From talking about it to just doing it


When I first started teaching a course called Reinventing the News a few years ago, I envisioned it mainly as a seminar. The idea was that we would look at some case studies of where the news business might be headed and blog about it.

I quickly realized that wasn’t good enough. The spark for me was a student who had just come back from her co-op job at the Patriot Ledger of Quincy. She had assumed the most complicated tool she’d have to use would be a notebook. Instead, she was tossed a point-and-shoot digital camera and told to teach herself how to capture and edit video. She liked it so much she ended up changing her career goals from print to video.

It was with some trepidation that I began adding three weeks of Web video to Reinventing a year and a half ago. First, I had to teach myself how to do it. And it required exposing some vulnerabilities. I knew some students would be starting from zero, but I also knew that others were already better at video journalism than I’d ever be. Nevertheless, it proved to be well worth it.

Last week we finished the most complex version of Reinventing I’ve offered, and my students had to pull together a variety of skills for their final project. The assignment was to use free online tools to create a multimedia story. The elements:

  • An 800- to 1,000-word story about a digital media project that had caught their eye, written up as a blog post with relevant links.
  • A slide show of six to 10 still photos, posted to Flickr and embedded in their blog.
  • A two- to five-minute video they shot and edited, posted to YouTube and also embedded in their blog.
  • An explanation of how they used social networks such as Twitter and Facebook to find sources and report their story.

At the end of it all, they were asked to note the location of their story on a Google map and link to their blog post. The result is the map I’ve embedded above. I invite you to explore. These young journalists did a terrific job, and I am very proud of them.

If you click on “View Reinventing the News: Final Projects in a larger map,” directly under the embedded map, you’ll find the list of students on the left-hand side. Click on a name to find his or her spot on the map, each one of which is linked directly to their project. Hmmm … Google could make this a little bit simpler, eh?

I’ll be teaching Reinventing again this fall, and I will continue to refine. My first thought is that I ought to dump the brief wiki exercise I offer and instead delve more deeply into how to handle comments. Any thoughts you have would be welcome.

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 nyt.com, 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.

How Facebook is driving the push for real names

Could Facebook — or at least the Facebook ethos — help turn the tide of negativity when it comes to online newspaper comments?

Richard Pérez-Peña reports in the New York Times that an increasing number of news organizations are requiring commenters to use their real names, or at least providing incentives to do so. They credit Facebook and Twitter, where most people use their real names, in fostering a change in attitude. Pérez-Peña writes:

Several industry executives cited a more fundamental force working in favor of identifying commenters. Through blogging and social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, millions of people have grown accustomed to posting their opinions — to say nothing of personal details — with their names attached, for all to see. Adapting the Facebook model, some news sites allow readers to post a picture along with a comment, another step away from anonymity.

Several months ago I led a workshop on social media for the New England Newspaper & Press Association. The most interesting idea to come out of the workshop, I thought, was put forth by a weekly-newspaper editor who said he had been posting links to many of his stories to a Facebook group and encouraging readers to comment there.

The Facebook group, he said, had turned into more of a real online community than the comments at his newspaper’s Web site, where anonymity had transformed even mundane matters into fodder for nasty rhetoric and personal attacks. And it’s not just real names; it’s the entire online persona people create on Facebook, with pictures and personal information, all of which encourage users to act more like human beings when they start typing. I was so excited that I instituted a real-names policy at Media Nation as soon as the conference was over, though I’ve held off from taking the Facebook route.

But what about the notion of sending readers away from your Web site, where you presumably have some advertising you want them to look at? I would argue that if you become a trusted source for your readers, they will reward you by coming back and providing you with more traffic than you would otherwise get.

Besides, as Pérez-Peña notes, advertisers generally don’t want to be associated with the kind of vitriol that characterizes anonymous comment sections.

Facebook is a great technological solution for small organizations that don’t have the wherewithal to offer a registration system of their own. But Howard Owens has managed to put together a registration system accompanied by a real-names policy at the Batavian, the community-news site in western New York that he owns. Owens writes:

Real names may not prevent people from spewing misinformation and defamatory bile, but at least if readers trust that the person making such assertions is using a real name, they can judge it accordingly, or fact check the source themselves.

Owens goes on to note that if the Cleveland Plain Dealer had had a real-names policy, it could have avoided the ethical dilemma in which it finds itself over a judge whose e-mail address was being used to post anonymous comments about cases in which she was involved. (The judge claims, not too convincingly, that the anonymous poster was her daughter.)

The Plain Dealer outed the judge, Shirley Strickland Safford. And last week Saffold sued the paper for $50 million, claiming the paper had violated its own privacy policy.

Of course, that’s something of an inside-out argument — that is, the Plain Dealer wouldn’t have done anything unethical if it didn’t have private information it could handle unethically. The best reason for real names is to foster a civil discussion. Along with strict moderation, real names can help fulfill the promise of a comments section that helps build community and readership.

Reconnecting with your audience

I’ll be leading a discussion on “Blogging, Social Media and Journalism” tomorrow from 10:45 a.m. to noon at the annual convention of the New England Newspaper & Press Association at the Park Plaza. I’ve put together some slides (above), but I’m conceiving this session as an unconference, and I want to turn it over to the editors and reporters who’ll be attending as quickly as possible.

The blabbing continues. From 3:45 to 5 p.m., Adam Gaffin of Universal Hub and I will lead a workshop on “Writing for the Web.”

Finally, on Saturday from 1:45 to 3:15 p.m., I’ll be taking part in a panel discussion on social media that’s part of the ACLU of Massachusetts “Secrecy, Surveillance and Sunlight” conference at UMass Boston. I’ll be joined by Northeastern University Law School professor Hope Lewis, ACLUM online communications coordinator Danielle Riendeau and ACLUM communications director Christopher Ott.

Now, to get back to those slides (and sorry for the funny line breaks; there’s something about SlideShare that I’m obviously missing). There are a number of examples I’ll be talking about that are worth taking a deeper look at. So I thought I’d post some links here.

Mining comments for social-media gold

Social media isn’t just about Twitter and Facebook. Sometimes it’s about finding new ways to listen to your audience. Even reader comments, which seem so 1998, can be a good starting point.

Today’s example: For some time now, a commenter to the New Haven Independent who goes by the handle of “Norton Street” has been posting smart missives on issues related to architecture and urban design.

On Tuesday, NHI editor Paul Bass revealed Norton Street’s identity — he is an architecture student named Jonathan Hopkins — and accompanied him on a walking tour of New Haven’s architectural highlights and lowlights.

The story has already attracted 17 comments, including yet another long post from Hopkins.

Here is the NHI’s comments policy, which I think is a model of how to do this right.

A citizen-media aggregator for Haiti

On Wednesday I mentioned Global Voices Online, a Harvard-affiliated service that was rounding up citizen media from Haiti and the Caribbean.

Global Voices has since set up a Haitian Earthquake 2010 section that aggregates citizen-produced content and includes key links to mainstream news organizations — including the Boston Haitian Reporter. It’s got its own RSS feed, so you can plug it into Google Reader.

Here’s a first-hand account of the quake that I found on Global Voices:

Towards 4:45 PM, with our driver, we enter the parking lot of Karibean, Pétion-ville’s big mart. As usual, the way in is slowed by the usual Delmas traffic. While driving up the entry, our Patrol began to dance. I was imagining three or four boys standing on the bumper wanting to swing the car. In front of us, the parking lot ground rocked like the waves at Wahoo Bay. The Karibean building started to dance and in 3 seconds’ time completely tumbled down. A white cloud swept across the parking lot and you could see zombies whitened by dust appearing, in complete panic.

The earthquake is a tragedy whose full dimensions won’t be known for quite some time

Citizen media and the earthquake in Haiti

Note: This item originally included a photograph of a woman being rescued that was cited as an example of citizen media. On March 16, I was informed that the photo was, in fact, the copyrighted work of Daniel Morel, a professional photojournalist. Please see this for more information.

Update: Wednesday, 7:21 p.m. We are posting more links in the comments.

Ever since a tsunami devastated South Asia in December 2004, social media and citizen journalism have been recognized as key components of covering natural disasters and other breaking news stories. Professional news organizations can’t be everywhere; on the other hand, millions of people are carrying cell phones with cameras. New-media expert Steve Outing called the tsunami “a tipping point” for citizen journalism.

In such a decentralized news environment, the challenge for journalism has been to make sense of what is happening in something approaching real time. Most recently, social media have played an important role in bringing news of the Iranian protest movement to the outside world.

So when a major earthquake hit western Haiti yesterday, it was no surprise that news organizations, large and small, tapped into Haiti’s online community in order to provide them with the on-the-ground eyes and ears they did not have. Given Haiti’s unfortunate status as one of the poorest countries in the world, you might not think there would be much in the way of electronic communication. In fact, there is a lively and heartbreaking stream of reports coming out of the island.

I’ll begin closest to home. Last night the Boston Haitian Reporter started a live blog to gather accounts from readers and to link out to relevant information. The blog includes a live Twitter stream of news from Haiti. As the Boston Globe observes, there are 43,000 people of Haitian descent living in Greater Boston.

The New York Times, which over the past few years has morphed into one of the most Internet-savvy news organizations, has, not surprisingly, posted stories, a slideshow and a Reuters video. But the real action is taking place on The Lede, its blog for breaking news, which includes everything from staff reports to cell-phone photos posted to TwitPic. The Times has put together a Twitter list of people and organizations posting news updates about Haiti. And it is actively soliciting reports from its readers:

The New York Times would like to connect people inside and outside Haiti who are searching for information about the situation on the ground. Readers outside Haiti who have friends and relatives in the country, along with readers in Haiti who are still able to access the Internet, can use the comments section below as a forum to share updates. Some readers may be searching for the same family members.

Have you been able to reach loved ones in the area affected by the earthquake? What have you learned from people there?

National Public Radio’s efforts bear some similarities to those of the Times. NPR is concentrating its breaking-news and linking efforts on its blog The Two-Way, and it has also assembled a Twitter list.

CNN, whose iReport project is a major outlet for citizen journalists, has put together a page on the Haitian earthquake. As is often the case with citizen media, it’s not always easy to tell what you’re looking at. Some of the images are quite graphic, and are slapped with a label reading “Discretion advised.”

One of my favorite examples of professional journalists and citizen bloggers working together is Global Voices Online, a project founded at Harvard Law’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society several years ago. Global Voices’ editors round up bloggers from every part of the world. For the most part, they labor in obscurity. But not at moments like this.

As of this morning you’ll find a compilation of tweets and photos and a digest of what bloggers in Haiti and throughout the Caribbean are saying. Here is Afrobella, described as a “Trinidadian diaspora blogger”:

Right now my heart aches for Haiti. The already-suffering island nation was just hit with a 7.0 earthquake. A hospital has collapsed. Government buildings have been severely damaged. There was a major tsunami watch, earlier. Reports of major devastation are just starting to pour in…my thoughts and prayers go out to the people of Haiti, and anyone with friends or family in Haiti.

You can also click through directly to Afrobella’s blog.

Twitter itself is a good source of raw information. At the moment, Yéle, a charity founded by Haitian-American musician Wyclef Jean, is the number-two trending topic, and “Help Haiti” is number three. If you want to dip into the Twitter torrent, try searching on #haiti.

Social media get results

Doug Haslam explains how a tweet about an icy sidewalk in Newton made its way to the Newton Tab’s Wicked Local site and then to the mayor’s office. The end result: no more icy sidewalk.

Boston Media Tweeters goes 1.0

Boston Media Tweeters today exits beta and is ready for prime time.

What is it? It’s a wiki that lists Greater Boston journalists, including independent bloggers engaged in some form of journalism. I’ve made it a permanent addition to the Media Nation navigation bar, and I hope it will grow into a useful directory.

Feel free to add yourself or someone else. And enjoy.

Are you a Boston media tweeter?

I’ve started a wiki called Boston Media Tweeters. I’ve seeded it with a few obvious choices so that you can tell how it should be formatted. Depending on how it goes, I may make it a permanent part of Media Nation. So, please, if you fit the criteria (you must be engaged in journalism of some sort, and I won’t allow institutional feeds), go ahead and add yourself to the list.