Analysis - by Alana Taylor on Friday, March 6, 2009 19:48 - 3 Comments
Who wants to be Daniel Victor’s assignment editor?
How Daniel Victor’s ‘Central PA NewsVote’ is raising the bar on beatblogging
The media industry is in trouble. That much is clear. But instead of grieving the death of a long-suffering system, the important question we should be asking is, “What can journalists do about it?” Daniel Victor, 24, is a reporter for The (Harrisburg, Pa.) Patriot-News, and he thinks he’s got an answer.
“My new assignment editor? You, the community” is the headline of the post written by Victor on PennLive.com’s blog. Left alone, it sounds like a gimmick. Yet, the first sentence dispels any ambiguity in what Victor means by his title: “In the face of some skeptics, I stubbornly believe PennLive readers should be involved in deciding which stories we write.”
Pitch your stories. Vote on them. I’ll write them. I’m all yours.
On March 3, 2009 Central PA NewsVote officially launched. What is it? How does it work? As a “hybrid mobile journalist/general assignment reporter,” Victor will take the best story ideas from the comments section of his blog, create a poll on the site and allow readers to vote on which story he should do next. Then, the chosen story is the one he will write.
The people are his assignment editor.
Already, in the first week Victor received dozens of story ideas which he compiled into a small poll widget. The idea is to report on the hyper-local stories that matter most to the people. The result is that the blog will eventually become the number one, go-to site for members of that community.
“If you check this new blog every day, you will always learn about a new wrinkle in your community,” writes Victor. “That’s a wonderful promise for a news site to make.”
Tackling the Skepticism
It’s a wonderful promise, indeed. But is it even possible? Can a reporter really rely on an often-snarky forum culture that lives on the Internet? What if the readers contribute bad stories? What if they don’t contribute at all? Is there a plan B? All these questions press upon Victor’s new endeavor.
“I am trying to build up a bank of story ideas that people can vote on; that’s the backup plan,” Victor explains. “I can get my own pitches and let people vote so they feel like they’re participating, even if their not producing story ideas.”
Victor has already done a lot of work to get things started off on the right foot by using social media, and building a small army on Facebook and Twitter in order to get people used to sending in pitches.
According to Tech Dirt’s culture blogger, Mike Masnick, a mere voting mechanism sort of misses the point of what the community can add. It should go beyond voting to actually helping out — giving tips, feedback, ideas, facts and opinions, he writes. Masnick suggests letting the community go so far as actually helping to research a story.
“That’s kind of what I’m doing with Twitter,” Victor said in response. “That’s my main way of reaching people. I could see possibly using the blog to say, ‘this story won.’”
How It All Started
Victor, who has been covering Hershey, Pa. local news for almost three years, is not your typical journalist. Ever since he graduated from Penn State, he has focused on reaching out to mentors in the industry who were changing and innovating the way of thinking about the business. Call it insight or intuition, but Victor simply knew that beatblogging (along with mobile journalism and crowdsourcing) was journalism’s future.
Victor’s first pet project was acting as a guinea pig for Jay Rosen’s BeatBlogging.org, a site that is aiming to push the practice of beatblogging by following those who are doing it and recruiting and teaching those who want to do it. Victor took his beat, the local community of Hershey, Pa. and created a Ning network under the Patriot-News name.
In case you’re not hip with the new media lingo and you haven’t heard of this beatblogging stuff, it is, put simply, the implementation of social networking into beat reporting, often through a blog. This could mean using Ning to build an online community, creating and promoting Twitter hashtags to track trends on a beat or scouring the comments on a blog and using story ideas straight from the readers. As long as you have a beat, utilize social media and/or a blog and you engage the readers, use their ideas, ask them questions and treat them as real, professional sources — you are beatblogging. The idea is that using the community to produce stories will make the reporter’s task easier, and as a result, make stories more important because it’s what the people want to read.
Convincing The Editors
After finding mixed success in the Ning site, Victor set out to try improve on his original ideas.
“It was kind of a lightbulb moment,” he said. “It has always been an interest of mine to be interactive with readers, but it’s just a matter of making ourselves open to them. It hasn’t really been done.”
Victor started with an e-mail to his editors. It stated a new concept, wherein he would be the author and community manager of a new blog.
“It was fairly easy,” he said. “I walked over to the corner office, explained my idea and my editor was receptive to my pitch. Then, people just kind of bought into the idea.”
Victor calls it a “community-directed reporting” experiment, (a term he enthusiastically admits he stole from blogger/journalist/web developer Ryan Sholin). His goal is to have at least one originally reported story per day; stories that are “next-door slices of life that are usually the first to go because of shrinking staffs.” These types of stories could include a new playground, a business closing, an art gallery exhibit, a street being repaired, etc.
The Real Problem? Snarky, Spamming, Anons
What Victor is most worried about are the sarcastic, unforgiving, filthy-mouthed commenters whom he openly refers to as “smartasses.” For example, take the one anonymous commenter who mocked Victor’s new project and wrote: “How ‘bout naming it ‘Farmed Out’ because you’re too cheap to go get stories, so you want them to come to you.”
One of the important things Victor learned from his from his first beatblogging experience with the Hershey Ning-powered social network was how to create high level discussion.
“It’s certainly unavoidable, we’ll have some bad eggs,” he said. “It’s up to the productive people to set the tone and make the unproductive people feel unwelcome. It’s an ambitious goal, but it could work if we focus on creating that environment from the start.”
Overall, Victor is pleased with the positive feedback he has received from Facebook, Twitter and other bloggers he has met in real life. He truly believes that by setting an example from the beginning, his idea of a “for the people by the people”-type reporting system might flourish.
“I would love it if something really does work out well,” he said. “I would love to see other papers try it. Some reporters have said that they should try it. We’ll see.”
So Who’s Doing It Already?
No one! At least not really.
There’s BusinessWeek’s Editor-in-Chief, John A. Byrne who asks readers “What’s Your Story Idea?” and posts their comments online. Then there’s British magazine, The New Statesman, which encourages readers to vote for the investigative journalism stories the paper should cover and/or suggest topics the paper might have missed. Followed by the SciGuy, Eric Berger, who asks his readers what kind of science stories they would like him to report on and selects the best one. And lastly, HULIQ, an independent news site, which offers bloggers the ability to make their own sites popular by covering news and publishing it on HULIQ.com.
All four examples are just a few of many organizations that promote citizen journalism. However, the missing ingredient is the one Victor offers: complete, unchallenged control. Victor isn’t merely highlighting readers’ suggestions, or picking what he or his editor find as “the best story” or even suggesting that anyone’s story can make it to the front page. What he is proposing is a system where the readers contribute, vote and decide. Then, he is completely at their request and demand and must tackle the story as promised, without any say in the matter.
Focusing on the End Goal
Victor ultimately has faith in the people. He believes that a lot of normal, everyday readers who care about the community have story ideas but don’t even realize that they have them. In attempting to democratize the news process, Victor will allow these readers to have a direct impact on what hits the pages of The Patriot-News and PennLive.com, both by making reporters aware of stories and by deciding which ones will be told.
“Our role is shifting,” writes Victor on his blog, ByDanielVictor.com. “We are not just story-tellers, we are community-builders. Harnessing the power of the Web is a crucial part of that.”
And judging by the snark-free, positive comments that are swamping the young reporter after only one week, he may be onto something big.
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