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Posts Tagged ‘curation’

I wrote a couple weeks ago that my response to a question about how to fit in all the new things journalists are told to do now was that if you want to start something, you have to stop something. I probably should have fleshed that out. I didn’t, but Steve Buttry has. Sample, on government meetings:

Maybe for your community, the answer is to send a reporter to the meetings to livetweet (live coverage gets more readership than stories), but to have the reporter turn his attention after the meeting to enterprise reporting on topics covered in the meeting, rather than undertaking the redundant task of writing a story about the meeting he just livetweeted.

If your local government agencies livestream their meetings, maybe you don’t need a reporter present. You embed the livestream on your site for meeting coverage and spend your reporter’s time on enterprise, unless a meeting promises to be unusually newsworthy.

In fact, that was essentially the approach I took as a reporter in a far-flung bureau covering meetings in a town where there was a local paper. Anything that happened during the meeting that sounded interesting, I knew the local paper would report the next day, so instead I would do my own reporting on the subject and flesh it out over the next day or two, such as a case where people living near a quarry complained of the damage that blasting at the quarry was causing to their well water and homes. I got a better story, plus a photo. Nowadays I might be able to get a slideshow and/or video out of it too.

Steve has other suggestions, including, “We need to work out partnerships with community journalists (and non-journalists)” — another word for those is “bloggers” — “who are doing jobs we’ve been doing and stop doing what they are doing, so we can focus our resources on unique ways we can serve the community.” The Seattle Times has such a network going (and discussed it at a session I attended at ONA12), so it’s not just a vague idea, it’s a model you can study and emulate, and tweak to fit your community.

Steve also links to several previous posts he had that address the idea of what needs to change. It’s the only topic that’s certain to remain on your radar.

12/21/12 UPDATE: From one of the Nieman Journalism Lab’s columns making predictions for 2013 that seems relevant to part of this discussion: Local news organizations no longer have the luxury of throwing skilled reporters at procedural news stories that are only important to niche groups …

12/30/12 UPDATE: More on this topic John Robinson and Steve Buttry.

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Another week, another ruckus over paywalls. That link will take you to Steve Buttry’s angle on the issue, but he links to the rest. Suffice to say I don’t think it’s a good idea for anyone to base an argument in favor or against anything, let alone declare victory, based on trends that started in just the past few years.

This ruckus erupted just ahead of news that Rupert Murdoch will pull the plug on his iPad-only, subscription-only news product, The Daily.

That by itself is evidence enough not to be too eager to declare victory. In this case, it was not the launch of The Daily that I refer to; many raised questions about the wisdom of launching a new product and immediately making it unavailable to the potential audience – that it would be one thing to take a well established, highly regarded newspaper entirely behind a hard paywall, and it’s another thing entirely to launch something new behind one.

What I recall also happening at the time, though, is swooning over the iPad’s implications for print publications moving to digital formats. I remember multiple company meetings where editors asked those responsible for digital initiatives when their newspaper would get its own iPad app. Everyone needed an app, so it seemed. An app! An app! My kingdom for an app.

While I loved the look of things I saw on the iPad, the idea of apps never struck me as a good one. They are not cheap or easy to build, and if you recall, your phone is not only old but totally obsolete in less than two years, so how long, I wondered, would the technology in an app be likely to last before it needed to be redesigned for the next generation (two years from now) of mobile products?

Part of The Daily’s problem, then, might be overeagerness to buy into the Apple iHype. But in a column about The Daily at GigaOm, Jordan Kurzweil lays out what he sees as the ways the The Daily went wrong and that he thinks still could be fixed. And I was struck while reading it that a great deal of what he said sounded like it applies to any newspaper trying to adjust to the digital world:

Be more than daily. Simply put, people now expect constant news updates. It doesn’t matter whether you think that’s good business; if you don’t provide it, the customers will go elsewhere.

Use technology to be bigger. I think the particulars of Kurzweil’s argument for The Daily here are different than I would put them for most newsrooms (most newsrooms having fairly limited technological capabilities), but a big part in either case is curation – or, as Jeff Jarvis says, do what you do best and link to the rest. In any community, it’s a rare news organization that is trying in any serious way to curate local blogs, competing news outlets, Twitter and whatever else is out there. One person doing that using common online tools could re-establish the newsroom as the hub of community conversation and news discovery.

Be available. I used to hear this worded differently: Go where your customers are. Nowadays, that is online, and rapidly it is becoming mobile. If you are 100 percent walled off from non-subscribers – meaning not only do you require payment for reading your stories, but you do not run any kind of free, web-friendly site to offer even a taste of your work to a casual passerby – it is not likely you will gain many new customers. Why are there ever stands in the grocery store offering free samples of a particular product? Same idea.

Fix the user experience. Most journalists I know give this practically no thought at all. Spend a day using nothing but your phone to keep up with the news, then think whether, if you had similar frustration when you went to a local restaurant, you would ever go back. Unfortunately, the technicalities of the user experience are largely outside your control, but you can think about the elements you are delivering to that experience, and if you are thinking about it, then when the opportunity comes to weigh in on the technology, you will have a base of knowledge from which to speak.

Be frugal. Most newsrooms I’m familiar with are way past frugal, so I have to reframe this. The problem The Daily had on this count was ignoring the frequent saying in business, “Fail fast, fail cheap.” But the mindset that led to this failure is well ingrained in newsrooms. Murdoch decided the future of the newspaper was in a highly formatted online product, so he threw a massive amount of money at it and tried to build Rome in a day. Didn’t work. I have seen over and over again that when an idea for something online is presented in a newspaper newsroom, the managers don’t want to do it unless they can make it pretty close to perfect; when moving to a new CMS, they will fuss over minute details and delay the launch; even redesigning the print product, they will agonize or argue over fonts. I would translate “be frugal” here as “be good enough,” using the phrase that in the mid-2000s the Newspaper Next project beat editors over the head with. I don’t think it took. (In 2010, Steve wrote a good update on the topic.)

I don’t know whether any of the above steps would have saved The Daily. But I have trouble finding a downside in the basic ideas.

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Following are the notes I have passed to my colleagues on the Online News Association’s 2012 conference (and for more check the ONA Newsroom):

J-Lab’s “pre-convention” sessions on Thursday produced the information I thought was most immediately useful. In one, editors from The Seattle Times and KQED talked about their efforts to create a network of community news partners. The Times’ model was low-maintenance (requiring only “1 or 2 hours a week”) and easily replicable. KQED’s was much more difficult to get going and maintain.

The Times has 55 local blogs – from neighborhood blogs of the sort like the Church Hill People’s News or the West of the Boulevard News here in Richmond to single-issue blogs on things like beer or bicycling – signed up as “community news partners.” Essentially the blogs agree to let the Times aggregate their RSS feeds; the Times’ editors have a dashboard built in WordPress to let them choose what stories they think are interesting, and the headlines (ONLY the headlines) then appear on the Times’ website, with the links pointing directly to the blogs. The partners agree to give the Times exclusive access to any photos that they get (the Times’ hope is that in a giant, breaking-news situation one of the blogs will have someone there first). The Times agrees to let the blogs do the same kind of headline-linking to the Times’ site and agrees to provide any of its photos to the blogs for free upon request (with credit given). UPDATE: I forgot to mention that each Sunday the Times publishes a page of excerpts from top blog posts.

The Times has gotten news stories – including A1 stories – that otherwise would have been missed (the Times includes a note with the story saying the information appeared first in X blog), and there is survey evidence that the partnerships have improved the newspaper’s image among local residents.

KQED’s partnerships are much more complex because the station wanted full, content-producing (audio and video, since KQED has both a radio station and a TV station) partnerships. That meant avoiding any site that advocates policy positions (the Times has no problem as long as the blog is transparent about its advocacy) and providing training to get content that meets its broadcast standards.

I think the Times model actually exposes a vulnerability that newspapers ignore at their peril. If a TV station were to seek such an extensive, low-maintenance network, it could greatly enhance its website as a community hub, build on the station’s promotional and community-engagement efforts (which already exceed what newspapers do) and effectively corner the market on community news. Assuming newspapers continue to throw up paywalls and TV stations do not, the newspaper site retreats into niche status (though the niche is elite, high-information readers), while the TV station that harnesses the blog network cements itself as the go-to place for “what’s happening now?” information.

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Amy Webb, Webbmedia Group’s Tech Trends (Storify coverage, and video of the session)

Amy’s job is to spot trends in technology and media so she can help her clients adapt to disruption. The bulk of her talk was on the broader process for how her company does that. But for ONA she devoted a lot of attention to the issue of online video by news organizations, who she says are awful at online video. The problem we have, in her view, is that we are content-oriented people, so we focus on the content, not the online experience. That is backwards of how it should be. She says you should focus on creating an online experience, not on the content. As an example she pointed to is HuffingtonPost Live: The video is extremely forgettable at this point, but the online dashboard provides a web-native experience, geared for the multitasking that people do online. She says that the video inevitably will improve, but having the best video-exploration experience puts the site in the driver’s seat.

Key quote: “Don’t replicate the TV experience.” People online don’t want to just sit and only have the video play.

Near-term trends she sees for news/content:

–“Atomic”-based news. That is “atomic” in the sense of news being broken into its component bits for better personalization. In other words, for any given story, there is a basic story for the casual reader, a version with more context for those with a higher level of interest, and an expert-level package. This is made possible by rapidly improving algorithms, such as are used by Google and Amazon, tracking the user’s history and interest.

–Algorithm-created content. This would be the automated translation of spreadsheet-based information into full sentences and paragraphs. The algorithms are increasingly sophisticated and produce better and better results. I think something like this could be huge, cost-wise, for such things as sports and cops, so you could hire data-entry people instead of writers. (10/9 UPDATE: This is a company that sells the software.)

–There’s a huge opening for verticals targeting women – but NOT “mom blogs” or “mom” anything, which is overdone and misses the majority of women. She means mainstream topics but reported with a female audience and women’s particular concerns in mind. In the bulk of news, women are an afterthought or absent, so women are hungry to see themselves reflected in the world of news and information.

–Apple vs. Android: Google has a new version of Google Maps coming for Android phones (you may recall that Apple booted Google Maps from the iPhone, with poor reviews for its replacement – one tech guy I talked to in SF says his iPhone can’t even map his home address in NYC). It’s called Google Now. She thinks it will be huge for Android and tilt the field against Apple. Quote: “Google Now will make Siri look like somebody’s high school project.”

–Wearable technology. She brought in a prototype of a purse that recharges your phone. You just drop the phone inside. There’s no plugging it in, no special place to put the phone. She says you probably also will see the same technology incorporated into clothes so that you will have a phone-charging pocket.

Longer-term trend:

–Augmented reality. You may have seen the online demonstration of Google glasses, a pair of glasses that gives the wearer a display of information about things the person looks at. She has seen similar technology in contact lenses.

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The opening day’s keynote speaker was José Antonio Vargas (Storify coverage, video), the former Washington Post reporter who revealed his illegal immigration status. His main point was an argument to stop using the term “illegal alien.” He made a good point, partly on the legal/semantic issue of it being a civil violation to be in the country without documentation, not a criminal one, and partly on the basis of this: “In what other context do we ever describe a person as illegal?” Someone who drives at age 14 has broken the criminal law but is described as an underage driver; someone who drives drunk has broken the criminal law but is described as a drunken driver; neither is an illegal driver. He advocates using the term “undocumented immigrant,” which is both more precise and accurate.

(Poynter rounds up some of the counterarguments.)

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The Friday lunch “keynote” was an interview of Twitter’s CEO, Dick Costolo. Excellent interview. (Coverage, if you’re interested, or video.) One big bit of news: Twitter is developing tools to make it easier to curate event-oriented tweets. Also, pretty much all of Twitter’s development efforts are targeted at mobile users. Tweetdeck is its desktop tool and the only thing for desktops that is contemplated. (Costolo actually referred to it as something like “Twitter Pro for journalists.”)

UPDATE: Jeff Sonderman at Poynter.org has a list of 12 bite-size takeaways from the conference, largely different than mine.

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My first half day at ONA12 — actually the pre-convention sessions sponsored by J-Lab — and I already heard information I had long been hoping for. Bob Payne of the Seattle Times and Bruce Koon of public radio’s KQED talked about their sites’ partnerships with local blogs (they range from neighborhood news to topic blogs, such as a blog just about beer). The Seattle Times’ is the one I have been most interested in hearing about since my own background is on the print side, and Payne says it has proven valuable to the Times both from a newsgathering standpoint and from a community-engagement standpoint. Koon had similar reports of success, but I’ll focus on the Times. There are 55 blogs in the Seattle area that are signed up (there is a memorandum of understanding, but it’s hardly a formal process) as partners. Essentially it’s a link swap: The partners agree to let the Times post their headlines, and those link directly to the sites. Editors at the Times choose which headlines they want to use on their site, so they can skip any story they don’t like. And each week, the Times prints in the paper a one-page collection of the best of what they have seen on the partner sites. Actively curating these sites each day has led the Times to stories it might have otherwise missed, and a survey has shown that the partnership gives people in the community a more positive feeling about the Times. Seems like a win-win.

The objections I have heard from print editors to exploring this kind of community generally are fears about the reliability of the information on blogs, fears of liability, and wanting to keep away from the open advocacy of some local blogs. Payne said most of that is mitigated by the fact of having just a link to an external site. The Times doesn’t host any of the stories itself. Plus, there are editors reviewing each story before the link is posted, so they can pass judgment on each story’s reliability, but stories are not held to the same standards as staff — they aren’t supposed to be. If a story is important enough, the Times will assign a staffer to follow up. And as for the advocacy, the sites in the partnership that practice that — such as one for a group that writes about bicycle-related interests — are very transparent about it. In addition, the partnerships can be dropped by either party at any time, so if a group suddenly changes its approach there is an easy avenue to end the partnership.

Since news staffs are smaller than ever and will not ever get back to where they were, and since there are more community blogs than ever making more information easily available, this kind of relationship is one that would benefit any size news organization. It builds links in the community, and it helps the news organization put itself at the hub of the community conversation.

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A minor misfortune of my job since 2001 has been the title because no one outside the company would have any idea what it means: Newsbank editor. Or, worse, if someone has heard of NewsBank Inc., he or she might think my job was related. It wasn’t. There has never been any part of it related to NewsBank Inc. When Media General created a news-sharing intranet website in 1998, for whatever reason company officials chose to name it Newsbank (or, in public news releases, News Bank, though on the business cards presented to me when I first reported for work, it was Newsbank). So whenever I met someone and they asked what I did, I often thought of a line from an episode of the 1978-79 “Battlestar Galactica” (“The Long Patrol”) in which Starbuck lands on a prison planet where inmates’ names are derived from their crimes: “What exactly is Starbuckin’?” Before 2001, I could answer the “What do you do?” question with my actual title: “I’m a reporter.” “I’m the city editor.” “I’m the state editor.” Some further explanation might be tacked on, but the title conveyed basics. Starting in 2001, I skipped the title and launched into the explanation, and I quietly wished that back in 1998 someone had a different idea for the job title.

Today I realized what that title could have been. Within Steve Buttry’s post about the new curation team at Digital First Media is a fairly good description, from Karen Workman (the third person in the post, if you go looking for it), of much of what I do (go down to the bold subhead “So how can we do this?”). Of course, Newsbank is old technology (the original 1998 coding was rewritten, but that still was almost 10 years ago) and not up to everything she describes as desireable, and I do other things during the day — increasingly and sometimes depressingly so. But basically, yeah, the essentials are parallel. Maybe I should unilaterally adopt the title and update my resume accordingly.

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I hesitate a little to dive into attempting an answer to the question from Steve Buttry and Mandy Jenkins, “How should a news curation team work?” As the comments on many of Steve’s posts the past couple of years make clear, use of terms such as “curation” invites debates that often boil down to semantics and people talking past each other, even agreeing at times on general practices but disagreeing at the edges like alien cultures trying for but not quite achieving mutual understanding. But I’ll wade in anyway.

The idea of news curation has always seemed to me just the continuing evolution of what has long been standard operating procedure. In the 1990s at the Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal during the summer, when a hurricane approached we usually had staff at the coast, and unless the storm was hitting point-blank where our staff was, the state editor (me) would blend staff reports with elements of several other wire stories, adding attribution where needed. As technology advanced and we all had access via the Internet to more news sources, we could blend in elements from more places. For instance, during the 2004 Democratic and Republican conventions, in addition to editing stories from Media General’s Washington reporters I supplied a one-column at-a-glance collection of highlights, a mix of my own reporting (whatever eye-catching protests were going on around the convention site), a detail or two lifted from advance copies of the night’s big speeches, and elements from wire services and the National Journal.

Technology now, though, opens a vastly wider world, including live conversations. Limiting your news gathering to a few wire services or mainstream news sources may be easier, but it leaves out a huge amount of perspective. All of this information of course is available for people to find on their own, but isn’t it a logical extension of the role of a journalist to help people sort through it? It’s the role of a journalist to say, “I can help you make sense of all this and point you to the best places for more.” Automatic tools can only do so much – Tweetdeck, Twitter search, Google alerts and the like can bring you a river of information, but it can be a torrent, or a swirling jumble. Human intervention to sort it, done right, is valuable.

That said, when I get to the specific questions Steve and Mandy ask – “How should we …?” – I find myself reminded of and answering instead a different question, one I saw recently on Twitter (I thought it was raised by Stijn Debrouwere, but at the moment I can’t find it – if someone out there has curated it already, please point me to it), which essentially was this: Why after years of people talking about all these ideas for remaking news is it taking so long for anyone to do much with them? As much as anything, I think it’s just the daily crush – you run around like crazy trying to keep up with everything that you already have to do, and you want to try these new things people are talking about … but you look up and suddenly you have already been at your desk nine hours or more. “Maybe this weekend,” you think. Of all the newsrooms I have visited over the past 11 years, there were only a few where suggestions for new things to try online met with resistance to the idea itself; usually it was more a matter of “where will the time come from?” There are exceptions – where the boss makes it a priority to try new things, which means being willing to drop some of the old, new things get done.

Most of the time, you learn things that are truly new by doing them, and something else then occurs to you, so you try it, and on and on, not because someone showed or told you what you should do – if there were a great mass of people out there who knew all about doing this thing, it wouldn’t be new, would it? So assuming you are among the vast majority of journalists or soon-to-be-journalists who have no actual experience curating the news on the fly, and you have no concrete answers to the “How” questions, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. I believe that at some point, good curation will be a key ingredient of any successful news organization. So go ahead, answer them.

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