be, well, tricky, to say the least. Stories shared from the app would be free (meaning if I send you a link from The Daily, you can see it). But direct from the homepage, apparently: not. (This seems similar to the balance the NYT has struck between walled garden and open web: side-door entry, through blogs and social media, leads to the same thing as front-door. But it’s the front door where you’ll be asked to pay for admission.) Angelo gave the impression that select content from the app would be mirrored online, but not the whole publication — or even the whole piece of content.

For The Daily to succeed, of course, it’ll need subscribers. But does that mean its Twitter feed, Facebook page, and blog will be used to engage readers — or simply as a promotion device?

So the question then becomes: How will the “serendipity and surprise” that Murdoch talked about actually work?

In a way, it would seem that The Daily wants to incorporate the web from inside the app, but not from outside it, taking it a step further than the “walled garden” approach we’ve seen in some apps. The app (if you’ll allow a Minnesotan transgression) reminds me of the Chaska Community Center, an indoor, one-stop destination that includes (deep breath) a soccer/multipurpose field, hockey rink, two gymnasiums, workout facilities, a movie theater, and swimming pool complete with a water slide several stories high. In other words, a lot of shiny, cool stuff that you can use all under one roof.

As an iPad-only newspaper, The Daily is clearly betting on people spending a lot of time on the device, and in some ways that seems to harken back to the glory days of subscribers reading every section of the paper. It wants to move away from the “drive-by” audience, instead rewarding subscribers for their loyalty.

Reader engagement, at least as we’ve come to think of it, requires an open and two-way exchange, one that can benefit publishers by potentially creating a stronger connection with readers while putting their content in front of more eyeballs. As best as I can tell, story sharing and linking will have to come primarily from subscribers out to others, which would create limited opportunities for those “I didn’t know I needed that before now” moments of serendipity. Murdoch noted, during the launch, the benefits of “true opportunities for news discovery.” Whether The Daily will be able to create those, though, remains to be seen.

January 21 2011

05:54

“There’s a lot of pressure to play for the short term”: The Bay Citizen’s editor on its $15 million future


Seven months into its bid to reinvent the metro newspaper, The Bay Citizen has hired a staff of 26, rolled out daily online news and culture coverage, and, during November, attracted a monthly audience of approximately 200,000 unique visitors. Yesterday, the San Francisco-based nonprofit announced that it’s so far raised a total of $15 million in philanthropic gifts.

I interviewed editor-in-chief Jonathan Weber in The Bay Citizen’s downtown San Francisco office, and later by e-mail and over the phone, to find out what he’s learned from the site’s first half-year of operation — editorially and financially. This is the second post in a two-part series.

The double-edged sword of a New York Times partnership

One question I brought to the interview was why, given a blank slate, generous funding, and the resources of a tech capital, The Bay Citizen had created a largely conventional news website. The Bay Citizen produces two pages of content twice a week for the local edition of The New York Times — and it turns out that partnering with a leading print paper can be a double-edged sword for an online news startup.

“The partnership, I think, has tended to push us in a little bit more traditional direction than we might have gone otherwise,” Weber told me. “There’s definitely an issue of orientation. If you’re thinking about something as a New York Times story, you think about it differently than if it’s just going to run on baycitizen.org. I think it’s made the coverage feel a little bit more traditional in its approach.” Were it not for the partnership, quite possibly, “we would be further along in developing the kind of voice and style of our own kind of journalism.”

The pull of producing New York Times journalism has also meant, to an extent, less focus on innovation. While the site has a great tech team, Weber noted, they have yet to take advantage of potential tech and design collaborations in the Bay Area — including nearby companies like Twitter, Fwix, and Stamen Design, which won a Knight News Challenge grant to create an open-source data visualization tool.

Not that Weber’s complaining. “The flip side of it: The Times relationship has given us tremendous credibility and clout out of the gate, which we never would have had otherwise, and it also gives us a lot of distribution: 65,000 papers twice as week, plus the traffic from www.nytimes.com. That’s a non-trivial thing, and it’s very clearly a worthwhile trade-off for us, even though it does make life more complicated.”

That NYT credibility was also, Weber noted, a factor in The Bay Citizen’s ability to raise money — again, that extra $10 million — in philanthropic gifts. (The business experience of CEO Lisa Frazier, a former management consultant at McKinsey, clearly didn’t hurt, either.)

Doubling down on data journalism

The Bay Citizen has a 26-person-staff, 18 of them (including Weber) editorial employees. It also has a four-person tech team, including CTO Brian Kelly. One of his major areas of focus moving forward, Weber said, is data journalism, with data apps both large and small — including those that build off San Francisco’s DataSF.org. The Bay Citizen currently has two job postings related to data journalism: Software Engineer for News Applications and Data Researcher for Interactive News. The outlet has an iPhone app in the works and an iPad app on the way later this year.

Another big push will be to build community on multiple fronts, Weber noted. Right now, when readers send a tip/suggest a story, they get a generic message notifying them that their tip has been passed on. Ideally, he said, these tips will be the start of a back-and-forth conversation.

Weber also wants to follow the lead of TBD in building a strong dialogue with readers over Twitter and crowdsourcing breaking news. The Bay Citizen’s community efforts will, true to its name, include recruiting more citizen bloggers — and providing better prompts to help them frame their contributions. The outlet also has plans for a dozen events in which community editor Queena Kim will bring volunteers together to do multimedia explorations of particular topics. (One of the first experiments in this collaborative citizen journalism was A Night at the Opera, in which Kim convened a group of volunteer reporters and a photographer to do minute-by-minute backstage coverage of a performance of Aida.)

What not to do: “engage” before you have a community

When I asked Weber to look back over the first months of The Bay Citizen’s operation and say what he would do differently, he had an immediate answer: It had been a waste, he said, to put too much initial energy into community engagement. “You have to build audience first before you can really understand how to engage that community,” he noted. The Bay Citizen’s staff, right out of the gate, offered a discussion forum — but “it wasn’t very robust.”

And that was largely because the site hadn’t yet convened a community of people to do the discussing. “We’ve spent a lot of time talking about comments, and how to manage comments and encourage comments and whether to feed Facebook comments into the site,” he said. But “those are things that are really related to the scale and reach of the product, and you can’t really do much until you’ve really got that community.”

A new rhythm for news

Unlike most large online news sites, The Bay Citizen is only partially tethered to a print publication, which gives it more potential flexibility in how it approaches public-interest reporting. Had Weber considered ditching the daily news cycle and charting a different kind of journalistic course?

In a word: no. “You basically have to be daily,” he said. “Other rhythms just don’t really work very well online,” largely because “people are looking for news from a news site.” In terms of using The Bay Citizen’s site to provide backgrounders on certain topics — an idea that comes from the discussion about future-of-context journalism — Weber was skeptical about how much context users would want on a news site.

“We do have topic pages,” he said. “We haven’t done a very good job of highlighting and calling out those pages, and depending on the circumstances, we can put more or less effort into customizing those pages.”

Then again: “We’re not Wikipedia. You don’t really go [to a topic page] for a backgrounder, you go there for a story.”

Wide-angle thinking

“Our goal is not to replace the Chronicle,” Weber noted. “I think it’s healthy for communities of all sizes to have multiple, large-scale journalistic enterprises (which actually was the norm until fairly recently).” The CEO of REI once told him that their biggest competitor wasn’t another sporting goods company, but the video game companies, and Weber thinks about local journalism the same way. “The question is not whether we’re going to compete well or not well with the Chronicle, the challenge is: are we going to be able to engage people in news as opposed to all the other things — playing FarmVille or reading TMZ or making stupid videos for YouTube.”

“Despite what people might assume, a lot of people do not have an intrinsic interest in local news,” he said. “It takes time. Media is a very habit-driven thing. People do today what they did yesterday. People have been predicting the death of newspapers for 20 years — and while, certainly, newspapers have a lot of problems, they’re not dead yet, and they’re not going to be dead in the near future. And the reason for that is people have been reading newspapers every day for 20 years — and they like that, and they don’t want to read the news on the Internet just because it’s more efficient.”

As far as news outlets go, “there’s a lot of pressure to play for the short term,” Weber noted. Just as there’s a lot of pressure to experiment — which can be hugely beneficial, but detrimental if it’s done chaotically. “‘Let’s try it and see if it works’ — anything you try on the first day is not really going to work,” he said. You have to get to know your community just as they have to get to know you. And, most importantly, “you need to have a long-term view.”

January 13 2011

19:30

National Post rolls out digital “welcome mats”

On Monday, Canada’s National Post published an article about a local school instituting a ban on gay-straight alliance groups. It’s a good local story with broad cultural relevance, and, not surprisingly, it got linked on the web-curiosities aggregator Fark. Which led to a sudden surge in traffic to the story on the Post’s site.

The Post uses the real-time analytics tool Chartbeat — an addiction for many a digital newsie — and so noticed both the spike and its source. So its web production team updated the school story to include a specialized greeting to the new visitors (“Welcome, Fark readers!”), as well as some hand-curated links that it figured might interest members of the Fark community.

“We’re trying to make things just a little more relevant — a little more meaningful — to you in every way we can,” Chris Boutet, the senior producer for digital media at the Post, told me. The paper’s been experimenting with what it calls “welcome mats” since the summer, doing similar experiments with “Westerners vs. the world: We’re the Weird ones” and “Garbage truck cameras give new meaning to trash TV” (“Welcome, Drudge Report readers”);
A Tale of Two Ghettos” (“Welcome, Reddit readers”); and “Margaret Atwood Thinks the Moon Landing Was Fake — Or Does She?” and “When is twins too many?” (“Welcome, Fark readers”).

The Post isn’t the only outlet to experiment with the welcome mat idea. The Wall Street Journal, when it realized that an old story ranked first on a Google search for “Verizon iPhone,” tried something similar, as well. So have we here at the Lab. (If you know of any others, we’d love to hear about them in the comments.)

The mats take a few minutes to put together, Boutet says, and the return isn’t just a matter of more traffic — although that’s certainly part of it. (With the school story, “the clickthrough was just okay,” he notes. “It wasn’t huge, but it certainly was more through traffic than we would have seen if we hadn’t had that there. It always is.”) The bigger idea is brand identity. “We basically have two kinds of readers that visit the site: native readers and nomadic readers. Natives come to you because you’re you; nomadic readers are coming in from other communities or search traffic.” Welcome mats are an attempt to do what every news organization hopes to: to convert some of the nomads into natives. “We’re just trying to get them that little bit deeper into the site,” Boutet notes, and “to get them to develop some opinion or feeling about what the National Post is. And maybe next time, they’ll come back here natively.”

We often talk about the web’s effect on narrative, how its new grammars are changing the way we write and connect and even think. What we talk less about, though, is the web’s effect on the structures narratives operate within: assumptions about what constitutes relevance itself. “Archive,” we assume, is an analog concept. But there’s no need for it to be. There’s nothing to say that older stories can’t find new relevance in a networked environment — or that stories’ structures can’t leverage analytics in the same way that their narratives do. Welcome mats are one way to do that. (For Wordpress users, there’s even a handy plugin, WP Greet Box, that can generate those mats automatically.) Another might be, for example, to add specific social media buttons to stories when they’re seen by users who’ve reached the site from them. (Someone who came to a site from StumbleUpon might see StumbleUpon buttons on the site’s pages, for instance. A Digg visitor would see Digg buttons.)

Real-time analytics — in fact, the plethora of new metrics available for news organizations to learn and otherwise benefit from — mean that outlets have a fantastic new way to relate to their users and, of course, their products. Stories on news sites, Boutet notes, can feel very static. “We fire and forget, and they read it, and no one ever looks at it again.” But welcome mats, and similar real-time updates, can be small gestures of dynamism. “What we want to do is make people aware, in a subtle way, that this is all part of the communication between the reader and the editors of a site. We’re watching you watching us.”

December 06 2010

15:00

“An art brand”: Gawker Artists looks at the image beyond the display ad

Five years ago, Chris Batty, until this week Gawker’s vice president of sales and marketing, was looking to fill un-purchased ad space on the site. He wanted to forgo the “horrendous creative” of ad networks that litter sites with penny stocks and would keep his sales teams pushing buttons instead of building relationships. Batty sought something prettier, more intimate, more unique for the company’s growing real estate. At the time, he was living with a woman who worked for Christie’s art house, and he prodded her to find artists to fill the empty space. She didn’t act on Batty’s inspiration, but he did — bringing images of artists’ work to stand alongside Gawker’s blog posts.

The result was a workaround that gave Gawker full control over its pages’ aesthetics. Born as a stopgap to complement blog posts, Gawker Artists is now taking on an unexpected life of its own — it became a standalone site in 2006 — in large part by thinking of art not merely as a pretty placeholder for text but as something that could survive on its own. Something that could be modeled and monetized. “Gawker Artists is an art brand rather than an editorial brand,” Gawker Media’s director of marketing, Erin Pettigrew, points out. That’s a major distinction in an industry that uses the word “art” as shorthand for photos, infographics, cartoons, and any other visual.

G.A. curators — working with more than 1,400 artists with 35,000 images — tailor and export work to media partners like Elle, Curbed, and The Atlantic. They hang pieces at Gawker’s notoriously bit-focused office, and are in talks to curate work for the headquarters of another high-profile startup. G.A. organizes sponsored exhibitions and events and collaborates with brands on creative projects. Soon, it will launch an art shop that sells limited-edition prints.

It’s an experiment that suggests the power of looking beyond text in journalism’s business models. As Ivan Askwith, director of strategy at Big Spaceship and a founding member of MIT’s Convergence Culture Consortium, puts it: “Let go of the idea that content needs to be created in a certain medium.”

“A good karma project” is a good business proposition

In hindsight, Batty says he would have found a simpler solution for the ad space. Networks are more versatile now, and Gawker can collapse un-purchased space, folding the pixels away and making them disappear. That would have been a shame, though, for Jonathan Fasulo, a photographer who shows on artists.gawker.com. A company that builds websites for photogs found Fasulo there, liked his work, and is giving him a free site for two years. Berlin-based Winston Torr started exhibiting on G.A. earlier in 2010 — and within a week of signing on, his Facebook fan page jumped from 175 to 275 followers. That was followed up with a phone call from the curator of a new Berlin gallery, who wants Torr for a show.

Gawker doesn’t represent artists, but it provides free profiles and exposure. “We both want to communicate with as big an audience as possible,” says Liz Dimmitt, drawing a comparison between artists and journalism companies. Liz and her 24-year-old sister, Genevieve, curate Gawker Artists, visiting studios and taking submissions.

Right now, G.A. is a corporate art program: It’s not charged with generating revenue, producing traffic, or breaking news. The site is an endearingly calm space among Gawker’s tumultuous, often cheeky media properties. “We are sort of a good karma project,” says Liz, who interned with JP Morgan Chase’s corporate art program seven years ago and joined G.A. in 2006. Genevieve, fresh out of Savannah College of Art and Design, says, “I didn’t really know what Gawker was,” but adds that it’s “kind of genius for them to be placing art in their ad space.”

That genius is not just about G.A.’s use of ad space; it’s also about their construction of an entirely new community (in this case, artists) that builds an entirely new resource (in this case, art) that is entirely monetizable: exhibits, art-based events, prints, etc. Some of the most promising media organizations are bringing their business models offline: Mashable inaugurated Social Media Day; Vice invited its merry band of hipsters to watch Eastbound and Down; the Economist holds business summits; Vogue brings out the fashionistas; GQ opened a restaurant division; Wired pops up its SoHo store; Tyler Brule’s traveling journalism operation, Monocle, has an office that publishes in the back and sells products in the front. What makes G.A.’s model work is that they move offline by harnessing community-generated content online.

Gawker Media (and Art House)

Since Gawker differentiates between a Torr painting and, say, a picture of Putin, the company can use each resources in different ways. One way they do that is to spread their new resources to visually-based websites. Each month, the Dimmitt sisters cycle new content through Gawker Media properties, and G.A. offers to share the code with anyone who wants it (simply fill out a form with preferred display sizes). More than 200 sites — many of them those of Gawker Artists — feature Gawker’s art on their blogs and Flickr and Etsy profiles. Digital Americana, a literary and culture mag made strictly for the iPad, exhibits Gawker Artists as a footer banner on its site.

For bigger journalism outfits (like Curbed, Elle, and The Atlantic), the Dimmitts hand-curate. Curbed, a real estate-focused network, features art from thematically-related artists in the top-right corner of its site and as banner ads to break up blog posts. General Manager Josh Albertson trusts the Dimmitts to pick images that fit, and if you check out Curbed, there’s a pleasant mix of architectural work co-branded as the “Gawker Artists Curbed collection.” Even though Albertson looks forward to the day when Gawker Artists content is replaced by paying clients, “we’d rather be running this than 25-cent weight-loss CPM ads,” he says. Gawker curates these collections for free, but along the way, they’re building their second brand — and curators are getting to know their community for the time when bigger projects come along.

Gawker Artists also brings a three-dimensional sensibility to Gawker Media sites. Not Avatar 3D, but events, exhibitions, community. “I think Gawker has been somewhat of a pioneer in that respect,” says Erin Smolinski, media planning manager for Diesel USA. As part of Diesel’s Be Stupid campaign earlier this year, she spent $30,000 with Gawker Media, a buy that included run-of-site banners, custom roadblocks, co-branded posts, and a contest moderated by James Frey. Click-throughs were through the roof — 3.8 percent on custom builds, almost five times the industry average — and Diesel’s first-ever online campaign garnered Gawker up to $7 CPMs.

Simultaneously, Gawker Artists was curating its NSFW (“Not Safe For Work”) show featuring artist Justine Lai’s “presidents” series (somewhat SFW). Account exec Meredith Katz told Smolinski about the event, and Diesel put $5,000 of the buy to sponsor NSFW. “I liked the way it made our plan robust,” she says. Smolinski, who partnered with Gawker for its Silent Rave — a dance party with headphones (really) — says NSFW was “a little more intimate and brave” than the rave. It made the campaign resonate more, and Diesel got to wrap party guests in a room full of branded information.

This summer, the Dimmitts helped build an event with $10,000 from smartwater, a Glaceau (Coca-Cola) brand. Artist Ryan Brennan created a multimedia installation that synchronized with music and played well against the setting sun. Infinitely more engaging than a display ad, “the event creates a lot of value, no doubt about that,” says Clotaire Rapaille, author of Culture Code. He likes the fluid nature of Gawker’s creation. “Water is only good when it is in movement. Smartwater is ‘being’ movement, being alive and being in the moment. That reinforces your brand in people’s mind.” Not bad for community-generated content. “I’m actually shocked that more people haven’t done what we’re doing,” Liz says.

Image courtesy Gawker Artists.

November 30 2010

15:00

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 23 2010

19:00

Catalysts: The Globe and Mail’s community brain trust

One of the Big Existential Questions facing journalism right now is the extent to which news organizations are just that — organizations that produce news — and the extent to which they’re also something more: engagers of the world, curators of human events, conveners of community. Should news outlets focus on news…or should they also be sponsoring conferences and creating film clubs and setting up stores and selling wine?

There’s a lot of variation in the way they answer that question, of course, but many news outlets are currently skewing toward the “community” end of the continuum, preparing for the future armed with the idea that news production is only part of their mandate — the notion that to succeed, both journalistically and financially, they’ll need to figure out ways to cultivate community out of, and around, their news content.

One particularly interesting experiment to that end — a worthwhile initiative, you might say! — is playing out in Canada, where The Globe and Mail, the country’s paper of record, has convened a community of users to help guide its engagement policies. The Globe Catalysts are a kind of external brain trust for the outlet, a community charged with helping to ensure that the paper’s path is the right one for its users.

“We wanted people to know we’re taking this seriously,” Jennifer MacMillan, the paper’s communities editor, explained of the project. And at its core, the Catalysts experiment is about demonstrating that engagement is a mutual proposition. “We wanted to make sure people felt valued.”

The paper came up with the idea over the summer, MacMillan told me — as a project that would be a part of the paper’s print and online redesign that rolled out this fall. (The idea, actually, was Mathew Ingram’s — the Lab contributor who, before he became a writer at GigaOm, was the Globe’s communities editor.) To test the waters of user interest, MacMillan and her team sent out a Catalyst invitation to the users who subscribe to The Globe and Mail’s e-newsletters (“people we knew were engaged, and who might have an interest in helping us shape where we’re going”) — a form asking for basic info like name, postal code, gender, and profession. And they got, to their shock, floods of replies in return — “several thousand,” in fact. Which was not just a surprise, but also “really encouraging,” MacMillan notes — a show of users not just expressing interest in the paper’s future, but acting on it. “A sign that they wanted to play a bigger part in the experience of the Globe.”

From there, the paper streamlined further, asking respondents to write a short explanation of their vision for the paper. Looking for a cross-section of background and location, interests and perspectives — and employing the services of the digital communications firm Sequentia Environics for help in whittling down the applications — the paper selected a group of users who are charged with helping to oversee the community elements of the paper’s content. A group of 1,000 or so users, in fact, MacMillan told me. (And, of those, about 800 accepted the offer to be Catalysts.) From there, they created a special, members-only section of the Globe and Mail site and then “just started chatting” — about the paper’s future and about the best way to cultivate community around it.

And a big part of that community is the content that it generates: the comments that flesh out a story’s life in the world beyond its text. Per MacMillan’s introduction of the Catalysts project, its members will:

— Help out commenters when they need a hand

— Help keep discussion on-topic

— Intervene when discussion becomes immoderate or personal

— Bring particularly poor behaviour to the attention of Globe staff

— Act in any manner that is representative of a community leader

— Add thoughtful posts that add background info, perspective

— Recommend/vote on comments that add insight and contribute to the discussion

It’s a broad mandate that’s along the lines of Gawker’s starred commenter system and HuffPo’s “Moderator” badge. And so far, it’s yielded good results: “We’ve had very good feedback,” MacMillan says, “and I think a big part of that is that we’re giving readers what they were looking for.” The paper’s recent series, “Canada: Our Time to Lead,” made use not only of Catalyst moderation, but also of the Catalysts’ connection to the newsroom. Globe reporters waded into the Catalyst forum, which led to conversations and new (crowd)sourcing opportunities, MacMillan notes. “We’ve never really done something quite like this before, where the contact has been so direct” — and “it was a really fruitful discussion.”

As for the comments, their volume has held fairly steady since the Catalysts started doing their thing in early October — a recent piece on Canada’s failed bid for a seat on the UN Security Council garnered over 2,000 comments — but their overall value, MacMillan says, has risen. Which is a trend we’re seeing among several of the news organizations that employ a select group of users to do their comment-moderation: investment leads to accountability leads to higher quality. (And to add a bit of incentive, the paper has made a practice of picking a particularly punchy quote from a user comment, and running that quote, via its “You said it” feature, across its homepage.)

But what’s the incentive for the Catalysts themselves? The fact that the community has a high barrier to entry, and no financial reward, begs the question: Why? Why are people willing to take time out of their presumably busy lives to participate in a project whose work isn’t compensated? Is this the cognitive surplus, playing out in our news environment?

To some extent, yes. Financial gain is by no means the only incentive for participation, of course — and there’s something inherently rewarding about seeing your ideas play out “in living color,” MacMillan notes. And togetherness — being part of something — can be its own compensation. One benefit of the Catalyst approach could simply be that it’s making its members part of a community; and in this fragmented world of ours, that alone is a value. And though the project is a work in progress, it’s been gratifying to see what can happen when put some effort into transforming your users — anonymous, atomized — into something more meaningful and productive: a community. “They’re interested in seeing where this is going,” MacMillan says — “just as we are.”

November 19 2010

17:30

Covering a crisis more like molasses than quicksand

How do you cover a crisis that is not a crisis in the way we generally think of one — sudden, frenzied, tragic — but rather a tragedy that builds, slowly, tragically, over time? From the BP oil spill to Haiti’s pre- and post-earthquake heartbreaks to the world financial crisis to the war in Afghanistan — the latest conflict to be nicknamed, with only slight hyperbole, “the forever war” — to the even more insidious crises that are wounded social and political institutions: Some of the most important stories journalists can cover are not singular stories at all, but phenomena that stretch and wind through time. And doing them justice, in every sense, requires not only attention to context and nuance and explanation, but also patience: keeping up with them, unpacking them, and finding ways to sustain reader interest in and outrage about them, over long — sometimes years-long — stretches.

So how do you do it?

In a panel discussion at MIT yesterday evening, co-sponsored by the school’s Communications Forum and its Center for Future Civic Media, four experts tackled that questions, considering, from their areas of expertise, the idea of continuity as it relates to journalistic narratives. MIT technology historian Rosalind Williams discussed theoretical approaches to history as a function of human impact; investigative reporter Abrahm Lustgarten discussed his experience covering slow-moving stories for ProPublica; and our own Andrea Pitzer, editor of our sister site, Nieman Storyboard, discussed the role that narrative itself can play in unpacking stories and sustaining consumer interest in them over time.

“Journalism itself is in the midst of a slow-moving crisis,” the panel’s moderator, MIT writing instructor and science journalist Thomas Levenson, noted by way of context for the event. The web allows not only for a new immediacy in news coverage, but also for, of course, a new democratization of it. “There is this lovely possibility here,” he said. But our new tools also necessitate rethinking what “news coverage” is in the first place — and how we think about representing crises that are fluid, rather than solid.

“Slow-moving crisis’ is a contradiction,” Williams pointed out; when it comes to what we think of as crises, “our language has not caught up with the events” it tries to describe. The intricacies of the institutions we’ve developed for ourselves lead, she said, to what another MIT historian, Leo Marx, has has called a “semantic void”: a state of affairs for which we lack language — words, concepts, frameworks — that can adequately convey import and magnitude.

The word “crisis” itself, Williams pointed out, which comes from Greek word kerein (“to separate or shear”), originally had the sense of a static event: a singular, sudden rip in the continuity of human events. It’s since evolved into something much more amorphous and, thus, hard to capture — the result in part, she said, of a changing attitude toward humans’ relationship with the wider world.

It’s a problem we’ve seen throughout the history of technology, Williams noted, the result of an evolving recognition that the world is not a constant in the great equation of human experience, but rather another variable. In the past, she said, our general concept of history was rooted in the idea that history itself “consists of deeds and words that take place on the stable stage that is the world” — and the stage itself was predictable and solid, in contrast to the frailty of the human condition. Now, though, we generally recognize the universality of movement: Our context moves with us.

What that can lead to, though, when it comes to narrative, is a kind of reductive continuity. “If the sun never sets on history, then historians are really challenged,” she said — as are, of course, journalists. When there’s no arc to maintain, no ending to know, there’s no conclusion by which to calibrate context. There’s nothing to root our narratives. “If it’s a never-ending story, then you don’t understand the world — you don’t understand human life,” Williams said.

What we can understand, though, is the present moment. So it’s incumbent on us, Williams concluded, to try to match our rhetoric to the realities of the movements of history. “The point is to join up the crisis-feeling,” she said, echoing William Empson, with the realities of lived experience.

And, for that, simple storytelling — the ancient art of weaving together characters and plots and excitement — can be crucial, Pitzer said. Narrative “is really how people understand public crisis,” she noted; “it’s how they understand public policy issues.” Study after study has suggested the power of story not just as an artistic product, but as a cognitive function. Narrative buys people’s attention, allows them to retain complex information longer, she said. It is a teaching tool as much as an aesthetic feature. Indeed, if we journalists don’t provide narratives in our work, Pitzer noted — if we don’t consciously weave disparate facts into some a recognizable arc of action — “we are in some way denying them the ability to understand.”

Lustgarten applied that idea to his own coverage of the recent BP oil spill — a series of related reports that he and his ProPublica colleagues tackled (and are still tackling) over a long stretch of time. ProPublica’s aim with its stories, he said, is to capture reader interest with “a bit of a drumbeat of communication”: “rather than have one critical climax,” the idea is to “publish again and again, in incremental bits,” to help readers “find a pathway through the clamor that’s so distracting.”

In the outlet’s BP reporting, realizing that idea “was an exercise in commitment,” he said — a challenge of setting, and then sticking to, a vision for contextual, continual coverage rather than discrete reports. There were certainly moments, Lustgarten noted, when smaller scoops threatened to distract them; “it was very difficult to stay focused on what we had decided to do,” he said. “It was very difficult to stay disciplined.”

As to the broad question of completeness — how do you define an “event” against other events? How do you know when your reporting is finished? — Lustgarten gave a nod to Williams’ dissatisfaction with our current framings. ProPublica’s unique setup allows its reporters to see stories through “until their organic conclusion,” he noted; but determining that end point is a matter of serendipity and sensibility as much as anything else. Often, the conclusion point often comes down to reporter interest, he said. There are no clear borders between story and not-story.

So it was more fitting that ironic that the panel didn’t reach a conclusion in its own discussions. How could it? It highlighted, though, an idea that any journalist can put to practice: the crucial necessity of the long-view mindset, the insistence on placing even the most seemingly isolated events into the broader context of history. Always asking, in other words, “Why does this matter?” And that may involve being selective about the this we share. As Williams put it: “Our biggest responsibility is to determine which facts are worthy of being discovered.”

November 18 2010

17:54

5 Emerging Trends That Give Hope for Public Media 2.0

CSM logo small.jpg

The Public Media 2.0 series on MediaShift is sponsored by American University's Center for Social Media (CSM) through a grant from the Ford Foundation. Learn more about CSM's research on emerging public media trends and standards at futureofpublicmedia.net.

Public media is facing the same pressures as commercial media when it comes to digital: How can they transition to a new age of social media, collaboration and audience interaction? From today until Thanksgiving, MediaShift will have a special in-depth report on Public Media 2.0, with analysis, case studies, a 5Across video roundtable and coverage of this weekend's national PubCamp in Washington, DC.

Public broadcasters have been facing intense heat this fall, from dodging flak after the Juan Williams firing to rebutting calls to defund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, to defending the diversity of their news programming. But the negative coverage often misses a deeper story -- of the transition of this sector to a more innovative and varied set of Public Media 2.0 organizations that are finding fresh ways to network with users, partners and one another.

Over the past year here in the Public MediaShift section, Center for Social Media researchers and practitioners from the field have been covering varied public media experiments -- including youth media, government transparency tools, community-level collaboration and a converged national newsroom. These explorations reveal five emerging trends that are helping to reshape and broaden the public media sector so that it can better inform and engage users.

1) Learning to COPE

Adopting a COPE strategy -- "create once, publish everywhere" -- is making public media more modular and flexible.

"I don't know about you," CPB's vice president of digital strategy Rob Bole told the audience at a FedTalks event in mid-October, "but my life is split between my home, the train, work, meetings, going back on the train, playing with my kids, paying bills, and actually trying to spend some time and converse with my wife. So, I need a public media that is built for me -- that continues to be essential, to help me navigate through troubled times, to be interesting and surprising, but built for my somewhat crazy life."

Here's a video of Bole's talk:

Bole went on to explain how public broadcasting organizations are repurposing content for distribution across multiple mobile and digital platforms to reach people where they are.

Breaking content into portable digital pieces is in turn powering other capabilities. For example, the newly redesigned PBS site offers greater visibility for local content by providing a shared platform for video exchange between stations and national producers.

In the long run, aggregating locally produced content online will increase users' access to a rich supply of diverse stories and perspectives, along with cultural and historical gems that rarely appear on commercial broadcast outlets. "There's something there for everyone," Bole said.

Similarly, public access TV centers are developing the Community Media Distribution Network, which allows for content sharing and archiving of citizen and independent productions -- an often-overlooked source of grassroots public media. If all goes as planned, both independent media and public broadcasting from previous decades will also be made available to both users and outlets through the American Archive project -- a sort of COPE-retrieval mission.

This is a complex and daunting multi-year undertaking that will involve hundreds of stations and digitization of materials across both analog and digital platforms. An analysis of the scope for the project, released in June, laid out the steps and related challenges.

2) Sharing Knowledge with Peers

pubcamp.gifRegistration now is maxed out for this weekend's second annual Public Media Camp, which the Center for Social Media is organizing with NPR, PBS and iStrategy Labs. Organized by their attendees, PubCamps are designed to help public broadcasters, tech developers and public media users share best practices and work together on community engagement projects.

Several local PubCamps have taken place at stations around the country since last October. The gatherings are proving to be valuable opportunities for trend-spotting within the field, and venues for introducing stations to national platforms, tools, and funding sources. Proposed sessions so far address tips for sustainable collaboration, previews of coming apps, such as the one from PBS' "Antiques Road Show," and suggestions for what public media makers can learn from anime fandom.

NPR senior strategist Andy Carvin, who has been central to organizing the events, said more than 300 people have registered for this weekend, representing 40 different public media organizations.

"Public media has a long tradition of public support, especially in terms of people making donations to their local station," Carvin told me. "With PubCamp, we're working with stations to develop new ways for them to engage people who want to become even more involved, donating their expertise to help strengthen the station's role in the community. I'm most excited about the fact that the majority of attendees won't be staff -- they'll be people around the country who simply care a lot about public media, and are willing to donate their time to help us in one way or another."

The PubCamps reflect a broader surge in journalism-related unconferences, such as the Media Consortium's Independent Media Mobile Hackathon, or the numerous participatory meetings hosted by Journalism That Matters. These events incubate new projects by connecting attendees first face-to-face and then through an array of social networking tools. The flow of participants across the various gatherings and platforms is bringing fresh approaches and constructive critique to a previously cloistered sector.

3) Boosting Community Engagement

Peer learning has proven to be particularly popular in the area of engagement -- a fast-growing but controversial priority for public media makers still adjusting to expectations for greater participation and interaction set by social media. Public engagement has been built into the DNA of community access centers for decades, through production training and ascertainment processes designed to figure out communities' information needs. But public broadcasting stations often feel trapped in a double bind: They are simultaneously expected to provide "balanced" news and analysis, and to actively involve users in civic issues.

To the rescue comes the CPB-funded National Center for Media Engagement (NCME), which has been hosting a series of webinars that bring producers, station staff and online innovators together to discuss engagement experiments and opportunities. Accompanied by lively sidebar chats among attendees, the webinars offer real-time snapshots of effective projects in process.

For example, one featured the Wisconsin Public Television's Vietnam veterans "welcome home" event, a multi-platform model for engaging tens of thousands of local veterans who felt alienated by their stateside reception. The project grew from veterans' strong responses to a documentary, War Stories, and now several other stations have hosted or plan to host related events. Portraits and oral histories from the veterans are available here along with transcripts, related maps, educational resources, the full documentary, excerpts from the companion book, and a digital honor roll of Wisconsin vets who died in Vietnam.

By capturing and analyzing the stories of such successful engagement projects, the NCME hopes to provide both inspiration and concrete prototypes. They offer a related guide, along with training and fundraising resources, to support public media outlets in such efforts. Staffers are actively reaching out to producers from other sectors for lessons and models; they recently announced that they'd partner with the Integrated Media Association, which is hosting a track at the next South by Southwest Interactive Festival for public media makers.

4) Building Strategic Partnerships

"Collaboration" is a rising buzzword in public media circles, but finding successful ways to match projects, capacity and strategies is not always easy. In a December MediaShift piece, Amanda Hirsch laid out some of the complexities, including getting buy-in from top managers at each partner organization, assigning staff to the collaboration project itself, and establishing formal communication channels.

"Don't assume that working together means saving time -- that's not the value proposition of collaboration," she wrote. "The value proposition is about quality."

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For these reasons, it's often easier to start with time-limited collaborations with clearly defined outcomes. In Philadelphia, such an approach will be tested via the Philadelphia Enterprise Reporting Awards. Announced in late October, the awards are supported by the William Penn Foundation and administered by J-Lab. Fourteen projects received grants of $5,000 each, designed to both support in-depth reporting projects and to explore whether it's possible to connect the "silos of journalism throughout the city." The idea is to provide more entry points to expose news consumers to public affairs content and "create a 'knowledge network' among the region's news initiatives, so they can add to, amplify, link to or broadcast news that is being created but that their niche audiences might not otherwise come across," according to the Awards site.

Public broadcasting station WHYY is involved in three of these projects -- Anatomy of a School Turnaround, in conjunction with the Philadelphia Public School Notebook; the Power Map of Philadelphia, in conjunction with the Philadelphia Daily News, Philly.com and an institute at the University of Pennsylvania; and ArtBlog Radio, in conjunction with theartblog.org. Two of the collaborations intersect with WHYY's newly launched NewsWorks project (more on that in tomorrow's piece on public broadcasting news experiments). Community media producers, including cable access station PhillyCam and media training center Scribe Video are also grantees, as well as digital citizen news projects such as Phawker.com and Metropolis.

Besides being interesting in their own right, this array of projects highlights the strengths and goals of various nodes in Philadelphia's news ecosystem, suggesting how non-commercial public media might help to fill key gaps.

5) Paying Attention to Policy

Historically, public broadcasters have lacked the resources, expertise or coordination to regularly track and intervene in the policy-making that supports them.

"The system has no long-term policy planning capacity, and therefore it always has had great difficulty dealing with the periodic efforts by outsiders to critique and 'reform' it," wrote Wick Rowland, the president of Colorado Public Television in the October 22 issue of Current. He continued:



Public broadcasting ignores most media policy research, whether it originates in academia, think tanks or federal agencies, and it often seems out of touch with major national policy deliberations until too late. That disengagement is highly dangerous because it allows others to set the national legal and regulatory agenda for communications without assuring adequate policy attention to public-service, non-commercial and educational goals. Such policy initiatives also can negatively affect the funding and operating conditions of every public licensee.

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However, two countervailing trends are now capturing the attention of both public broadcasters and the broader public media sector. On the one hand, a series of high-profile reports and agency hearings have proposed reforming public media and expanding funding as a corrective to the loss of reporting capacity across the country.

On the other hand, calls to cut or abolish public broadcasting are on the rise, both from members of the soon-to-be-Republican House and from President Obama's National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform (the commission on reducing the deficit).

Productive reform will be complex and contentious, but not impossible. As Steve Coll, the president of the New America Foundation, observed in the cover story of the current issue of Columbia Journalism Review:

The problem is that the media policies that govern us in 2010 -- a patchwork stitched from the ideas of Calvin Coolidge's Republican Party, Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, and Ronald Reagan's deregulatory wave -- have been overtaken by technological change.

From the country's founding, American media and journalism have been continually remade by technological innovation. Political pamphlets made room for industrially printed newspapers, which made room for the telegraph, which made room for radio, which made room for broadcast television, which made room for cable and satellite services, which made room for the World Wide Web, which is making room even as we read this for the Kindle, iPad, and mobile phone applications.

When such technological, industrial, and economic changes dislodge the assumptions underlying public policy, the smart response is to update and adjust policy in order to protect the public interest. And politically plausible reforms that would clearly serve the public are within reach. It is time to reboot the system.

These myriad political pressures are driving public media to a tipping point, in which the case for a new social contract with the public will either be made or will fail to convince. While the non-commercial and digital public media sector is larger than the public broadcasters, the broadcasters are the most well-funded and visible players. As Rowland suggests, it is time for them to step up, demonstrate vision, and tell their own story of the shift to Public Media 2.0.

Jessica Clark directs the Future of Public Media Project at American University's Center for Social Media, and is a Knight Media Policy Fellow at the New America Foundation.

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The Public Media 2.0 series on MediaShift is sponsored by American University's Center for Social Media (CSM) through a grant from the Ford Foundation. Learn more about CSM's research on emerging public media trends and standards at futureofpublicmedia.net.

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November 17 2010

15:00

The Magic 8 Ball of News: The Future-Jobs-O-Matic

American Public Media has built a better Magic 8 Ball. Okay, not exactly, but it’s just as fun to shake things up on the Future-Jobs-O-Matic game and find out your destiny. And better than the 8 Ball, it’ll tell you what your salary will be.

Released by the team at public radio’s Marketplace, the Future-Jobs-O-Matic is a game-ified (or maybe app-ified) way of breaking out data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Specifically they’re breaking down the Occupational Outlook Handbook, the guide released every two years by the bureau outlining the jobs and industries that are expected to grow.

The guide is already available and searchable online (or in paperback, weighing in at more than 800 pages). But the team at Marketplace figured they could make the information more accessible — and maybe even fun — for their audience.

Taking a spin on the Future Jobs-O-Matic is as easy and familiar as picking a flight on a travel website. You start with a career field, ranging from agriculture and manufacturing to transportation and professional, and narrow it down to specific occupations and ultimately your Job of The Future.

Going several steps better than a high school guidance counselor, the Future Jobs-O-Matic provides a competitive outlook — will your field grow or shrink? — the change in job numbers over a decade, and the median income for 2010.

(The outlook for reporter? “News tip: Keep your eyes open.” For an author/writer/editor? “The internet could be your best chance.” For a network administrator? “Your future is bright. Really bright.”)

I emailed Adriene Hill, a multimedia reporter working on sustainability issues at Marketplace who worked on the project. She said displaying the labor data as an interactive feature gives the audience a better way of understanding information than a more straightforward story.

“We wanted users to engage with the information — to play with it,” she wrote.

The release of the game was timed to coincide with the fall election, as jobs were expected to be a big issue. But with Marketplace’s broader economic focus, the game fits into their continuing coverage on the recession. Hill told me it took around a month to develop and package the game, and similar to most data journalism, one of the larger tasks was figuring out what information was important to the public.

Hill said the game serves a basic function of helping people consider potential jobs, but also provide perspective on the economy. The editorial goals of the game, Hill said, were to examine future jobs, identify trends causing changes, and to “show that some of these changes in the labor market are unrelated to the claims and promises of politicians.”

American Public Media has a history with news games, having previously released Consumer Consequences, which shows the impact of society’s consumption habits on the environment, and Budget Hero, where players could try their hand at spending and cutting the federal budget. Hill said news games need to go beyond just good design and user experience — they need to fulfill the standard of news. “It also needs to meet some need the audience has. In our case, we wanted something simple that would be fast to produce and look at serious, long-term trends (trends that actually are depressing in some cases) and present them in a fun way,” she wrote.

November 16 2010

15:00

NewsWorks: Back-to-the-future community news

Yesterday brought the launch of a news site with a promising tagline: “For you. With you. By you.”

The evocative motto belongs to NewsWorks, a web portal overseen by WHYY, the public radio station serving metro Philadelphia. Though it’s been built under corporate-parent oversight, the site sees itself primarily as a network, Chris Satullo, WHYY’s executive director for news and civic dialogue, told me. In addition to reporting that comes courtesy of WHYY staff, NewsWorks will both rely on content provided by its community and aim to amplify it. And, in that, it will make a point of featuring the kind of news that often gets lost in the rush of gossip-based, conflictastic stories, providing “balanced journalism that is as interested in solutions and heroes as problems and scandals.”

In other words, Satullo says, the site will be “everything you love about NPR, only on the web.”

It will also be, from the looks of things, everything you love about the web: NewsWorks is something of a proof-of-concept when it comes to the new compact the Internet allows between journalism and its users. The site will emphasize, in addition to information about politics, health, culture, and the like, neighborhood news (with an early focus on northwest Philadelphia, but with plans to expand). User-produced stuff will factor heavily into the site’s content. And conversation will be key. Indeed, NewsWorks’ vision for itself is the product of several little revolutions going on at once — and another step toward the normalization of the pro-am model of journalistic output.

Pretty much every feature of the new site aims at user engagement; for NewsWorks, all roads come from, and lead to, community. In addition to its planned reliance on user-provided content, the site is also experimenting with ways to encourage engagement — and good behavior — in online discussions. Its Sixth Square space (“William Penn designed our city with five public squares. You can build the sixth”) provides a moderated area for community discussion, bringing together six different features — and, really, concepts — into one piece of conversational real estate. Junto (so named for Ben Franklin’s storied discussion club) is a discussion area that emphasizes “civil, knowledgeable posts”; Props (“good words for good people”) invites compliments for community members; MindMap offers a self-generated profile of a user’s tastes and preferences; influences and tastes; Snarl (coming soon) will be a blog dedicated entirely to the vagaries — and frustrations — of traffic; Sleuth provides a space for people to ask questions about, and solve, “local mysteries”; and Sixes, taking a cue from Newsweek, asks users to summarize news events — in six words or less.

Though the features range on the scale from silly to serious, the common thread is their earnestness — and their commitment to community. The site offers an ideal vision of the public square as a place not only of community, but of harmony. And that’s evident in NewsWorks’ commenting system, as well. Its experimental approach to enforcing civility involves rating individual comments according to a karma system, which will ask users to rate each others’ comments according to their relevance, propriety, etc. (Karma systems have, of course, been around in various forms for years.) And from the consumer side of things, users can also customize their site settings to display, for example, only those comments with higher user ratings, bypassing the low — and thus, ostensibly, the low-quality.

Though NewsWorks, with its focus on engagement and empowerment of users, is experimenting with of-the-moment ideas about journalism, there’s also a distinctly back-to-the-future feel to all of this — a sense of return to the early days of the newspaper, and of journalism in general, as a vehicle for community discussion as much as anything else. Days in which journalism was the people who consumed it. As Satullo put it in the site’s welcome note yesterday:

We won’t be able to do any of this without you. Newsrooms aren’t the teeming masses of eager reporters they were back when I first walked into The Inquirer in 1989, as the 560th employee on the newsroom rolls.

Nor are today’s readers willing to settle for having formulaic news shoved at them, by reporters who have no time to answer questions because they’re already racing to the next bit of fluff or sensation. Rightfully, you want journalism to be a process of continuous engagement between you and those who claim to bring you the news you need.

That’s how journalism will get saved in these troubled times, by a new depth of connection between the reporter and the public.

November 09 2010

15:00

Loose ties vs. strong: Pinyadda’s platform finds that shared interests trump friendships in “social news”

There isn’t a silver bullet for monetizing digital news, but if there were, it would likely involve centralization: the creation of a single space where the frenzied aspects of our online lives — information sharing, social networking, exploration, recommendation — live together in one conveniently streamlined platform. A Boston-based startup called Pinyadda wants to be that space: to make news a pivotal element of social interaction, and vice versa. Think Facebook. Meets Twitter. Meets Foursquare. Meets Tumblr. Meets Digg.

Owned by Streetwise Media — the owner as well of BostInnovation, the Boston-based startup hub — Pinyadda launched last year with plans to be a central, social spot for gathering, customizing, and sharing news and information. The idea, at first, was to be an “ideal system of news” that would serve users in three ways:

1. it should gather information from the sites and blogs they read regularly;

2. it should mimic the experience of receiving links and comments from the people in their personal networks; and

3. it should be continually searching for information about subjects they were interested in. This pool of content could then be ranked and presented to users in a consistent, easily browsed stream.

Again, centralization. And a particular kind of centralization: a socialized version. Information doesn’t simply want to be free, the thinking went; it also wants to be social. The initial idea for Pinyadda was that leveraging the social side of the news — making it easy to share with friends; facilitating conversations with them — would also be a way to leverage the value of news. Which ties into the conventional wisdom about the distributive power of social news. In her recent NYRB review of The Social Network, Zadie Smith articulates that wisdom when it comes to Facebook’s Open Graph — a feature, she wrote, that “allows you to see everything your friends are reading, watching, eating, so that you might read and watch and eat as they do.”

What Pinyadda’s designers have discovered, though, is that “social” news doesn’t necessarily mean “shared with friends.” Instead, Pinyadda has found that extra-familiar relationships fuel news consumption and sharing in its network: Social news isn’t about the people you know so much as the people with whom you share interests.

Pinyadda’s business model was based on the idea that the social approach to news — and the personalization it relied on — would allow the platform to create a new value-capture mechanism for news. The platform itself, its product design and development lead, Austin Gardner-Smith, told me — with its built-in social networks and its capacity for recommendation and conversation — bolsters news content’s value with the experiential good that is community — since a “central point of consumption” tends to give the content being consumed worth by proximity.

The idea, in other words, was to take a holistic approach to monetization. Pinyadda aimed to take advantage of the platform’s built-in capacity for personalization — via behavioral tracking, or, less nefariously, paying attention to their individual users — to sell targeted ads against its content. “Post-intent” advertising is interest-based advertising — and thus, the thinking goes, more effective/less annoying advertising. That thinking still holds; in fact, the insight that common interests, rather than familiarity, fuels news consumption could ratifies it. As Dan Kennedy put it, writing about the startup after they presented at a Hacks/Hackers meetup this summer: “Pinyadda may be groping its way toward a just-right space between Digg (too dumb) and NewsTrust (too hard).” The question will be whether news consumers, so many of them already juggling relationships with Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr and Posterous and other such sites, can make room for another one. And the extent to which the relationships fostered in those networks — connections that are fundamentally personal — are the types that drive the social side of news.

October 29 2010

14:00

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.

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