There’s a reason why traditional newspapers have office buildings, and it extends far beyond the practical need to house their contributors.
Offices and face-to-face section meetings create pressure for writers to tap into their beats, pitch stories and complete those stories on time. Online, it’s easy for that pressure to dissipate and for the assignment and completion process to become haphazard. The concept of a controlled assignment desk can easily crumble into the dust.
But it doesn’t have to.
A few sites — like citizen journalism site ibattleboro — are trying different takes on the assignment desk. We like this one. It’s organized by topic of interest and lists specifics events to cover, among other things.
There’s also a list of tips for new citizen reporters at the bottom, featuring such gems as “relax” and “pace yourself.” They’re not particularly revolutionary suggestions, but they do make contributing look as painless as possible for new writers.
The New York Times’s The Local (Maplewood, Millburn and South Orange NJ edition) has an assignment desk of sorts, too. But it’s really just a post telling readers how to email in potential story ideas. Basically, it’s better than nothing but not a hell of a lot better. In fact, quite a lot of clicking around the net has yet to yield an example of an ideal virtual desk.
The time has come to draw out our own ideal Virtual Assignment Desk. Here’s how it could be done:
- The Desk lives in a tab easily visible on the front page of a Web site and is visible in its entirety to all registered contributors. No more of this behind the scenes BS; it’s too easy to lose track of stories that way.
- The editor(s) post stories they need arranged chronologically by due date and contributors sign on for each story. For bigger sites with more sections, the assignment desk should be organized much like the site itself, by section for ease of navigation.
- A notes field allows space for editors, the writer and other contributors alike to make observations, list contacts, pass on tips.
- Aside from the assignment desk main page, a secondary page will be open to pitches from all contributors. From there, editors cull the ones they like and add them to the main desk. Even ideas that aren’t getting much love from editors have a chance because their public airing will give anyone the opportunity to support them. This could be done both through votes and a notes option. We took this one in part from the bug reporting sites of old (and new), which allow contribution from both the users (writers) and the site administrators (editors). Sites like the one for Mozilla’s Firefox have been doing it for a while and to great effect.
- Once a story is completed, it goes into an archive rather than clogging the desk. If a piece is overdue, red caps are in order. If people aren’t getting their stuff in on time, come on, they deserve a tiny bit of semi-public embarrassment, don’t they?
Developing a successful assignment desk online comes down to a few key points:
- Make it public
- Make it specific
- Allow your writers to put in their two cents
We asked four Web experts to recommend the best books in the area of networks and social media. Here’s what they had to say:
The Book: “The Wealth of Networks” by Yochai Benkler
“It’s a formidable manifesto about the ways the digital technologies will alter our sense of value and our understanding of how we build things in the world. Benkler wants us to think beyond scarcity. What he is saying is that the tradition of political economy has been, for centuries, about managing scarcity. Coming up with models about efficient distribution of resources, his book sort of blows all of that away and shows a very different picture of world. One in which value is subject to the ability to manage abundance.
It’s too easy to say that we live in a world of unlimited information or information overload. What Benkler is pointing out is that real value is determined by the ways that people leverage this abundance to create huge and functional structures that don’t depend on the old reward systems where you had to pay somebody with goods, services, money, to get them to do something. Benkler points out that there are some really elaborate and valuable experiments in an electronic networked economy that don’t require you to reward people with those sorts of things. The reward is sociality, being part of something. The two best examples are Linus and Wikipedia. The reward for them is the deep reward of human beings working with each other.
Whether you buy his argument one, 50 or 100 percent, you can’t ignore this book. It’s a great conversation starter about the changes we’re going through.”
The Book: “Here Comes Everybody” by Clay Shirky
“It’s about how the Internet makes organizing groups trivially easy and how that process changes the kinds of groups that get formed and how it disrupts business and other structures that are based on doing that group formation in the old, expensive way.
I’m most interested in it from a journalism perspective since that’s what I do. Fundamentally, it gets at how the Internet eliminates a lot of the power that comes with owning a distribution channel. Before, if you had a group of people who wanted to know about city council in Boston and you had a group of people when knew about city council in Boston, to connect those two people you needed to have a journalist in the middle who would talk to the people who know what they’re talking about and would then share that knowledge with a large audience of people who buy the newspaper or watch the TV broadcast. That channel isn’t as important anymore. It’s easier to get around that channel; it’s easier for groups with like interests to assemble themselves without the intervention of a middle man, which is unfortunate for those folks who’ve made a living being quality, competent middle men.
It’s perfectly aligned to beatblogging because it’s all about how groups form. And around every beat there’s an invisible group of people who care about that beat and know about that beat. No matter how good a reporter you are pre-Internet, you were only going to be able to know a tiny fraction of those people. When that community can form around a Web site and form around this blog, the communication doesn’t have to be the reporter seeking out a source blindly or going to the same place you always go to. Now the sources have the ability to come to you and that really ties back into what Shirky is talking about.”
Brian Reich, Managing Director of little m media and author of Media Rules!: Mastering Today’s Technology to Connect With and Keep Your Audience.
The Book: “Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives” by John Palfrey and Urs Gasser
“The book is not about how to master social media or the technologies that will fuel engagement and change in the future. Rather, Palfrey and Gasser dig deep into “the future opportunities and challenges associated with the Internet as a social space,” as well as “the legal and social ramifications of the Internet with regard to the generation of “Digital Natives” born after 1980. I don’t think technology is the answer and too much of the attention in social media is paid to the tools, the channels and the like. For example, Twitter is not, itself, important — it is what short-form/micro communications represent about our society and how our communications are changing that we must understand. A first and important step to understanding how to engage, educate, mobilize and social effectively is to understand the audience you are trying to reach. Few books do as good a job as Born Digital at breaking down how digital natives communicate and what their expectations are for those who try to communicate with them.”
Howard Rheingold, author and critic on the topic of the social, cultural and political implications of modern communication media.
The Book: “From Counterculture to Cyberculture” by Fred Turner
“Fred Turner makes a strong historian/journalist/media-analyst case that the Whole Earth Catalog and several of the counter-cultural ideals and driving forces that merged in it, and especially the WELL, set the scene for personal computing and Web culture. Any number of cyberculture historians and theorists have come up with their analytic frameworks for understanding the importance of the WELL, but Fred Turner is the only one who really got it right.
He invokes some ideas that come from the sociology of science. He speaks about “network forums” that bring together networks that had not intersected before, in ways that lay the groundwork for people to create new sociotechnical forms. The Whole Earth Catalog readers and contributors, and later the WELL, are examples of network forums that brought together the people who were interested in self-sufficiency — an old American tradition that goes back to Emerson’s “Self Reliance” with the old-tech people interested in self-sufficient energy systems like windmills.
It’s not only an excellent historical analysis of the roots of digital culture, but it offers analytic frameworks for looking at social-cultural change. It is also a great example of how someone can go through two primary source materials, seek out people to interview and come up with an explanation of what a particular group of people did 25 years ago — so accurately that those people agree it is a good portrayal. It’s important to understand the dynamics of the historical emergence of web culture.”
Rachel Sterne interned at the State Department shortly after graduating from NYU in 2005, watched Kofi Annan plead with the Security Council to stop the madness in Darfur, and saw nothing happening. The classic next move in a situation like that would’ve probably involved buying a supportive “Save Darfur” t-shirt and turning genocide into her go-to talking point for dinner parties.
But Sterne wasn’t having that. Instead, she set up GroundReport.com, an open source global news site that shares revenue with its far-flung network of 4,000 citizen reporters. Called “the Wikipedia of news,” its goal is to democratize the media by making original, intelligent reporting possible for amateurs and professionals alike. More importantly though, the site produces international news at a fraction of the cost of the mainstream media by relying on locals for hyperlocal coverage.
While the financial benefits of this system are clear, Sterne maintains that the coverage you get from people who are living the stories they’re reporting is just as important.
“Everyone who’s reporting is experiencing these things first hand,” said Sterne, bent over her laptop at the WeMedia Game Changers conference. She showed some streaming video from the conference through GroundReport and elaborated on her belief that first-hand coverage from the people most affected is the way to go.
“You get the sort of perspective that a reporter from the states can’t really get,” she said.
And Sterne counts on this close up view to create public pressure around events like the genocide in Darfur. This is not to say that GroundReport is a hub for tales of martyrdom and whining about how hard life is in places where machetes are tools of government. By sticking to an objective, 450ish-word format that Sterne compares to that of The Associated Press, the site’s reporters strive to make their very personal coverage professional, as well.
“Whenever I look at global news Web sites, they tend to suck,” said Charlie Beckett, director of POLIS and author of “Super Media: Saving Journalism So It Can Save the World.”
Plagued by problems of lack of feedback and disorganization, international reporting sites can easily turn into disjointed messes requiring the sort of navigation that few readers are looking to participate in.
“I don’t want to go to GroundReport and spend half an hour digging around for something that’s interesting,” Beckett said. “I don’t have time for that.”
Fortunately for Beckett, he doesn’t have to. The front page of GroundReport is populated with the highest rated posts, as are all the site’s topic-specific pages.
“We have an active Wikipedia-style editorial team that can revise any content on the site and a rating system that determines what goes on the front page and in our RSS feed,” said Sterne when asked about the organization of the site.
While this does result in a scattered front page — stories like “5-Wheeled Car Slides Sideways for Parking” situated right below “Sri Lanka Announces Truce to Save Civilian Lives”— it also provides a departure from the chronology-based blog style that leaves readers like Beckett itching to get out.
Like most start up ventures though, GroundReport’s growth is hindered by a lack of capital. The site launched in 2007 with seed money from Sterne’s own savings and family contributions. Since then, cash prizes like those GroundReport won at the German “Open Source Meets Business” conference, content partnerships and advertising have helped defray the costs.
At this point, the site is paying for itself, something few global start ups can claim. The money being generated is enough to continue and subsist, but not enough grow to the extent that Sterne would like.
“The logo is probably the only thing I’m happy about right now,” she said of the amateurish appearance of the site. But until GroundReport sees an infusion of capital, the visual mock up of a more professional looking site will remain nothing more than a mock up.
But half the beauty of Internet-based projects lies in the unprecedented low overhead, which allows GroundReport to continue operating and testing its methods even without any major investments. And the aspect of the site most often questioned — its complete reliance on untrained citizen journalists and volunteer editors — is also its saving grace as far as money is concerned. The site shares ad revenue based on the quality and popularity of contributors’ articles, which spurs better contributions but also puts a natural cap on the amount that the site will have to pay for each specific act of journalism.
On GroundReport, writers succeed only when the website as a whole does. And while sums like $52.59 for 33 postings look paltry to Americans, they don’t seem so puny to contributors like Kenyan Fred Obera. “I’m not in it for the money, but it does make life better for a poor journalist like me,” he said.
Sterne added, “It’s enough to make participating worthwhile for some of our contributors in developing countries.”
It’s also a major factor in differentiating GroundReport from other citizen journalism and global reporting sites. The former rarely pay their contributors and the latter have higher overhead costs because they’re employing professional correspondents.
Chief among such sites is Boston-based GlobalPost.com, which employs professional journalists living around the world at a base rate of $1000 for four posts a month. Charles Sennott, Global Post’s Executive Editor and VP, is a fan of GroundReport but notes that, “our journalists, from what I could gauge, are considerably of a different realm.”
Offering contributors some amount of money for the posts does provide some incentive for good reporting, but it also keeps the site from reaching a level of quality necessary to compete with Global Post and the big boys of Internet-based foreign reporting. GroundReport can’t switch to the Global Post model, which generally means employing journalists living in foreign countries, without undermining its entire strategy of relying on hyperlocal coverage from the locals.
But I wonder if this very strategy will keep them from ever developing the audience they’ll need to expand.
Photo: Screen shot from CNN.com
It’s a safe bet that Charlie Beckett, online media aficionado, director of POLIS at The London School of Economics and author of Super Media: Saving Journalism, knows a hell of a lot more about the media than most of us. If his credentials aren’t convincing you, check out this interview. Somehow, he sums up the current state, ongoing failures and legitimate potential of beatblogging in a networked world in three questions.
What is the potential for beatblogging in an increasingly networked world?
I think the key to it is understanding what we mean by the beat, what that area is. What is the cue, or the subject? And that’s changed. In the past, it was kind of obvious. It would be your neighborhood…and if it was a subject, it would be basketball or medicine. But as they get more hyperlocal and specialized, in a way they get more complicated.
If people want extremely hyper-local sports reporting, they concentrate on just one team. When you see networked journalism, they often plot new genres because the public doesn’t think the same way the journalists do. They’ll do comedy and the football club, they’ll be talking about sex on the same forum, they’ll be talking about really specialist discussions about injuries that those football players have got. I always think that’s amusing because you get joe public sometimes w/out an expert view, but sometimes there’ll be joe public who happens to be a sports physiotherapist and has a very expert view and they comment on that blog.
What I’m saying is it’s all very complicated. Even on the hyper-local level, how people define their community is much more sophisticated than it used to be. When you think of geographical, it’s obviously much harder because people who live on separate streets may have nothing in common with each other. I live in north London, where my kids go to school and have a lot of interests in common with people whose kids go to the same school. But my football team is in East London. I was born and brought up in South London where I have a lot of connections. And my wife’s from West London.
What is hyper-local for me? It’s difficult to define. But once you do define it — and I think, increasingly, non-professionals are much better at this than professionals — it’s a very rich, creative thing.
Social networks are brilliant for defining “what is a community?” because they don’t worry about the definition, they just get on and do it.
When do you think the major shift occurred and how is the potential different now?
At one level, it hasn’t occurred yet. Beatblogging, hyper-local, hasn’t really taken off in a way that has huge capacity. There’s a lot of failure out there, partly because it’s difficult to define and partly because it doesn’t have a lot of momentum. The danger is that, by it’s very nature, something that becomes hyper-local or very specialized may not move much, in journalism terms, anyway. You know, the story doesn’t change much and it can be quite static. So I don’t see it necessarily as something that kind of replaces mainstream journalism. I think it’s additional.
Where it’s ahead of us already is, say, in the social networks, where people are creating areas of interest already. It took off when Facebook took off. In a way, some bloggers have been very, very good at turning themselves into hyper-local beat reporters. The political ones especially. You can be a blogger who covers a beat.
I’m a blogger who covers a very specific beat. It’s called academic journalism or something in Britain. And I have a very small network of people who come to me because they think I will report on stuff. I’m kind of that person. On the other hand, it’s been difficult for me to scale that up or turn it into a richer network.
I don’t put a lot of effort into crowd sourcing and the other techniques. That takes an effort, and that’s sort of what Jay Rosen and Paul Bradshaw are very good at looking at.
Bottom line is that it does take effort. It doesn’t necessarily blossom by itself.
How will the beat reporter’s world change as the network potential of the web expands?
I look at social networks and I see people creating what are reporting communities without ever worrying about it. It’s only the journalists who worry about ‘well, is this a basketball personality blog or is it a celebrity basketball blog?’ Just do it and see what people are interested in.
It’s two directions of travel on this. One is from the audience. One of the problems at the moment is that people aren’t sure where to find this kind of information. Once you set up a hyper-local blog, how do you tell the people in that locality that you’re there?
It’s partly about usage and media literacy and sheer volume and scale. You’re kind of shouting in an empty room. The people are in the next room and they don’t realize. You’ve got to bring them into the room.
From the other side, the information disseminators, the journalists, we are still struggling to change the model from the broadcast model — the idea that if we shout something loudly enough, people will come and get it, they’ll sign up for subscriptions and come to us. We are still struggling with the online technologies such as collecting meta data, understanding traffic flow. You know the stuff about putting Brittney Spears in every story, that’s kind of the level of our understanding at the moment. And I think that’s really changing. I’m not a technologist, but that really fascinates me.
If you look at stuff like the social network marketing applications on Facebook, of course, the money grubbing bastards always lead first, they develop quickest. And the journalists have to get the same tricks, which is listening to what people are saying online and then getting in on those conversations. So that way you can find the people and what the subjects are. That way of understanding the meta data intelligently is only just evolving, really. The use of people’s day to day data about people will be a really valuable resource for making journalism proximate to people’s lives.
*Photo from CharlieBeckett.org, a site worth reading.
Anyone with reporting experience knows what a pain in the ass it can be to find good quotes for a story. Put the event up for discussion around the world and watch as “difficult” turns into a full fledged nightmare.
DePaul University grad student Craig Kanalley wants to make opinion quotes and eyewitness accounts easier to wrangle. His site, BreakingTweets.com, uses Twitter and a group of editors to format news stories in an unusually interactive way that provides quotes for other journalists.
It starts with an editor, who writes a one or two paragraph explanatory intro about the story, then come the tweeters, who send opinions, analysis and eyewitness media. Editors cull the best and most insightful tweets from the bunch, as well as occasionally interjecting with their own updates.
“I think a well done Breaking Tweets story can be just as valuable as a longer form traditional news story on the same subject,” Kanalley said.
More importantly though, it’s a model you can use for your own blogging. Whether your blog is geographically anchored or just subject-specific, the Breaking Tweets method translates to hyper-local blogging easily. Use it to enmesh your own authorship with reader opinion, to collect media and organize the endless comment stream that is Twitter.
Below you’ll find an interview with Kanalley about where Breaking Tweets came from and how his team is making it work:
Lily: Where did you get the idea for Breaking Tweets?
Craig: I first thought of doing something like Breaking Tweets on Nov. 4, when I saw the amount of people twittering about Election Day and how Twitter can serve as a place for breaking news, very personal feelings and eyewitness accounts.
I didn’t actually follow through on the idea until Jan. 31, 11 days after I attended Barack Obama’s Inauguration in D.C. That event got me even more excited about Twitter. And following what people in Australia were saying about the Australian Open on Jan. 31 put me over the top — I finally created the Breaking Tweets blog. It was meant to be a personal blog at first but quickly grew into something more. We’ve had 35,000 page views since the site launched and visits from 116 countries.
Obama’s inaugural address sounded pretty familiar to frequent readers of Slate.com. Perhaps that’s because 455 of them wrote it.
Well, not quite “it,” but something surprisingly similar in many ways. There was no huge meeting; no conference of the politically-minded, Obama-loving Slate readers. Rather, there was a website, and a fairly new one at that. The site is MixedInk.com and the collaborative writing service it offers is powerful.
Here’s how it works: decide what you’re going to write about and allow hundreds or even thousands of interested participants to submit their two cents and comment on others’ contributions. As content comes in, contributors vote for the best, build off one another and end up with a cohesive piece of writing that takes the collective good stuff and leaves the bad behind.
MixedInk’s two most impressive projects thus far — the Slate collaboration and nearly 200 online activists who used the service to create a democratic platform, a small part of which ended up on the actual platform — have been political. But the MixedInk method is also incredibly applicable to beatblogs with active and opinionated readerships.
“It’s not good for five, 10 people collaborating,” acknowledged co-founder David Stern. “But there can be some pretty big niches for beatblogs. As long as it’s a big enough group, I think MixedInk is relevant.”
So if your “beatblog” is you and your sister interviewing your best friends about relationships, MixedInk probably isn’t for you. But if you’re a member of a community — online or otherwise — looking for a way to harness the creativity of the group, it’s your one stop shop.
David called it “a way to process news and summarize what’s happened, analyze it and say what it all means, to opine and take a position as a community.” As far as beatblogs are concerned, MixedInk offers a means of bringing reader interaction beyond comments, forums and Twitter responses. It offers the possibility of a site moderator posing a question and readers’ responses coming together as more than a group of remarks largely isolated from one another.
The site has been up and running since April 2007, but the MixedInk team is currently working to make it more widely accessible. They’ll do this by turning MixedInk into a free widget for smaller sites and a white label service for larger companies who want it fully integrated into the look and functionality of their sites. The widget should be available within the next couple weeks and David says its best for small publishers “who just want to figure out where their community stands — do something more engaging.”
“I’m about as newbie as you get,” he admitted when asked about previous blogging experience. He’s so new, in fact, that he spent the better part of this morning in Twitter and Facebook training, learning how to use social networks for online journalism.
You see, that’s the thing about The Local, it’s unapologetically experimental. Its two pilot blogs — Newman’s in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene/Clinton Hill area and a second for Maplewood, Millburn and South Orange New Jersey— were born of “financial desperation,” Newman said.
They are part of The Times’ “endless search for any way to get into some enterprise that could conceivably make money.” And while this doesn’t exactly encourage trust that they know what they’re doing, it is a promising sign about the direction of the Times as a whole. After decades of God-like distance from the subjects of their reporting, the company has finally decided to gets its hands dirty in this new and very much unknown venture.
Where traditional Times credo puts professional journalists at an arm’s distance, The Local throws professionals (Newman) and amateurs (college interns and community bloggers) right into the neighborhood, albeit a bit haphazardly at this point. Internet newbie though he may be, Newman embodies this new, hands on approach. The very concept of “covering” a community is “old school,” he said. That type of distance between the subject and object won’t exist on The Local.
“Before we even launched, I spent most of the last couple months calling people in the area, having meetings, walking around and talking to people, getting them to want to contribute,” Newman said.
Plus, there’s the .nytimes.com in the URL, “which means something to some people.” As far as current inflow of content is concerned though, he acknowledges that they “don’t quite have the hang of it yet.” Content is flowing in, but the quality and consistency varies.
This week brought with it a successful community-driven back and forth between the Fort Greene Park Conservancy, readers and the Parks Commission. The Park Conservancy’s Web master submitted a post about banning grass-ruining soccer players from the park, readers commented copiously and a follow up from the Parks Department this morning essentially said we don’t care about the soccer players, let them be.
“There’s enough of an audience that’s hungry for this stuff that they’ll read both,’ he said.
As for competing with the Clinton Hill Blog and The Real Fort Greene, The Local is counting on its consistent posting and full-time commitment as opposed to spare-time commitment to differentiate itself.
All in all, the pursuit is admirable, the timing only a little bit late and the enthusiasm level promising. Now if only they could figure out that damn Twitter device…
This is not the non sequitur it seems. Her answer derives from annoyance over a misperception she still feels.
“The mainstream media is so biased,” she explained. “After 9/11, they made it sound like all Muslims are terrorists. I’m a Muslim, My kids are Muslims; we’re not terrorists. Everyone has a bias. Editors have a bias. I have a bias. So I thought the only way to fix this is to get all the voices out there.”
AllVoices.com — Tareen’s answer to closed, controlled traditional media — launched in July 2008 with the goal of including as many people as possible. If Tareen had her way, the AllVoices community would be all six billion people on earth. But within a site that aims to be global and all-inclusive in its scope and membership, a curious thing is happening. Even with free rein in topic choice, Tareen tells us that many of AllVoices’ contributors are choosing very specific beats and becoming mini experts within the larger framework of the massive site.
“Individual people are very consistent usually and the topics they like to report about are very consistent,” she said. “We’re creating a ton of little experts.”
Although AllVoices’ policy of allowing aliases rather than full names raises questions of accountability, Tareen explained that contributors “develop an identity on the site.” They have a user name and a profile page and anything they do gets aggregated onto their profile page.
“Plus, their profile on AllVoices dictates how much money they make for their contributions,” she explained.
Tying the quality of their contributions — from posts to pictures and even comments — to users’ purse strings is part of the motivation for the beatblogging that happens on AllVoices. According to Tareen, the beatbloggers generally do better than their less focused counterparts.
Pakistani user MarcusCato has been blogging with AllVoices since August 30, 2008. In that time, he’s narrowed his focus to politics and the economy, particularly in the Middle East and his content has been viewed by 350,125 users. Not too shabby for six and half months.
Halfway across the world, BorderExplorer, a 59-year-old Texas woman, is the unlikely guardian of all things US/Mexico border related.
“Although I was born in the middle [Midwest, middle-class] and am now middle-aged, I’ve moved to the U.S/Mexico border,” she wrote in her profile.
She’s only been blogging about border issues for three months and already has about 34,000 page views.
Specializing like this rather than posting anything and everything that pops into your head means more developed knowledge on a topic and a bigger, more loyal fan base to bring in the hits. Tareen admits that this degree of specialization was not expected from the outset, but considers it a uesful development both for the beatbloggers and the site as a whole.
“The more focused ads you can drive to your pages, to the site, that means you can earn a higher CPM — cost per thousand views. Because if you’re more specific, you get a higher value for advertising,” she said.
A loyal following and a little extra cash? We’ll take it.
Below, Amra explain how and why AllVoices.com is developing beatbloggers:
Photo from bizjournals.com