Archive for October, 2008

Filtering bad apples in citizen journalism

Apple’s stock took a major hit this morning after a phony report of Steve Jobs having a heart attack was posted to CNN’s citizen journalism site, iReport. After bloggers confirmed it was false, the report was yanked from iReport, and the stock bounced back.

Techcrunch offered some interesting observations on the morning’s events:

Rather than fight the rise of citizen journalism, CNN decided to try to co-opt it by launching iReport. CNN’s iReport site lets anyone put up posts and videos about the news. Its tagline is “Unedited. Unfiltered. News.” Sometimes these reports get on CNN proper (presumably, after being vetted).

But as this incident shows even the an unvetted report carries more weight than if it had appeared on Twitter or a random blog because it is on a CNN site. And that may be purely because it gets distributed more broadly. It could also be because people tend to believe what they read on CNN-branded sites.

Let’s not let one bad apple ruin the whole experiment, though. Obviously, there are a lot of smart people out there who can contribute to general news gathering. There needs to be a better truth filter on iReport and other sites that allow the anonymous reporting of news. A better reputation system for contributors would help. They shouldbe encouraged to use their real names. And maybe a bigger disclaimer needs to be placed up top saying: “Read At Your Own Risk.”

Crowdsourcing the VP debate

Hey, everyone, I jut ran across this item from the indispensable iWantMedia daily e-mail update (full post here):

National Public Radio (NPR) is doing something interesting for tonight’s vice presidential debate: It’scrowdsourcing fact-checking through micro-messaging service Twitter.

It’ll work like this: While you’re watching the debate, if you hear anything by either Democrat Joe Biden or Republican Sarah Palin that you think is not true, NPR is encouraging you to look for a source to prove it. If you can track one down, they’d like you to post it to Twitter and include the tag #factcheck, so they can find it.

NPR will then take these questionable claims, investigate further, and post anything that is in fact a questionable statement made by one of the candidates to its blog. If you’re not a member of Twitter, you can also leave your fact-checking results in the comments of their post. (Or you can sign up for an account, like a lot of other people interested in politics are apparently doing.)

So, this comes a day late if you wanted to contribute, but you can follow the debate reactions via this Twitter search and follow NPR politics’ tweets here. Do you think this worked?

Writing for blogs and the Web

How do you write for a blog?

As with most things, there isn’t one “right” way, but let’s start with principles of good writing for the Web. Internalize these, please.

Next, think about writing for a blog specifically. Some general tips here, with a note about optimal post length here. And 10 tips for a good post. Mostly common sense kind of stuff, right?

In blogging, most of the same principles of good writing (offline and online) are very much in play, but here’s where it becomes essential to have voice, personality, flair, and all those things that make someone interesting and something interesting to read (and comment upon). (Think: the writing style of Gawker.) So, writing principles are similar for whatever you’re blogging—shorter the better, use active voice, use strong verbs, attribute sources via hyperlinks, use lists and quotes to break up blocks of text, etc.—but you’ll need to decide what kind of blog writing style to employ. Consider a few examples …

The ticker blog … Posts are very frequent (sometimes every 10 minutes!); they come in short bursts, telegraph-like, with heavy emphasis on quick wit, few words, and often one-link posts directing readers to stories/videos of interest. Example:

The in-between blog … OK, that’s lame, but I couldn’t come up with a better name for this, which is basically you’re more “standard” blog of frequent posts (at least once daily, but for the more popular blogs sometimes a dozen or more times a day) of 200-some words in length. Examples include Techcrunch and Daily Dish.

The essay blog … Posts are infrequent (sometimes a couple times monthly); they’re classic “think pieces”—long essays of prose, dense with hyperlinks burrowing deep into the subject. Example: Jay Rosen’s PressThink. (Note: even long-form bloggers like Jay Rosen have adopted the ticker style through things such as Twitter; check out his “mindstream“).

OK, now for your “assignment” … visit the blog/website you’re examining for your midterm case study. Give it a 5-minute read-over. How’s the writing? What kind of styles do they employ? Let’s discuss in class.

Hyperlocal journalism: build a community, be useful

Let’s take a quick drive-by of hyperlocal journalism, because the principles behind it infuse so much of what we think about and do in this class.

I told you how Backfence failed. This postmortem from co-founder Mark Potts explains why. The key thread running through his analysis is that Backfence failed to generate sufficient community, conversation, and creation on the part of contributors. (Lots of C’s in there.) That’s important to remember as you build a case study for the midterm: Beyond merely tech wizardry, what is your target site doing to build and sustain community?

Let’s suss out some of the most salient points from Potts …

Engage the community. This may be the single most critical element. It’s not about technology, it’s not about journalism, it’s not about whiz-bang Web 2.0 features. It’s about bringing community members together to share what they know about what’s going on around town.

It’s not journalism — it’s a conversation. Actually, it’s whatever the community wants it to be. The magic of hyper-local sites, be they Backfence, other startups, Yahoo Groups or local blogs, is that they provide a forum for community members to share and discuss what’s going on around town. The back-and-forth of a good online conversation can be as rich, deep and interesting — or more so — than traditional journalism. In fact, the role of journalists in this process is overrated — except maybe by journalists! The less involved site managers are, aside from lightly moderating the conversation, the better.

Leverage social networking. The rise of MySpace, Flickr, YouTube and the commercial version of Facebook — virtually all of which have happened since Backfence launched more than two years ago — demonstrates the power of social media. Local communities are social beehives anyway. Why not take advantage of existing local connections and the virality and marketing reach of social tools such as member profiles, “friending” tools, widgets and the ability of members to exchange messages with each other? This was an element we unfortunately were unable to get off the drawing board at Backfence, because of business issues and other priorities.

But, the success to hyperlocal goes beyond community alone. It means having a site with real utility that helps people accomplish things in their local area. As Publishing2 points out:

Hyperlocal is about “community,” sure, but on the Web it’s more about utility — hyperlocal is where we lead our daily lives and all the things we need to get done. We need to know where to live, where to find the zoo, where to eat out, where to play golf, where the local YMCA is, and where to see a dentist.

The problem with all the thinking on hyperlocal is that it’s focused on what we think people need, i.e. more local news reporting, not what they want, i.e. help getting things done — web publishers figured out 10 years ago how to give people what they want, and then Google stepped in and took care of the rest.

That doesn’t mean that hyperlocal can’t evolve in the 2.0 era — but it needs to do so with a keen understanding of how the Web works, and not a nostalgia for how local newspapers used to work.

Much more out there on the promise and peril of hyperlocal journalism. So, how do we do it right? Hopefully, we’ll have some answers at semester’s end.

Keys to successful online news sites

To help you prep for your midterm paper, we need some metrics by which to evaluate online news sites in the Web 2.0 environment. What makes a site stand out?

Take 15 minutes to read this post, follow the links to see examples, and come up with your own synthesis of what matters. How could you use this to critique the site you’re analyzing for the midterm?

Okay, Ready? My Coordinates for a Successful News Site (PressThink) … about this post, which first appeared here, a news exec said: “It comes as close as anything I’ve seen to a roadmap for the near future.”

(The focus here, of course, is news, and so if you’re looking at a non-news site, some of these won’t apply … and, yet, on another level they do — for all they’re all about engaging reader/participants in creating information that has timeliness, relevance, and value. So, what’s your case-study site doing to collaborate, contribute, create in a truly value-added way?)


  • What key features make a news site “sticky” for you personally?
  • Can you come up with some “coordinates” that might have gone missing from this list?
  • To what extent could/should these ideas be applied to mobile platforms?
  • How do these coordinates fit in the context of digital culture, Web 2.0, and the like?
  • What could your target site learn from this?

Now, turn to your partner and for a couple of minutes tell ‘em what’s working and what’s not with the site/blog/etc. that you’ve chosen for the midterm case study.

Then, post a quick synopsis in the comments section. That will help me see where you’re going with this assignment, and allow me to give you some feedback where needed. (Check back later today for my comments in reply.)

Explanatory Journalism

As we discussed in class Monday, Journalism (with a big “J,” in talking about the field generally) could improve dramatically by using the Web for what it’s good at: not only going deep and plumbing the depths of a topic, but using links to put the day-to-day drip-drip of news in the context of something simple and basic. In other words, explain it. (Just like Uncle Jay!)

As Jay Rosen wrote:

What’s basic? If the providers of information aren’t providing thebasic explainers that turn people into customers for that information, they don’t deserve those customers and won’t retain them. So as we think about new models for news we need to think about expanding that little what’s this? feature you sometimes see on effective web sites. That’s not about web design. That’s a whole category in journalism that I fear we do not understand at all.

Rosen highlighted this weakness as he described his own “discovery” of the story on the subprime mortgage crisis this summer through a brilliant piece of explanatory journalism, a This American Life radio piece dubbed “The Giant Pool of Money” — the “greatest explainer ever heard.” (A shorter version was aired on NPR.)

More from Jay Rosen after the jump. Continue reading ‘Explanatory Journalism’

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