For proof technology is changing journalism for the better, look no further than the seven organizations honored yesterday by the Knight Foundation. This year’s Knight-Batten award winners the Sunlight Foundation, ProPublica, 48 HR Magazine, the St. Petersburg Times, Ushahidi Haiti, Publish2, and The Takeaway leveraged social networks, interactive databases, mobile messages and other emerging technologies to spread information and engage their audiences.
Technology, however, is not the real star here. A lot of the tools the winners used can be easily obtained and understood by beginning users. The Sunlight Foundation’s real-time coverage of February’s health care summit, for example, used a public embed code from The White House for its live video stream. The central tool in ProPublica’s Reporting Network, meanwhile, was e-mail. Even among the more technical projects like Ushahidi’s interactive map wiki and Publish2’s content sharing platform, technology is not the real star. The real star is the values behind each project, values anyone in news — big enterprises and small enterprises, techies and non-techies — can and should start applying today — along with the previously mentioned accessible technology. There’s nothing stopping you from being a Knight-Batten winner, or at least acting like one.
What it is: The Sunlight Foundation used data, visualizations and insight gleaned from research to contextualize real-time coverage of February’s bipartisan health care summit and promoted its work and tracked audience response with various online tools.
What it teaches: What you do before and after live coverage is as important as what you do during it.
The real-time Web renders preparation more important, not less. The success or failure of live online coverage is usually determined in days leading up to the event, not during the minutes or hours of the event itself. The Sunlight Foundation conducted intensive planning and research ahead of the seven-hour health care summit. It also monitored the audience response in real-time and after-the-fact, informing tactical decisions that day and strategic decisions for live coverage projects going forward.
What it is: ProPublica enlisted an army of more than 5,000 citizen reporters with meaningful (spot checking government data), even fun (photographing congressmen attending the Super Bowl) assignments, engaging its audience and extending its journalistic reach.
What it teaches: Audience contributions rise to your expectations.
Ask your audience to contribute more than just weather photos and you might be surprised by the results you get. Even if only a fraction of your citizen journalists participate in assignments, and even if only a fraction of their contributions can be used in your coverage, making users feel like they’re part of the team goes a long way toward building audience engagement and loyalty. And when it comes to things journalists can’t do or can’t easily do themselves — like monitoring direct mailings or requesting residents-only public documents in states they don’t live in — if you don’t get it from your users you’re probably not going to get it at all.
What it is: Starting the process on Twitter and ending it with print-on-demand Web service MagCloud, 48 HR Magazine in a single weekend crowdsourced a 60-page magazine, soliciting, editing, producing and publishing 70 entertaining, smartly presented entries.
What it teaches: Don’t ask “Why?” Ask “Why Not?” Or, better yet, just do it.
Create a magazine in 48 hours? That’s crazy. Yes, it is. But crazy doesn’t mean impossible. In the time most would spend hemming and hawing about how crazy it is these folks got it done. Like newspaper chain the Journal Register Company’s recent Ben Franklin Project, it’s a testament to the Web and its organizing power and its affordable, accessible tools. It’s also a testament to people and their willingness to take risks and think positively. In both the 48 HR Magazine and the Ben Franklin Project, somebody boldly, unequivocally stated “We’re gonna do this.” Then, impressed by the leader’s conviction if not completely convinced by it, others signed on. “Sure, why not?” Momentum built, and suddenly it didn’t seem so crazy. “Why not?” gave way to “We really are gonna do this” gave we to “We did it!”
What it is: With users’ assistance, the St. Petersburg Times’ PolitiFact.com tracked 500 Obama campaign promises, rated them as kept, compromise, broken, stalled, in the works or not yet rated and presented the tally through simple, fun, engaging color-coded graphics.
What it teaches: The million-mile-per-hour online news cycle isn’t the Web’s fault, it’s yours.
The Web’s accelerated news cycle drives politicians to make all kinds of promises, and usually, helps them get away with it. In July, when all eyes seem to be on the thermometer or the Gulf Coast, remarks made 19 months ago in a snowy New Hampshire square don’t fit the live, latebreaking model. It’s so refreshing, then, to see the Web leveraged to break free from horse-race journalism and hold leaders accountable. Why journalists, with virtually unlimited Web space, don’t share the overwhelming portions of their interviews that don’t make it into stories has been a recent topic of discussion in online journalism circles. A fine argument in favor of this is it’s easy and cheap to do and at least few users are likely to find it useful or interesting. The even better argument: Like the Obameter, archiving interviews serves as a check on the 24-hour news cycle — something that wasn’t a big deal initially and was left out of the story might become story-worthy later — and promotes accountability — from journalists as well as sources.
What it is: Ushahidi Haiti and its international volunteers utilized the open source Ushahidi platform to aggregate e-mail, social media, Web and text message reports from the Haiti earthquake zone on an interactive map. The geo wiki pinpointed in near real-time damaged infrastructure, security threats, public health resources and other variables. It proved to be a useful resource for journalists and others following the disaster. It proved to be an invaluable resource for emergency responders. In no uncertain terms, Ushahidi saved lives.
What it teaches: Those you’re trying to cover (or rescue) collectively know a lot more than you do.
Those who respond to disasters and those who cover disasters typically carry out their work in a very centralized manner. The authorities funnel operations and communications through a purportedly omniscient command center and media regurgitate the command center’s messages like they are the only and final word. As a result, each party misses important stuff, or at least gets to it later than it should. In how it was developed and how it is used, Ushahidi is a posterchild for the power of decentralization. It didn’t rise from Silicon Valley power brokers searching for a profit-making patent. It rose from Kenyan citizen journalists responding to a humanitarian crisis. It doesn’t depend on manufactured authority to broadcast a presumed truth. It organically grows authority through the wisdom of groups to reveal a constantly updating snapshot.
What it is: Publish2 streamlined content sharing through its custom-built platform, enabling news organizations of all sizes to create networked newswires free from the restraints and expenses of traditional, centralized cooperatives.
What it teaches: There are times when it makes sense for competitors to be each other’s customers.
Like Ushahidi, Publish2’s News Exchange illustrates the power of decentralized networks. It also supports the notion that instead of going down together, even rival news organizations should learn to work together. There are important stories today’s leaner newsrooms don’t get around to covering. But, maybe a competitor does. Who the buyer is and who the seller is can flip on any given story, so, there’s a mutual interest to pool resources. And even on stories every news organization in town can get to, there’s often little marginal value in having every last news outlet there over a smaller amount. I expanded upon this last point in my proposal for an iTunes for news called Regional Online News Trading Posts:
I’m not saying cross-town outlets shouldn’t still try to one-up each other’s coverage. The fear that the other guy might have it and you won’t promotes better journalism.
But, what about when you know everybody’s going to have it, and, it’s, let’s face it, not that great of a story? Is the opportunity cost of five news organizations sending five reporters to get the same canned quotes and staged photos from a police dog-and-pony show hyping a mid-level drug bust really serving the audience? How about four or those news organizations have the fifth cover the cops’ theatrics while their reporters are off at the unemployment office, prisons and mental health parity bill hearings probing the root cause of their community’s drug problem?
What it is: Radio journalists tapped residents in Southwest Detroit to be the assignment editors for stories about their community, soliciting and following up on text messages reporting community problems like illegal truck traffic and describing their Mexicantown neighborhood in a few words. The approach, since replicated in Miami’s Little Havana, engaged nontraditional listeners and informed nontraditional stories.
What it teaches: Meet your audience on platforms it prefers, not those you or other media do.
Pew Internet’s Mobile Access 2010 report, released earlier this month, noted that minorities are more likely to own a mobile phone than whites and are more likely to use their phones to access the Internet. Based on those numbers, it’s not surprising a majority-minority neighborhood like Detroit’s Mexicantown responded to The Takeaway’s mobile outreach the way it did. Rather than generalize from national surveys like Pew’s, however, news organizations owe it to themselves and their audience to seek out detailed statistics on what platforms and tools are popular in their community. Blindly following national trends is a good way to miss or even alienate would-be customers and squander revenue opportunities. For instance, while the conventional wisdom is that Facebook is huge and MySpace (for all but musicians) is dead, danah boyd and other researchers point out that that’s not the case among all demographics.