Saturday, March 28, 2009

Liveblogging J-Week
New Media
Community Funded Journalism

We’re getting ready to hear from David Cohn, founder of Spot.Us, about community-funded journalism.

Cohn, fortunately, was able to get in late last night despite Redoubt’s continued activity. He calls himself a “recovering tech reporter.” He used to write for Wired, then worked as a freelancer while getting his Master’s in journalism from Columbia. After that, he worked as a new media consultant (although he hates the word “consultant”).

New media is a broad term, and Cohn is beginning by asking the room what we’d like to know about new media — or what we think it is. In addition to gateway media, there’s social media, too, and then database journalism (sites like EveryBlock). He’s sharing an example — watching the growth of Wal-Mart at Flowing Data.

Cohn doesn’t know what the evolution of journalism will look like, but he is confident that there will continue to be a need for journalists. There’s no lack of desire for news — news outlets have more readers than ever — it’s just a question of how the marketplace will emerge. It will look drastically different, and he doesn’t know that it will be sustained by news organizations the way it is now, but it will be an industry, and it will make money.

“Journalism is a process, not a product. Newspapers are a product ... and there is journalism in it. But journalism is a process.” You used to need an institution — like a newspaper — to cover the overhead for the delivery of journalism, but that’s no longer the case. “Journalism itself is alive and well.” But the organizations no longer have the authority to say who is and isn’t going to do journalism. More organizations that have traditionally not been news organizations are now doing reporting; for example, the ACLU was one of the first groups to break news about Guantanamo Bay. It’s an advocacy group, of course, but it did do reporting, and we’re going to see more of that. Journalists will find work, but it won’t necessarily be for a newspaper; it will be for other entities.

“Let’s talk about WikiMedia.” Buzzword: Crowdsourcing. Crowdsourcing is great for some things and not for others; for example, you don’t want your brain surgeon or your airplane pilot to be crowdsourced. Think journalist as community organizer. One example is the Off The Bus project at Huffington Post, which provided ground-level coverage of the 2008 presidential campaign. It’s participatory journalism.

What about online comments — how can they be elevated to be productive and not just divisive? There are different levels of engagement, and commenting is a low threshold, so it’s more likely to incite snarkiness. Ever heard of the 1-9-90 Rule? If you are looking for participation and you have 100 readers, one will participate actively. Eight or nine will comment now and then, and the other 90 won’t be engaged. What are some ways other than commenting that will engage that one reader (and require a level of involvement that will “weed out the jerks”)? You have to engage; it will require time and effort. The more time you put into it, the more you’ll get out of it. Cohn tends to have a “yes” attitude, so he’s not advocating for shutting off reader comments, but, as with fishing, you have to throw some back before you land a keeper.

It’s important to be on Twitter, but not because it’s cool. Remember Friendster? It was replaced by MySpace, which was familiar and usable because you already knew Friendster. Then came Facebook — same thing. Twitter is different. Maybe it will go the way of Friendster, but your time on Twitter isn’t wasted, because what Twitter represents is not going to go away. If something comes along to replace Twitter, you’ll know how to use it. He’s also introducing the room to FriendFeed. TweetUps and Meetups capitalize on social media by bringing it into the real world. It’s about making yourself available online. These are tools, not chores. If you think of Twitter as a chore, don’t use it.

One thing you can do as a journalist is take data — like police reports — and make it available in a user-friendly format so citizens can collect information. When you want to do something on the web, find the path of least resistance and stay agile. Don’t spend six months building something that might fail. Try something that will take you a week to build. Example: SeeClickFix, where you can create a map to track non-emergency issues like potholes in your area. Again, don’t be on it just because it’s hip and new; use it as a tool if you can, or don’t.

The first thing to do is to not get sidetracked by the tools. Decide what you want to do, and then find the right tool. ReadWriteWeb is a good site that covers tools like these. Potholes are a great example of an issue that can be covered using participatory journalism; you make the map available, then track reports from citizens.

Journalists sometimes get sidetracked by technology and the fear that we have to build everything from scratch. We don’t. The tools exist already; we just have to use them.

There’s a difference between being on the web and being of the web. The New York Times asks online readers to register, and one of the questions asked is country of residence. The number two response to that question — after United States — is Afghanistan. Why? Because that’s the first country in the drop-down list. Those readers aren’t in Afghanistan; they just don’t want to register. The Times is on the web, but it’s not of the web.

Some news organizations are making use of Second Life, where there is a real economy. Cohn has a friend who reports for Reuters in Second Life, and he covers Second Life events like real news. Second Life may have some possibility for expansion, but Cohn isn’t sure. Like Friendster, Second Life may go away, but what it represents will stay.

— Maia Nolan

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