Archive for October, 2008

My PowerPoint on hyperlocal news

Download a copy of the PowerPoint here so you can follow the links inside. We didn’t get to the final part on future directions for journalism, so I highly recommend that you give this a closer look.

Also, since these ideas came up in our discussion, here are links to Chris Anderson’s 2004 article on the Long Tail and his more recent piece on the “economics of free” — as well as his blog, which sheds new light on both. We might come back to these ideas after the midterm; they’re too good and important to ignore.


The cult of Rob Curley (or, another look at hyperlocal)

For Monday, now that we have some time before the midterm is due, let’s revisit hyperlocal journalism, which is perhaps one of the most central concepts of this course. We need to understand what uber-local news is, how it’s done, and when it succeeds … and when it doesn’t.

There’s quite a bit of reading here, but it’s worth it. Ready?

Start with the basics. This entire Nieman Reports issue (see the “is local news the answer?” collection of articles) is a great resource on the subject, but don’t worry—just pick one or two of these pieces that looks most interesting to you, to whet your appetite.

Next, let’s consider the case of Rob Curley. First, read this rather breathless profile of him from 2006 (and catch examples of his work); then, catch up with this postmortem of hyperlocal’s “flop” at the Washington Post. Curley and many of his friends are now at the Las Vegas Sun, where almost overnight they’re turning a little-known news org into a flagship example of really cool online journalism.

Finally … as we consider the struggles of Curley, Backfence (see my post earlier this week), and others, we need to understand how and why hyperlocal, for all its promise and potential for “saving” newspapers, so far has failed to develop a sustainable business model (but, then, what has in online journalism!?). As this American Journalism Review piece noted:

The failure of Backfence may offer no greater lesson than the old one about pioneers being the ones with arrows in their backs. New ventures fail all the time. But it could also sound a cautionary note about the present–and immediate future–of hyperlocal news sites. As big-media companies and entrepreneurs alike rush into the hyperlocal arena (see “Really Local,” April/May), it’s worth pausing and asking: Is there a real business in this kind of business? So far–and admittedly it’s still very early –the answer is no.

I know this is a lot of information here … so let’s synthesize it. For Monday, please respond with your take on hyperlocal journalism, focusing particularly on the lessons learned for making it more successful and sustainable in the future.

Crowdsourcing journalism

Again, here’s the “trailer” for Jeff Howe’s new book that we watched in class today:

And the PowerPoint I shared:

(By the way, I’d suggest you download the full PowerPoint so you can follow the many links I threw in there to examples and such. Might be a good resource for you.)

For more on crowdsourcing, check out Jeff Howe’s blog … OJR’s guide to crowdsourcing journalism … and, perhaps best of all is this excellent “spotlight” from Louse Thomas that culls many of the best links on this subject. This series on crowdsourcing and journalism also is an invaluable resource. Check ’em out!

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.

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