By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

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BostInno acquired by Boston Business Journal’s owner

Chase Garbarino

For some time now I’ve been keeping an eye on Streetwise Media, a Boston start-up whose chief executive and public face, Chase Garbarino, has been trying to figure out new ways of reaching tech-savvy, city-dwelling twentysomethings.

First came Pinyadda, an attempt to meld journalism and social networking in a way that was supposed to be less serious and more fun than NewsTrust. Well, it may have been less serious, but it wasn’t less cumbersome, and Pinyadda went the way of all pixels.

Next, and more lasting: BostInno, a website that covers technology, city life and higher education for an audience that I would describe as young urban singles. Nothing too heavy, but it’s enjoyed some success. An old acquaintance, veteran journalist Mary McGrath, has been involved with it. A former student of mine had an internship there. Garbarino and company launched a satellite site in Washington, and were planning to open a third site in New York.

So I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it when it was announced a few days ago that BostInno had been acquired by American City Business Journals (ACBJ), the parent company of the Boston Business Journal. What’s posted on the BostInno (here) and BBJ (here) websites is all very hopeful and enthusiastic, as these things generally are. But is this going to give BostInno a chance to grow — or does it mark the beginning of the end?

Although the terms were not disclosed, I suspect that ACBJ’s managers are genuinely interested in BostInno, if only because there was no reason for them to acquire it just to shut it down. I also predict a culture clash ahead. The BBJ and its sister papers are high-quality but rather staid. (Indeed, ACBJ is part of the Newhouse empire, making the BBJ — and now BostInno — corporate cousins of the New Yorker.) BostInno is energetic and can be fun, but it is not a hardcore journalistic enterprise.

Here’s how BostInno put it:

While acquisitions are usually viewed as endings, we believe this is just the beginning for Streetwise. We believe more and more each day in what we are doing and we love doing it.

And here is a considerably more reserved quote from ACBJ chief executive Whitney Shaw that appears in the BBJ:

In a short amount of time, Streetwise has attracted a very loyal and robust audience that is different from but complementary to what we do at our business journals in Boston, Washington and elsewhere.

I’m hoping that the acquisition means good things for BostInno, and that Garbarino and co-founder Kevin McCarthy will be allowed to do their thing. I think they’re on to something, and I’d like to see them have the time and resources they need to figure it out.

Rory O’Connor to read from his new book

Backscratching Day festivities continue with my interview at with old friend Rory O’Connor. The occasion is O’Connor’s excellent new book, “Friends, Followers and the Future: How Social Media are Changing Politics, Threatening Big Brands and Killing Traditional Media,” published by City Lights.

O’Connor will appear on Tuesday, May 22, at 7 p.m. at the Brookline Booksmith to talk about his book and sign. His book grew out of a semester he spent a few years ago at Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center after stepping down as editorial director of NewsTrust. The idea behind NewsTrust was that an online community could identify and evaluate journalism with respect to sourcing, fairness and the like. Unfortunately, O’Connor discovered that too many of the people who joined NewsTrust were pushing a political agenda.

Among the more provocative ideas that O’Connor discusses in “Friends, Followers and the Future” is that Facebook is actually a fairly effective platform for sharing diverse sources of information, since members tend to cultivate a lot of “weak ties” with acquaintances whose political views and life experiences may be quite different from their own.

The larger issue, in O’Connor’s view, is trust. We no longer fully trust legacy media, whether it’s the New York Times or Fox News. Facebook, Google and other online services present their own trust issues. “But I’m optimistic,” he concludes, “that ultimately the ongoing digital information revolution will help us not only to trust, but also to verify.”

Talking back to the news with NewsTrust

Who doesn’t like to talk back to the news? That, in its essence, is the idea behind NewsTrust, a site I’ve been involved with almost from its inception in 2005. The basic idea is to rate news stories on journalistic criteria such as sourcing, fairness and depth. You can rate news organizations, and other reviewers get to rate you as well.

Last week Mike LaBonte, a volunteer editor for NewsTrust who lives in Greater Boston, visited my Reinventing the News class to lead a hands-on demonstration. Dividing the class into four groups, we reviewed a story in the Washington Post on a day in the life of an Iowa tea-party protester.

It was a difficult story to rate, and my students were of two minds. On the one hand, the story was woefully incomplete, and the reporter allowed the protester to make all kinds of ridiculous assertions about President Obama and health-care reform. On the other hand, the story had value if viewed not in isolation but, rather, as part of the Post’s ongoing coverage. As a result, student reviews ranged from a high of 3.5 (out of 5) all the way down to a 1.7.

We followed that up with a class assignment: each student was asked to find, post and rate at least three stories, and to write about the experience, as well as the positives and negatives of NewsTrust, on her or his blog. Here is our class wiki, which links to everything.

Unlike previous semesters, we did not participate in a news hunt on any particular topic. Thus you’ll find stories ranging from the death of Polish President Lech Kaczynski and the pending retirement of Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens to lighter fare such as why yoga appeals mainly to women.

Students have differing views about the value of NewsTrust as well. One positive aspect, it would seem, is that perusing NewsTrust restores some of the serendipity that existed back when everyone read a print newspaper every day.

Yet Mark DiSalvo observes that Google News and the people he follows on Twitter already put news stories in front of him that he might not otherwise know about, and with less technological hassle. “Google News has better customization tools, and the people I follow on Twitter are already people whose taste I trust,” he writes.

Hannah Martin writes that NewsTrust makes her think about the news in a more critical and discerning way. “What I liked about the reviewing experience was it forced me to really analyze my news on its journalistic value, which, as bad as it sounds, is often something that slips my mind,” she says. “I browse the headlines of, read what looks important, and accept it as fact, rarely stopping to count sources or assess context. The process of reviewing though, forced me to think through all the elements of each piece, and consider what, as a journalist, should ultimately be there.”

My own view is that NewsTrust is potentially valuable as a crowdsourced front page — an alternative to letting the New York Times or the Washington Post tell us what the most important news of the day is. The problem is that the software is time-consuming and not particularly intuitive, even though it has been improved over the past year.

And though NewsTrust claimed more than 15,000 registered users by the end of 2009, most of the stories you’ll find seem to have been posted and rated by just a small handful of regulars. This is not surprising. Studies have shown that two much-bigger crowdsourced sites, Wikipedia and Digg, are the handiwork of small numbers of unusually active users.

I hope NewsTrust will continue to grow, because the idea is sound. The challenge is that crowdsourcing only works when there is a crowd.

NewsTrust J-hunt: The final five

My stint as host of NewsTrust’s journalism topic area comes to an end today. Here are five stories I submitted this morning:

I could write an entire post on the last item, but I’ll just say this: Stewart is perhaps the best and most important media critic we’ve had since A.J. Liebling.

His dissection of CNBC’s Jim Cramer last night — as well as his two eight-minute pieces lampooning the so-called experts of CNBC (here and here) — will have, I predict, a major and well-deserved negative effect on the network.

On and on the NewsTrust J-hunt goes

But it all ends tomorrow! Today’s five six picks:

Here, once again, is NewsTrust’s journalism topic page. Please consider taking part.

NewsTrust: The J-hunt continues

Five more stories on journalism for your perusal:

If you’d like to join in the fun, sign up for NewsTrust and visit the journalism topic page.

Five more for NewsTrust’s journalism hunt

Here are five more pieces about journalism that I’ve posted to NewsTrust.

Again, I invite you to register with NewsTrust, review stories and submit some that you find as well.

Journalism about journalism on NewsTrust

My reading and blogging habits will be substantially different this week, as I am hosting the journalism topic area for NewsTrust.

NewsTrust is a social-networking tool that enables community members to submit and rate news stories on qualities such as fairness, sourcing and importance. If you’ve never tried it before, I encourage you to sign up and give it a whirl. I’ll keep you posted on what I’m submitting this week in the hopes that you’ll pitch in.

Here is what I submitted this morning. The links will take you not directly to the story but, rather, to a NewsTrust review page. From there you can go to the story and review it for yourself.

Hope you’ll consider taking part.

Northeastern students on NewsTrust

Click on photo for Flickr slideshow

Earlier this week, I said I would post on my students’ experience in using NewsTrust, a social-networking tool that lets you share and rate news stories on qualities such as accuracy, sourcing and bias.

Well, I did — but not here. My oversight. Instead, I posted a roundup on the class Web site. And here, in a bit of post-post-modernism, is what NewsTrust had to say about what my students had to say.

A NewsTrust news hunt on the global economy

Following a presentation on NewsTrust by editor and frequent reviewer Mike LaBonte, my students in Reinventing the News have been finding, submitting and analyzing stories on the global economy. NewsTrust is a social-networking tool aimed at identifying and promoting quality journalism.

I asked each of my students to submit, rate and write a short critique of three different stories on the global economy — part of a “news hunt” that NewsTrust is conducting this week. I thought I’d do the assignment, too, so here are my choices.

The first, from the Christian Science Monitor, is something of a disappointment: an article about pressures on the International Monetary Fund that is so bureaucratic and top-down in its orientation that it’s impossible to understand the effect of those pressures on ordinary people. Even if you grant that we shouldn’t expect much from a brief overview, it’s hard to know what we are supposed to take away from this story.

Moving right along, we come to a roundup in the Guardian on how plummeting oil prices are affecting four major oil-producing states — Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. As with the Monitor story, there is a top-down quality to this that leaves me a little cold. Nevertheless, it is well-executed, and provides some interesting insights into the changing fortunes of regimes that were riding high just a few months ago.

Finally, CNN offers a story on world hunger that, like the Monitor and the Guardian, is too short to get much beyond the superficial but which, unlike the Monitor and the Guardian, grabs us with the riveting, heartbreaking testimony of an aid worker who frequently travels to Haiti.

“It’s horrible. They have to choose among their children,” Patricia Wolff tells CNN. “They try to keep them alive by feeding them, but sometimes they make the decision that this one has to go.” The story demonstrates a key point about good journalism: even a brief report about global developments can be conveyed in human terms.

NewsTrust, which I’ve been following since its founding a couple of years ago (disclosure: I’m a volunteer editor), is one of the more interesting experiments in building a community around the news. If you haven’t checked it out before, you should give it a look.

I’ll post on what my students have been up to later this week.

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