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September 22 2010


You are what you tweet: Balancing journalism with social media

How does one balance the ethics and values of being a journalist with the demands of personality and transparency required by social media? That was the question we tackled last week at an ONA Seattle panel discussion titled “You are what you tweet.” It was run in conjunction with the #wjchat weekly series run by USC professor Robert Hernandez and held at the Seattle Times.

The key takeaway, at least from my perspective, was that journalists must jump in and get involved with social media, while bringing the values from old media to new. Kirk Lapointe, managing editor of the Vancouver Sun and author of themediamanager.com, and Nancy Leeson, food writer/blogger at The Seattle Times, offered keen observations as well. And the discussion was astutely moderated by seattletimes.com producer Tiffany Campbell.

September 17 2010


Network effects: The Houston Chronicle’s Eric Berger on newspapers and blog networks

Last week, I wrote about the Guardian’s new network of science blogs, which — in a first for the paper — is allowing its (growing) cadre of bloggers to publish directly to the Guardian’s site. The effort, though new for the Guardian, isn’t necessarily new for media organizations in general. In 2008, Eric Berger, a science reporter at the Houston Chronicle — and author of the paper’s SciGuy blog — assembled a team of scientists to contribute to a network of blogs whose topics include climate change, the environment, astronomy, and more. The goal: “to provide a neutral space for scientists and the general public to meet and speak on the issues of the day.”

The “.sphere” experiment — the blogs had titles like Atmo.sphere, Cosmo.sphere, and Evo.sphere — “had some successes and failures,” Berger noted in a later blog post. Some of the blogs fizzled; new ones were born. And one of the biggest determinants of success was, unsurprisingly, the dynamics of authorship: the people at the blogs’ helm. As the project evolved, the focus went from group contributions — several scientists, and some volunteer lay people, writing the content and guiding discussions — to blogs that are written “mostly by individuals.”

I spoke with Berger about that shift. We focused on science blogs; the lessons, though, are relevant to any news organization looking to extend its reach through tapping the talents and expertise of independent bloggers.

Personal interest leads to quality blogging

Blogging requires passion — about the subject matter and about communication itself. Dave Winer’s notion of a “natural born blogger” is instructive not just for amateur bloggers, but for those networked with professional sites, as well. ”People have to want to do it; they have to be interested in it,” Berger says. “And if they like doing it, then they’ll do it more, and they’ll do it better. Because if you’re writing about stuff that you’re interested in and enjoying what you’re doing, it’s going to come through in your writing. It’s going to show your readers that you’re engaged — and going to make them more prone to be engaged, as well.”

Conversation is key

The common conception of the scientist locked in academia’s ivory tower is one held not only by many members of the public, but by some scientists, as well. There’s an occasional tendency, Berger points out, for scientists to see themselves and their work as isolated from the rest of the world. (That’s a tendency, I’d add, that can afflict journalism, as well.) Success in blogging, though, requires getting down to solid ground. “You’ve got to have someone who wants to have a conversation with the public about topics that the public is interested in,” Berger says. And, when it comes to guiding a blog, “a big part of it is convincing the scientists that it’s worth their time not only to write blog entries, but also to interact with people in the comments.” Many scientists have no interest in that, he notes — so the trick is finding the ones who are willing to join the fray.

“You’ve got to find the right scientist” – someone who understands the public with whom they’re conversing. Scientists in particular are used to communicating with peers, Berger notes. But “it’s different with a newspaper — it’s an audience of lay people. A lot of people are looking at the website when they’re at work – and so they’re looking to amuse and to educate themselves.” A good blog network will be populated by writers who strike a balance between those two goals.

Emphasize the news hook

In addition to looking for Winer’s “natural born bloggers,” you want scientists who are able to marry the expertise of their fields with the ability to connect with the public. “Generally, it’s the people who write more to a general level” who are most successful at blogging, Berger says. “People are not going to read a blog that is primarily educational,” he notes. And “most people aren’t spending their free time on the web to get astronomy lectures, I hate to say.” Instead, in general, “people want stuff either that’s related to the news of what’s happening or that has some kind of popular hook. It’s difficult for science as a topic to compete with things like sports or religion — or politics, of course — which are some of the most popular blog subjects here and elsewhere.” To make it compete, you need writers who are able to refashion science from a niche topic into one of general interest — by moderating content and by writing with, for lack of a better word, flair.

Good source = good blogger

Since communication is so important to the blogging equation (see point one), experts who make good sources might also make good bloggers, Berger notes. “If I’ve interviewed someone in the past, and they’ve been really helpful, or have explained things in a good way, or been willing to return calls quickly, then that person would be a good candidate – or at least someone to suggest” as a blogger, Berger says. Often, he points out, the PR people at universities have a good sense of their faculty’s comfort with external communication; they can be a great resource in finding academics who’d have both the interest and the ability to become good bloggers.

Don’t try to control (too much)

A good blog network, Berger says, depends in large part on a willingness to experiment — not only on the part of the bloggers themselves, but of the network leaders, as well. Perhaps the primary principle is trial-and-error. “I had some hits and I had some misses,” he notes of his two years of network-ing, but by being open to trying out different bloggers and formats and content areas, the network is also open to unexpected successes.

“You kind of have to let people do what they do, when they can,” Berger says. “Different people are going to write different things. Some people are doing it because they want to write, and they’re interested in saying their piece on things; other people are interested in educating. You just kind of let people do what’s to their strength.”

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July 07 2010


Cross-Newsroom Collaboration: The New Reality

By Jake Batsell

When I landed my first full-time reporting gig at The Seattle Times in the 1990s, the Times was still an afternoon paper. A big part of my entry-level GA job was chasing stories that already had appeared in the competition, the morning Post-Intelligencer. Many of my mornings began with an uneasy scan of the P-I, followed by waking up sources with pre-dawn phone calls and hitting the pavement to confirm details the P-I already had.

While I had plenty of friends from the cross-town rival and respected its journalists, as a whole I considered the P-I to be my personal nemesis. If I caught a glimpse of its rotating globe while walking around my neighborhood, I would sometimes reach out and pretend to crush it as I clenched my fist. And whenever I scooped the P-I, it brought a special spring to my step.

Thriving on competition, of course, was part of the fun in a two-newspaper town. And while those storied days are over in most cities, the cutthroat instinct still necessarily prevails in newsrooms paddling to survive in an ever-rising sea of news providers.

But over the course of the past nine months, as I charted the early days of The Texas Tribune for Columbia Journalism Review, I became a believer in cross-newsroom collaboration.

The Tribune, a nonprofit news startup, launched in November with an initial fundraising haul of about $4 million. It freely offers its content to any news outlet that cares to run it, and more than 250 websites and publications have pounced on the offer.

The state’s largest newspapers, however, have been slow to warm to the Tribune, even at a time when shrinking resources are forcing competing papers to share coverage. As I explain in the CJR story, The Dallas Morning News and Austin American-Statesman initially resisted publishing Tribune stories – partly, I suspect, out of pride, but also because editors felt the Tribune’s early content fell short of must-read status.

That perception began to change last month, when the Houston Chronicle teamed with the Tribune on a joint investigation revealing that disabled girls were pitted against each other in a “fight club” at a state-contracted facility. The Statesman and Morning News ran the story in their Sunday print editions, and both papers’ editors have since told me they can envision joining forces with the Tribune down the road. On certain hard-to-get stories, “two news organizations are certainly better than one in pursuing the truth,” said Chronicle editor Jeff Cohen. “We each bring passionate, enterprising reporters to a subject, and the beneficiaries are the voiceless of Texas.”

Robert Rivard, editor of the San Antonio Express-News, needs no convincing. He sent the Tribune a check as a founding member last summer and recently told me he hopes to team with the site in time for the November elections and January legislative session. “From the very beginning, I saw them as a partner and not as a competitive threat,” Rivard said. “We haven’t realized the potential of that collaboration yet … Some of the very best journalism being done out in the country these days is being done on a new model. It’s a model that we should embrace.”

As Rivard notes, Pulitzer jurors sent the news industry a clear message in April when awarding a prize to a masterful team project by ProPublica and the New York Times Magazine. California Watch has had notable early success collaborating with the state’s newspapers, and dot-org pioneer Voice of San Diego partners with the local NBC affiliate on a fact-check feature.

National Public Radio is getting in the act, too. “To increase our impact we at NPR have had to learn to get over ourselves, and to approach collaborations in a new way,” CEO Vivian Schiller told journalists at the IRE conference last month. (Also see: NPR CEO: We want to partner with journalism startups.) And the Seattle Times is among five news organizations joining forces with hyperlocal sites as part of J-Lab’s Networked Journalism Project.

During this new era of collaboration, news outlets also are partnering with universities – the New York Times and New York University are launching a local blog covering the East Village, and the Cronkite News Service at Arizona State University distributes student work all over the state. The student news site I advise at Southern Methodist University shares content with Pegasus News and the Morning News, and we’re talking with the independent student paper about combining operations.

I’m not sure what the business model of the future is, but having competing journalists duplicate each other’s coverage isn’t part of it. Yes, competition can be a motivating force, but teaming up to produce good journalism is an even better incentive.

Jake Batsell is an assistant professor in journalism at Southern Methodist University and faculty adviser to the Daily Mustang. You can read more from Jake on his blog and follow him on Twitter at @jbatsell.

April 08 2010


Journalism’s Next Generation: Working with Millennials

By Jake Batsell

Landing a plum newsroom job straight out of college has never been an easy feat. But this year’s journalism graduates face a double-barreled challenge: an unusually stingy job market and a growing perception that their generation has a “lax work ethic,” as a Washington Post headline declared last week.

The Post’s story was pegged to the Pew Research Center’s new project on millennials. If you spend time sorting through the Pew research, you’ll find that it even-handedly portrays millennials as “confident,” “connected” and “open to change.” Still, the “spoiled” tag persists. Having spent my 20s trying to defy the Gen X slacker stereotype as I worked to prove myself in metro newsrooms, I can relate to millennials who feel frustrated by pop-culture labels.

I’ve worked with millennials for the past two years teaching digital journalism at Southern Methodist University and advising the SMU Daily Mustang. Newsroom bosses, listen up – here are some things you need to know about your latest crop of entry-level hires:

They respond well to clear expectations.

“Got it.” Those are my two favorite words in the millennial lexicon. When you offer clear instruction to a young journalist and hear those two magic words, you can take it to the bank that they’ll follow through. This is not a rebellious generation. Pew’s research shows that they respect their elders. But if you fail to communicate your expectations clearly and assume they already know things that you take for granted, you could be in for a long day.

They’re creative and adaptable.
It’s a myth that all millennials are technical whizzes – every semester in my digital journalism class, there are a handful of self-proclaimed technophobes. Sure, they live on Facebook, but that doesn’t mean they all know how to write a <div> tag in HTML. That said, these “digital natives” are quick studies who love to try new things. This week, I was delighted to discover that two of my students took the initiative to post an instant video report from spring football practice from an iPhone, using free Qik software.

They’re expressive – and they crave feedback.

Anyone who has taught millennials has their favorite doozy of an excuse for missing class. (My favorite was a student who breezily divulged an embarrassing medical condition that I wouldn’t have dared to tell my own professors.) They’ve been raised to freely express themselves, which they do constantly in person and on social networks. And when they work for you, they want your feedback. The strong, silent approach to management is not a great strategy to get the most out of your millennial employees. Let them know where they stand, and how they can improve.

They seek balance.

When discussing the recent Washington Post story with my students, they largely accepted the Pew study’s premise that millennials have a different work ethic than previous generations. After years of watching their parents put work before family, they aren’t so keen to become workaholics themselves. That doesn’t mean this generation is lazy. It’s all about work-life balance. Earlier this semester, a student apologized in advance for having to leave my class early so she could tutor refugee kids. And because millennials have grown up using technology to stay interconnected, they consider it second nature to work in spurts while away from the office. As one 26-year-old activist told the Post, ”It’s not about being at a desk from 9 to 5. I work part of every hour I am awake.”

They want to make a difference.

Today’s j-school students have endured a steady parade of guest speakers — Baby Boomers and Gen Xers — bemoaning the state of the news business. The best young journalists are undaunted by this sense of pessimism. They want to use their multi-platform storytelling skills to do some good. Two recent SMU grads spent part of last summer reporting and blogging from Romanian orphanages. This week, students at campuses around the country went barefoot for a day to raise awareness of kids around the world who don’t have any shoes. One of our recent alums helped start an orphanage in Uganda. Millennials are altruistic and want to give back, and they see journalism as a great way to do that.

Editors or professors, what tips and experiences do you have from working with millennial journalists? Please add to the conversation below with your comments.

Jake Batsell is an assistant professor in journalism at Southern Methodist University and faculty adviser to the Daily Mustang. You can read more from Jake on his blog and follow him on Twitter at @jbatsell.

January 16 2010


Aggregating local content responsibly with Drupal

By Rick Martin

rickmartinStarting a website and convincing users to participate can be difficult. People can only visit a handful of websites in their daily browsing, so if your website isn’t one of them why not allow them to contribute from the places that they prefer to go? That could be their own blog, or it might be Twitter, YouTube or Delicious — allowing users to contribute local content from these platforms makes it easier on them as contributors to your platform.

If you’re building a local site with Drupal, you’re bestowed with great power to aggregate this kind of content. But keep in mind that such power also comes with great responsibility (as my late Uncle Ben once told me). It’s always best when users submit this content voluntarily, rather than if you as a site admin just go out and scrape it.

There’s almost no end to the content that you could aggregate (see my previous post on that), so please do so wisely. Aggregating can add value to a site if used properly, but it can also be annoying as all heck if misused. I’m not much in favor of aggregating full blog posts unless the writer of that post has explicitly given permission. Read on if you’d like to hear my brilliant plan of attack for that problem.

But before we dive into the happy intricacies of aggregating, a quick word of warning for Drupal noobs out there. This can be a really tough CMS to get your head around, but once you get over the hump you’ll be fascinated by the possibilities. If you have trouble wrapping your head around their documentation, have a look at my notes about the problems I ran into getting started with Drupal.

Now, back to the aggregating…

There are a few ways to aggregate in Drupal (Note: I’ll be talking about Drupal 6, but keep in mind that 7 is on the way). My preferred methods are via the following menu items:

1. administer > content management > feed aggregator (example.com/admin/content/aggregator)

2. administer > create content > feed (example.com/node/add/feed)

You can use either of these to aggregate content, but I’ll leave it up to you.

Collecting photos and links for your city

My friend Alex who manages DalianDalian.com (all about city of Dalian China) first showed me what kind of power Drupal had when he started sucking in Flickr photos that local photographers were voluntarily tagging as ‘daliandalian‘.

The beauty of this sort of aggregation is that you are encouraging users to contribute to your site without making them leave the platforms where they live. Remember this point because it’s important. Most of your users might already be on Facebook, Twitter, or their own blog — and they might not be willing to add one more website to the ones they visit daily. Giving them an option like this just makes sense.

Similarly Alex encouraged Delicious users to tag Dalian-specific news on the web as ‘daliandalian‘, which was then collected on site. Using the RSS feeds for certain Delicious tags can be an awesome way to share such links. If you don’t want to aggregate all public links for a certain tag (there is of course a risk that some users will spam this feed), you can always use your own personal tag (i.e. http://feeds.delicious.com/v2/rss/YOURUSERNAME/YOURTAG?count=15). Anyone who uses Publish2 could easily use a tag feed from there as well (example: my Dalian feed).

Get Wordpress bloggers to crosspost to your Drupal site

Drupal also has the power for users to add their own blog feed (see example.com/node/add/feed). Say for example that you have a Drupal site about Barcelona, Spain. Maybe you know of lots of Spain-focused Wordpress blogs you can aggregate from, but you would be getting all kinds of undesirable information about places other than Barcelona. The solution here is to encourage those Wordpress bloggers to create a Barcelona category for any information that they write about Barcelona. You can then take the feeds for their Barcelona categories, and display them on your Drupal site. Again, this allows users to contribute to your website from the comfort of their own blog. To see this feed magic in action, check out the Dalian category of my China blog which I’ve fed into DalianDalian.com allowing me to cross-post there.

Keep in mind that not all Wordpress blogs display the category feeds, but rest assured that they have them. Here are the url structures to follow, just in case you need them:

Proceed with caution

It will be interesting to see how aggregation changes as we move to Drupal 7 and Wordpress 3.0, because the mechanics behind the scenes are likely to get easier. If you decide to plunge into content aggregation, try to be wise and responsible in your role as an information curator because the manner in which you do so will affect your trustability and reputation.

Rick Martin is a Tokyo-based freelance writer. Read more from Rick at www.1rick.com/blog and follow him on Twitter at @1rick.

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