Posts Tagged ‘innovation’

Whether it’s halftime, or a whole new ballgame, everyone’s playing for pride

February 12, 2012

Is it halftime in America? Or are we at a different game, on a different team, in a different league, playing a different sport, even?

The most talked about ad of this year’s Super Bowl says that if we brush the dirt off our jerseys and work together, we’ll march out of this economic rut, back onto the field and come from behind, like we have so many times before.

You could almost hear the sources from “Roots of Steel” cheering along. Like Rudacille so neatly summarized in the first chapter, they’ve been rooting for a comeback.

Though they don’t know for sure who is to blame, they do know what they want: a return to the old days, when the jobs that could support a family were plentiful, streets were safe, and workers could take pride in their contributions to the nation’s wealth and power.

Watch the game tape and not just the highlights, however, and it’ll show the good old days weren’t all that good.

Sparrows Point provided tens of thousands with honest pay for honest work and with a comfortable retirement. But it was hard, dirty, dangerous work whose hazards, for many, made retirement less than comfortable — or cut it short.

Sparrows Point provided a path to the middle class straight out of high school. But it also discouraged young people from pursuing higher education or other lines of work — or wasted the talents of those who did.

Sparrows Point supported several fold its payroll through the businesses that fed its supply chain and served its workers. But it also overexposed the area’s broader economic health to the risks of a single industry.

Sparrows Point fostered close-knit communities whose residents looked out for each other and helped their neighbors in times of need. But it also created insular neighborhoods wary of outsiders and helped teach generations the racism we’re still struggling to unlearn.

Sparrows Point enlisted workers in a greater cause: the American war machine. But it also artificially expanded the plant’s footprint based on, no matter how grand, temporary endeavors, rooted in, no matter how politically or morally necessary, death and destruction.

Our author alludes to this double-edged nature of the mill in the title of the book, as she told Urbanite shortly after its release.

The absence of that secure employment, as manufacturing cities such as Baltimore have discovered, has left a terrible void. The book’s title, Rudacille says, “is both literal and metaphorical. There’s this steely will and work ethic. On the other hand, roots of steel will bolt you in place.”

Watch the business report and not just the commercials, meanwhile, and it’ll show our current predicament isn’t all that familiar.

The Great Recession represents a transformative, rather than cyclical, shift. We have gone from a nation that makes things to a nation that buys things to, now that the debt party is over, a nation that will be buying fewer things.

That leaves us with, in essence, the stuff of Super Bowl ads: Ideas. From medicine to mobile apps to homeland security to alternative energy, we are, we need to be, a knowledge economy. We’re not so much trying to come back as we’re trying to build a lead.

There is one thing the Chrysler ad and the old steelworkers have right. It’s reflected by the father in the commercial when he drops his young son off at school. It’s reflected in the “red carpet treatment” everyone who “knew the mill,” even common laborers, received around town — and how that contrasts with the public reception their counterparts might receive today.

No matter what the scoreboard says, what our jerseys say, who our competition is, or what shape the ball is, we’re all playing for pride. It’s not necessarily our old jobs or the old way of doing things we want back. It’s our dignity.

This post was imported from the blog for the now-defunct Baltimore history book club, Read That City. 

It’s Not Their Medium, It’s Their Message: Seven Knight-Batten Winners Mastered More Than Tech

July 20, 2010

Message in a bottle

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.

Screengrab of Sunlight Foundation logoSUNLIGHT LIVE,
Sunlight Foundation

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.

Screengrab of ProPublica logo REPORTING NETWORK,
ProPublica

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.

Screengrab of 48 HR Magazine logo48 HR MAGAZINE

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!”

Screengrab of PolitiFact.com logoTHE OBAMETER,
St. Petersburg Times

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.

Screengrab of Ushahidi-Haiti logoUSHAHIDI HAITI

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.

Screengrab of Publish2 News Exchange logoPUBLISH2 NEWS EXCHANGE, Publish2

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?

Screengrab of The Takeaway logoSOURCING THROUGH TEXTING, The Takeaway

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.

Creative Commons photo by Flickr user Kraftwerck.

Celebrating Free-dom: The Journal Register Company’s Ben Franklin Project

July 4, 2010

Full disclosure: I reported for Journal Register Company newspaper the Daily Freeman from June 2004 to October 2005.

Ben Franklin portraitAt first glance, today’s Web and print editions for the Journal Register Company‘s 18 daily newspapers might not appear terribly different from any other day’s. That was part of the point of the rapidly-reinventing-itself chain’s bold Ben Franklin Project. JRC wanted to prove that free does not necessarily mean cheap, that free or near-free online tools can achieve the same production values as pricey proprietary software.

Take a closer look at the papers’ digital and print Ben Franklin Project editions, published on Independence Day to signify the company’s independence from proprietary systems, and you’ll notice they are different.

You’ll notice stories suggested and edited by audience members. You’ll notice crowdsourced solutions to community challenges. You’ll notice videos putting a fresh human face on persistent issues like immigration and unemployment. You’ll notice interactive maps pinpointing user-identified problems like risky roadways.

This was the Ben Franklin Project’s other, ultimately larger point: That free tools can improve both journalists’ coverage and their relationship with their audience by making the news process more participatory.

Screengrabs of YouTube video, Facebook page, home page and Twitter stream for various JRC newspapers.

That the papers — some with circulations as small as 6,000 — even attempted this ambitious project is groundbreaking for their famously slow-to-adapt industry. That they pulled it off is a remarkable feat. The executive behind this and other innovations at JRC — including citizen journalism labs and in-house testing of the latest tech tools — was rightfully celebratory in a blog post to employees this morning, exclaiming, “Take a bow. You did it.” CEO John Paton also rightfully recognized that this is only the beginning.

The success or failure of an initiative characterized — by organizers and observers — as revolutionary can be judged only over the long-term. Merely sustaining the type of work showcased today will require more hard work, especially as the novelty — for employees and audience members — wears off. Building up the Ben Franklin Project into what the journalism history books (history tablets?) would consider a revolution will require a lot more hard work.

  • It will require a firm technical and strategic grasp of the tools used to produce today’s editions. Employees, who had just over a month to learn many of the free tools they used, are by their own admission still getting the hang of pagination program Scribus. Microblogging service Twitter, meanwhile, is of greatest value to news organizations when they use it to converse with audience members and sources (two-way/pull/new-media thinking), yet many JRC papers use their Twitter feeds only to push out links to their stories (one-way/push/old-media thinking).
  • It will require abandoning these tools at the drop of a hat and learning new ones as better alternatives come along.
  • It will require engaging audience members — meeting them on the platforms they’re already using or educating them about the platforms they should be using — to the point they don’t have to be persuaded to participate.
  • It will require not letting the new way of doing things disrupt what was right about the old way. As empowering as they are, interactive tools are a complement to thorough, old-fashioned, shoe-leather reporting, not a replacement for it.
  • More than anything, it will require a bottom-up embrace of the digital-first, innovation culture Paton is evangelizing. No print-versus-Web, us-versus-them, that’s-not-part-of-my job whining.

Since a lot of people might have been too busy eating hot dogs/watching others eat (way too many) hot dogs, launching fireworks/watching others launch fireworks to follow JRC’s Ben Franklin Project coverage, here’s a sampling of what the 18 papers produced:

Screengrab of The Mercury road rage map

Screengrab of Oneida Dispatch video featuring JRC Director of Digital Content Jonathan Cooper.

Is Google Making Us Dumb? Yes, No and Maybe

April 16, 2010

Google logo inside brain illustration.WGHP-TV reporter Bob Buckley recently visited my Citizen and Participatory News class for a technology story he was working on. His question for me and my classmates? “Is Google making us stupid?” Having studied Google extensively over the past year, especially in my Contemporary Media Issues class this spring, I had an answer — well, three answers — at the ready.

Yes

Google search, Gmail, Google Docs, Google Calendar, YouTube, Google Analytics, Google Maps. Google’s products are so ubiquitous and so easy to use, there’s so much available with one free username and password, that people maybe aren’t being as smart as they should be with their own data.

I said Google’s free, but it really isn’t. There are potential costs to sharing so much of your life with one company. I don’t think that’s something a lot of people think about.

No

Google is one of the most successful, most powerful companies in the world. Competitors and even companies in other industries — though, there are fewer and fewer industries into which Google’s tentacles don’t reach — are going to try to copy it.

Google’s more than 10 years old, yet, with its 20 percent time and we-can-do-anything idealism, it still behaves very much like a startup. Not to say there aren’t privacy, intellectual property and other concerns that come along with this, but if more companies shared Google’s ethos, the world would probably be smarter.

Maybe

Google search invites and rewards curiosity. Because it’s so easy to get answers, people ask more questions. Even if searchers accept the first result as the final word on their question, if it’s a question they otherwise wouldn’t have asked, they’ve arguably been made smarter.

Google should be a starting point, not an ending point, however. Terminating all of life’s questions at the first search result, or even the 10th, 50th or 100th, severely limits one’s potential for intellectual growth. Google puts one on the path to knowledge. The onus is on the user to see the journey through.

‘A New Frontier of Innovation’

March 28, 2010

Concerns about the security of Internet networks and the business advantages of producing tethered devices like the iPhone are threatening the generativity of personal computing and Web technologies, writes Harvard Law School professor Jonathan Zittrain in “The Future of the Internet — And How to Stop It.

Generativity, as Zittrain defines it, is “a system’s capacity to produce unanticipated change through unfiltered contributions from broad and varied audiences.”

Less generative devices, though not necessarily a bad thing, lessen the control of the end-user and limit innovation opportunities. Most alarmingly, they streamline the work of would-be government censors.

In the United States, the tech industry is clearly trending less generative. But what about in less developed countries? A recent New York Times piece about Ushahidi, the Kenyan-developed map wiki heralded for its life-saving role following the Haitian and Chilean earthquakes, paints a decidedly generative picture.

Reporter Anand Giridharadas says open-source Ushahidi, which aggregates mobile messages and plots them in virtual real-time on an interactive online map, “represents a new frontier of innovation.”

Silicon Valley has been the reigning paradigm of innovation, with its universities, financiers, mentors, immigrants and robust patents. Ushahidi comes from another world, in which entrepreneurship is born of hardship and innovators focus on doing more with less, rather than on selling you new and improved stuff.

Because Ushahidi originated in crisis, no one tried to patent and monopolize it. Because Kenya is poor, with computers out of reach for many, Ushahidi made its system work on cellphones. Because Ushahidi had no venture-capital backing, it used open-source software and was thus free to let others remix its tool for new projects.

Citizen journalists created Ushahidi — Swahili for testimony — to track violence in the wake of Kenya’s disputed 2007 election. The tool has since been used to track unrest and medicine stockouts elsewhere in Africa and to monitor elections in India, Mexico, Lebanon and Afghanistan.

Ushahidi could revolutionize humanitarian and military efforts. The world saw what it can do after a natural disaster. Giridharadas hypothesized about using Ushahidi to find Osama bin Laden.

Journalists are sure to find innumerable uses for the tool. The Washington Post has already used it to map snow-removal. It’s easy to see how it could be used to cover crime, the environment, large festivals like SXSW and a host of other topics.

Why Google Needs a New Trick

February 27, 2010

Microsoft’s CEO calls Google a “one-trick pony.” Google’s CEO responds, “I like the trick!”

The trick being referred to in Ken Auletta’s “Googled,” is, of course, search, and, by extension, the programs that monetize it. AdWords and AdSense are responsible for nearly all of Google’s $6.5 billion in annual profits.

It is a good trick. For now.

Today, Google’s bots and algorithms do a brilliant job crawling Web pages and organizing them into thorough, timely search results. If results are to remain thorough and timely, bots must crawl more — not just Web pages — more quickly and algorithms must account for more and increasingly more complex patterns. Google, and anyone in the business of organizing digital information, must manage a what’s-happening-now, what’s happening-here Web where people, networks and everyday objects are constantly exchanging data.

Since it’s loaded, Google can experiment with new products without having to worry too much about monetizing or even popularizing them. Sooner than later, however, it’s going to have to find another golden goose. Look at Google’s track record and you start to wonder whether it ever will.

Google does a lot of cool stuff and a lot of it’s very popular. But, when you think about it, it has as many strikeouts as hits, and its biggest hits — PageRank, AdWords, AdSense and Gmail — came early in its career.

Don’t forget that Google didn’t invent YouTube. It bought it after Google Video flopped. Also don’t forget that while Facebook and Twitter were taking off, Google’s Orkut (outside of Brazil and India) floundered. See, you never even heard of it. Google’s trying to catch up social-media-wise with Buzz, whose early reviews have been cool, some downright cold. Maybe it’ll do better once the privacy issues are sorted out.

Google’s seemingly boundless experiments increase the chances it will find the next PageRank or AdWords. But they also divide its attention, compromising its ability to recognize and respond to threats to its core product. The real-time search capabilities of Twitter, for one, seemed to catch Google off guard.

Twitter, poetically, is very much following the Google blueprint: Build something that’s useful, attract a critical mass of users and cash in — somehow. Twitter’s just beginning to enter step three and, surprise, its solution looks a lot like Google’s.

Twitter’s focus on users is also straight from the Google playbook. But Twitter takes it a step further by letting its users do the experimenting. It sits back, lets users play around, then formalizes what works and ignores what doesn’t. Twitter’s @ (used to mention another user and link to his or her feed), # (used to tag posts about a particular topic) and RT (used to indicate a user is re-posting something written by someone else) features were all developed by users.

I’m not suggesting Twitter’s going to overtake Google. For if Google’s focus is potentially too broad, Twitter’s focus is definitely too narrow. What might take down Google — or a least take it down a peg — are a bunch of Twitters, each doing a different thing better than the behemoth Google can. And wouldn’t that be the most user-friendly scenario? Smaller companies with a more singular focus tend to provide better customer service. They’re also arguably less vulnerable to data breaches. At the very least, users’ data would be diversified, lessening the potential damage one bad actor or one technical glitch could cause.

Journalism and Democracy: It’s Mutual

February 12, 2010

Perhaps journalism passed a valentine to democracy one year: “Psst, I like you, too.” That democracy digs journalism, the whole school knows that. That it’s mutual, not everyone guesses.

That’s right. Democracy needs journalism. And journalism needs democracy. Should have known. But, even growing up reading the newspaper, studying journalism in high school and college, working in the field for five years, and now returning to school to study journalism under the umbrella of interactive media, I didn’t. I didn’t, at least, give it much thought.

Democracy needs journalism because a representative government requires an informed electorate. Less obvious is why journalism needs democracy. Liberal media scholar Robert W. McChesney explains in “The Political Economy of Media.”

“Unless there is a citizenry that depends upon journalism, that takes it seriously, that is politically engaged,” McChesney writes, “journalism can lose its bearings and have far less incentive to do the hard work that generates the best possible work.”

The synergy between democracy and journalism, then, is at once troubling and reassuring given the transitional periods the two institutions currently find themselves in — in the United States, at least. It suggests deficiencies in either could bring the other down. But it also suggests that improvements in either could lift the other up.

It’s been a bit yo-yoey as of late. Two years ago things started to get real ugly for newspapers. At the same time, those papers were writing about a surge in political participation and the election of a president promising a new kind of politics. Now, the hard realities of governing have produced the same old partisan bickering. At the same time, new media upstarts that came of age during the presidential campaign are solidifying their voice.

Where things settle depends heavily on the actions of my generation. Idealistic and technologically savvy, the Millennials provide reason for optimism. They are civically engaged, as campaign ’08 showed, but not just in politics, but in community service as well.

On the journalism side, Millennials are well-suited to run the kind of values-driven news organizations The Reconstruction of American Journalism co-author Michael Schudson suggests will carry the industry forward.

In a speech Thursday, Schudson alluded to the journalism-needs-democracy argument, saying that journalism’s so-called golden age was a byproduct of Civil Rights, counterculture and post-Watergate activism. He offered that that era might have been a high watermark, but also that in today’s maturing information economy journalism is capable of many great things.

Sites like TalkingPointsMemo, ProPublica and VoiceofSanDiego, Schudson said, according to prepared remarks, “are springing up, and growing, and providing effective journalism, including original reporting, and so providing effective models for the future.”

One Good Thing About The Great Recession

November 9, 2009

It may not look like it now, but the past two years have been good for journalism. As ugly as it was, The Great Recession hastened the process of uncovering new models the industry already desperately needed.

Among those supporting that process is the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, whose grants are reinforcing the dwindling ranks of state capital press corps, including in my native Maryland.

Led by a Maryland journalism veteran who was State House bureau chief at the Baltimore Examiner when it closed in February, just-launched nonprofit MarylandReporter.Com plans weekday state government coverage through its Web site and subscriber-based newsletter.

Reports by its now two-man team are already getting picked up by mainstream sources, and should only increase in breadth and depth once the state’s General Assembly convenes in January. Given its narrow focus and experienced staff, MarylandReporter.Com should get its share of scoops.

Also encouraging, and something one might not expect from legacy journalism refugees, is its early embrace of social media. Even before its site went live, and even before, by their own admission, its Tweeters were fully comfortable with the tool, MarylandReporter.Com was on Twitter reporting news, establishing its brand, and engaging in conversation about both.

The rub is that MarylandReporter.Com and other organizations like it will have to find a way to earn money on their own before their seed money runs out. Even those who fail, however, won’t fail in vain. At least they’re experimenting. And, importantly, experimenting in ways that would never be feasible at larger, for-profit outlets. As journalism reinvents itself, pushing the limits and learning what doesn’t work is a necessary step for discovering what does.

Publishing the Process

October 30, 2009

It’s Friday. It’s been a long week. How about a cool music video? Radiohead’s “House of Cards” certainly fits the bill. Check it out. It was made with lasers! 

Lasers and rock ‘n’ roll. They’ve always gone together, haven’t they? This isn’t your father’s laser show, however. Here, lasers stood in for the camera, continuously scanning the set to form 3D images. 

The presentation was as progressive as the production. And that’s what I want to talk about. A collaboration between the band and Google visualization wunderkinds, the video has its own page on Google’s developer site, Google Code. Not exactly the natural habitat for a music video, is it? 

There’s more than just the traditional video, however. In addition to the one aired on MTV (I’m actually making a dangerous assumption here. I don’t watch MTV. And whenever I surf past it they’re never playing music videos.) there is a behind-the-scenes “making-of” video and an interactive version users can manipulate. 

This is a model that we’re likely to see more and more of — in entertainment, in software, in journalism, in politics, wherever communication is happening. Don’t just share the finished product. Share the process. And invite others to join in that process. This is true interactivity. Those who get this will be the ones who get ahead. 

Take this example from the world of journalism. It’s an oldie but a goodie. In 2007, left-leaning politics blog Talking Points Memo beat the mainstream media to the U.S. Attorneys purging story. Jarring for the Bush administration, yes, which would have preferred media never connected the dots. Just as jarring for new media critics who insisted blogs follow legacy publications’ lead.

So, how did TPM do it? It posted original reporting based on sources not typically consulted by the mainstream press and invited its readers to become sources themselves. In between the usual “Here’s what we know” posts, it asked “What do you know?” It told readers what information to pay attention to and often, how to go about getting it. 

And, from the world of software, another classic: Mozilla Firefox. The Internet browser achieved 25 percent market share just five years after launch thanks in large part to its open source approach. It allows developers to customize the browser and shows them how. As a result, it’s more versatile than its competitors. Firefox boasts a vast library of extensions that do everything from manage downloads to speed navigation to translate text.

Content creators: Users are going to want to adapt, add on to and comment on your content anyway. Given enough time, they’ll find a way how. So, why not leverage user participation to increase the value of your product? 

Got it? Good. Go on enjoying the wonders of lasers.

The Culture of Change

October 26, 2009

This is the first of occasional posts based on my research on the future of the interactive newsroom.

On the gridiron, a high octane offense or a stingy defense can get you to the Super Bowl just the same. Indeed, recent title games have showcased some vastly different styles.

Building the newspaper of the future isn’t any different. If it works, no one approach is better than another. Every successful team, and every successful company, however, shares at least one thing: a winning culture.

This was manifested throughout my research.

Get the culture right, and changes to organizational structure, newsroom layout and workflow have a much better chance of succeeding. Get it wrong, and they’re likely to fail. The other variables are easy enough to change on the fly, culture much less so.

Curating a culture means asking how process and personnel changes will complement or contradict existing attitudes, then nurturing the connections and pacifying the conflicts.

Process changes can include adding tasks to — mid-cycle Web updates — or removing tasks from — gavel-to-gavel meeting coverage — workers’ routines. To nurture connections, managers can portray the 24-7 news cycle as a means to more aggressive reporting. To pacify conflicts, managers can insulate fundamental areas, like investigative reporting, from cuts.

Personnel changes can include bringing in workers from rival media — hiring a broadcast veteran to produce Web videos — or from outside of journalism — hiring a Web developer with a background in e-commerce. To nurture connections, managers can demonstrate that changes advance the public interest values common to all platforms. To pacify conflicts, managers can promote collaboration between journalistic and technical workers and honor their contributions equally.

Once managers decide on a direction, they have to decide how aggressively to pursue it. Do they force workers to reapply for their jobs and become multimedia proficient? Or do they encourage workers to modernize their traditional roles at their own pace? An organization with a relatively young staff whose short-term survival is dependent upon finding a new model might choose the former; an organization with a core of veteran journalists whose short-term survival is not under threat might choose the latter.