Author Archives: Daniel Victor

False Joe Paterno death reports relied on faulty sourcing

I wrote a retrospective on how a student news organization falsely reported the death of Joe Paterno, a report that quickly infected mainstream outlets. My piece was co-published at Poynter and ProPublica, so, uh, choose whichever one you like better.

If you’re interested in learning more about the episode, there are three pieces I suggest you read:

Craig Silverman, of Poynter, approaches it as a breakdown of verification, not as a rush to judgment. I think that’s a more useful and relevant lesson to come from this.

Mathew Ingram, of GigaOm, gives Onward State its due for impressive transparency.

And be sure to read Onward State’s own autopsy, which quickly and thoroughly owned up to the mistakes they made.

Want Facebook virality? Put it in an image

(Note, 12/4/13: When I wrote this post almost two years ago, everything here was true. Now, much of it no longer applies.

The timeless summary: Experiment with different forms of posting, watch your own data, adjust based on what you see.)

“You can’t always control who walks into your life but, you can control which window you throw them out of.”

Sure, some people might overlook the misplaced comma and find it moderately funny. If you had made that your Facebook status, you might get a handful of likes.

Now take two minutes to put it in all caps in red Comic Sans on a black background, like so:

That has 1,087 shares as of the time I’m writing this. People like sharing photos. It requires much less of them than reading and digesting an entire story.

As far as journalists/social media folks are concerned, it means we have to look for opportunities to post our stories as photos, not links. Then you put a link in the description and reap the benefits of the increased virality.

I’m not suggesting you do this:

Rather, look for opportunities to create images like this:

The image came from a blog post by ProPublica’s on-fire Dan Nguyen. But instead of posting a link to the blog post, we posted that as a stand-alone photo, then linked to the full news app in the description. As of me writing this, it has 17,210 likes,  10,121 shares and 1,293 comments.

For comparison’s sake: on a typical ProPublica Facebook post, we get somewhere around 10-20 shares, likes and comments. When we first launched the SOPA Opera app, we posted the link and got 32 likes, 55 shares and 2 comments. Another posting later in the week got 69 likes, 73 shares and 14 comments.

Importantly, we’ve gotten a lot of traffic from people clicking through to the app from the link in the photo’s description. And we picked up about 1,000 new fans for the Facebook page, which is a huge chunk considering we had about 26,000 to begin with.

So the take-away: If you have great art, whether it’s a graphic or a photo, let it be the main attraction. You don’t have to post everything as a link. Imagine the missed opportunity if we had presented the same thing like this:

(Side note: If you wish to share this post on Facebook and you’d like to help make the point, you might consider sharing this image created specifically for this post.)

Social search, recommendation saturation, and how Google+ just strong-armed us

Over at Nieman Lab, Carrie Brown-Smith verbalized something that’s been weighing on me lately: the social media bubble may be bursting. But this isn’t about hostility toward social media, and she’s no retrenchment-minded Luddite. She says, in part:

But despite all of our excitement over its potential, I’m beginning to wonder about how big of a community can be meaningfully maintained online and how this affects news organizations.  For example, many early Twitter adopters such as myself report that their rate of responses, retweets and click-thrus have declined over time. I suspect this may have less to do with any change in behavior on our parts or that of our followers and more to do with the fact that the Twitter universe is now so large. Already overflowing streams are flooding. The likelihood that even your most interested followers will even see a tweet is ever lower. In order to develop engaged and loyal communities on social media, news organizations are going to have to work harder and smarter and try to find solutions to Shirky’s “filter failure” problem.

I echo what Carrie said; I don’t like the trajectory I’m seeing with Twitter and Facebook as my tools of choice, and size/filter failure is the primary culprit. In a small, personal group, each recommendation has great significance. As groups grow larger and more impersonal, each recommendation loses value – even if they’re coming from your most trusted sources.

Instead of having two stories to compete for your attention, you may have 20 stories competing for your attention. You may have clicked on both of your two choices, but faced with 20 choices, you’ll probably click on somewhere between zero and four.

That means the growth of these networks simultaneously expands our potential audience and makes it harder to reach them. I’ve experienced it in my own Twitter feed, where I’m now overwhelmed by following over 2,300 people. I often try to cut down, but it’s as futile as mowing the lawn. It quickly grows back.

So as everyone’s networks continue to grow, as we become close to more and more people we feel like we must keep tabs on, we may see people making drastic cutbacks in their social media diet. My solution has been to start a list of 300 people whose tweets I don’t want to miss, and I find myself watching that list far more than my larger stream. But what will happen when that turns into 500 people whose tweets I can’t miss, then 1,000? I’ll probably create a new list of 100 people I definitely can’t miss.

Facebook has already worked on this problem by more heavily promoting their algorithmically generated “top news” instead of a raw feed of all updates. That, I probably don’t need to tell you, hasn’t been perfect.

One potential solution for this is better search within our social networks, which is why the recent Google+ news is so important. I say this as far from a Google fanboy; I’ve been throughly uninterested in Google+ since its launch.

To review recent developments: If you were to search for Jon Huntsman, Google will now feature relevant results from what your friends are sharing on Google+. Twitter and Facebook don’t have that kind of referral engine. So if you wrote a reader’s guide to Jon Huntsman’s record, you better make sure everyone who searches for Jon Huntsman has a friend who recently shared your link on Google+. Since ProPublica’s Google+ account recently shared that story, it appeared No. 6 in my search results. We never would have been anywhere close to the front page beforehand.

In that sense, as far as news organizations are concerned, the value of an engaged Google+ user may have just rocketed past the value of an engaged Twitter or Facebook user, even if there are fewer of them.

Whatever your feelings may be on Google+, you have to be excited by the potential of search applied to social. Not only does it save our networks from potentially becoming more and more useless, but it could potentially make them more useful than they’ve ever been. As our networks grow, we may expect search to be part of our social networks in the same way we expect it to be part of our overall web use. We won’t want a raw feed of our network activity anymore than we’d want a raw feed of all new content on the Internet that day. And it’s possible we’ll start to search within our network first, and only if we don’t find our answer there will we search outside our network.

What I’m describing here is a totally different landscape than what we’re used to. Everything we’ve learned about whether to use a colon or a period at the end of our tweets goes out the window. New tips and tricks to game the system will come into style.

So how do we plan for the inevitability of a platform change, whatever form it may take? The key is creating strategies that don’t depend on specific tools. Don’t plan for more followers and retweets; plan for creating incentives that will gather the most significant contributions possible from non-staffers. Don’t focus on gimmicks to get more likes on Facebook; focus on how to best appeal to the specific communities who deeply care about your content.

Then you figure out how to fit specific tools like Twitter and Facebook and Google+ into that mission. The specific tools might change, but the mission won’t.

It isn’t a trivial difference. There are many card-houses being built right now in the form of accounts that drive traffic but aren’t aiding the journalistic process in any significant way. If you’re good at Twitter, you’ll be left cold when you have to figure out the next site. If you’re good at social journalism, you’ll be fully prepared.

So I’d suggest we focus on becoming more proficient in social journalism than we are in social tools. Examine the psychology of sharing more than the psychology of retweeting. Social media may fail us, but social concepts aren’t going anywhere.

JOB: Social media producer needed at ProPublica

UPDATE: The position has been filled. Welcome, Blair Hickman!

I was recently hired as the social media editor at ProPublica, taking the place of the Guardian-bound Amanda Michel.

My first responsibility will be finding someone to join me.

We need someone who will be largely responsible for the day-to-day use of ProPublica’s social media accounts. Furthermore, we need a daydreamer who demands to be a leader in how an investigative newsroom can use social concepts to aid its reporting. We’re seeking experience in social media, but we also need someone who insists on coming up with fresh ideas. Read this recent interview for more on what we’re looking for.

Wanna know why I was attracted to ProPublica? It’s a Pulitzer-winning newsroom that focuses on investigations of “moral force,” so you know the work you’re doing is significant. Under Amanda’s leadership, ProPublica has a history of valuing social media and crowdsourcing. The news app team is an industry leader. In short: It’s a great place to do great work.

The position is full-time with benefits, and you will work out of the office in New York. We may have a fuller description available soon, but I wanted to get the word out there now. Please get in touch if you’re interested – email or Twitter – but also please accept a delay in my getting back to you. I’m still employed by and won’t tend to this during work hours.

How crowdsourcing could aid ESPN’s sign-stealing investigation

ESPN hit a double with its investigation of alleged sign-stealing by the Toronto Blue Jays. A little bit of crowdsourcing could now drive it home.

A short summary of the investigation: ESPN talked to four visiting players who claimed to see a man relaying information about upcoming pitches to Blue Jays batters, which is a big ethical no-no in baseball. The man, the players claimed, sat in the outfield seats in the players’ direct eyesight, wore white, and raised his hands above his head whenever an off-speed pitch was coming. This knowledge would give the batters a significant advantage.

Considering four players claimed to see the same thing, ESPN should be able to pinpoint which section the man-in-white sat in, maybe even the approximate row. But they don’t have any other evidence the man exists. Putting aside some statistical shortcomings of the allegations, proving that this man exists would be the most significant step in the investigation.

This is where investigations can become social. The proof, if it exists, is out there in the crowd. A man who constantly raises his hands above his head – and only when the home team is batting – would be highly unusual and noticeable behavior; surely someone in his section would have noticed if he were doing it all year. And people take a lot of pictures of themselves and their surroundings at baseball games; surely one would have the man-in-white in the background.

ESPN could have ended its story with a call to action for its millions of readers. They could say: We’re looking for people who sat in Section XXX. Help us find them.

There are natural ways to verify these accounts: The scoreboard in the background aligning with the game the reader claimed to attend. Pictures of ticket stubs. Checking the metadata of the photos. If a picture turns up, you ask your readers again: Help us identify this man. Once the man is identified, investigative reporters will do what investigative reporters do.

All this would require is a willingness to expand your source pool by asking readers for help. Let’s make it part of the automatic process.

When cops and Twitter tell different stories

July 4 in Philadelphia offered us a solid case study on the proper place of Twitter in reporting. Word of a shooting at a crowded Center City fireworks show spread rapidly through Twitter, and some people are disappointed that local media did not report on it. I’m about as big of a Twitter fan as you’ll find, but I mostly disagree with the criticism.

In case you have a short attention span, here’s the quick version:

  • When monitoring Twitter for breaking news, one first-hand account is worth far more than 1,000 tweets of hearsay.
  • Tweets of hearsay still have value and shouldn’t be ignored.
  • Think of Twitter users as sources, and vet them the same way you’d vet any other source.

What follows is a recreation of the night and an explanation of how some reporters responded.

One important take-away from all of this: If anyone were offering real evidence in a haystack like this, you need to know a few tricks to find that needle. If you haven’t mastered the possibilities of Twitter’s advanced search, learn them now before you’ll need them.

One trick is to narrow your search to within a few miles of the location, and search for phrases a witness might use. During the Discovery crisis in Silver Spring, Md. last year, I was able to find a few people inside the building by a geo-targeted search for phrases like “I’m safe” and “I’m OK.” I also searched for “Discovery”+”works there” to find the people saying “OMG my brother/wife/friend works there,” then messaged them to see if we could get in touch with that person.

And lastly, I’d make the point that in the midst of Breaking News Information Chaos like this, when hundreds of people are reporting their own news, the role of the trusted news organization or individual reporter becomes more important, not less important. Readers are waiting for us to provide a level of authority they don’t grant  fellow users.

Philly’s Online Ad – I mean News – Association goes off with a hitch

It was great to see 15-20 online journalists turn out Wednesday night for the inaugural happy hour of Philly’s Online News Association chapter, a great turnout considering the limited amount of promotion and summer’s siren call of the shore. We had a wide range of publications represented, lots of friendly people, some great journalism-y discussions, a few job leads and $2 off beers. Can’t complain about any of that.

Triumph Brewing Company was a great host, aside from one slight error on our welcome sign (this is for real):

Co-organizer Amy Fiscus, who called in the reservation, logically explained: “I was hoping to attract some people who’d give us money.”

They printed out a new sign for us and we had ourselves a good time. Details coming soon on next month’s happy hour.

(If you’re new to ONA Philly, get updates about future events by signing up on Meetup, joining the discussion in our Facebook group, or following co-organizers Amy Fiscus, Christopher Wink and me.)

Introducing the Philly chapter of the Online News Association

ONA Philly’s first happy hour
6 p.m. Wednesday, June 29
Triumph Brewing Company
117 Chestnut Street
RSVP here

There are a lot of great online journalists in Philadelphia, but we aren’t talking to each other as much as we should be. Let’s change that.

Enter the Online News Association, a national organization that claims over 1,600 members. It has chapters in places like New York City, D.C., San Francisco, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Seattle and Toronto.

Now we have our chapter. In each of those cities, web-minded journalists gather IRL to discuss best practices, show off innovative projects, network with like-minded people, or just throw back a few beverages and meet some interesting folks. I personally attended several of those local meetups when I lived in D.C., and found them professionally inspiring while I also made some great friends.

The first few events during the summer will simply be happy hours, geared toward just meeting each other and gathering ideas about what ONA could do or be here. When fall arrives, we’ll also incorporate some kind of instructional component, usually to learn about interesting projects that are happening here in the Delaware Valley.

Who’s it for? We’re not too caught up in the definition of “journalist,” so anyone interested in online journalism is welcome. Our doors are open for students, beat reporters with 30 years of experience, independent news site operators, free lancers, spare-time bloggers and everything in between.

Fear not, those who can’t make it this month; we’ll try to have one gathering per month. Please RSVP here, and also join the ONA Philly Facebook group for further discussion.

Questions? Ask me or co-organizers Amy Fiscus and Christopher Wink. Hope to see you there. prominently links to Technically Philly, angels rejoice

We saw a small but significant milestone at this morning.

Should you have visited the site between roughly 10:15 a.m. and 11:10 a.m. this morning, you would have seen this:


It’s significant because this is the first time has directly linked to an external blog from a prominent spot on its home page, taking readers directly off the site. According to Technically Philly‘s Christopher Wink, it netted them over 600 referrals, which passed Reddit and Hacker News as the most single-day, single-source referral traffic they’ve ever received.

A quick sausage-making recap: Wink alerted me via Twitter to a post that looked like it would have mainstream appeal. I agreed and sent an e-mail to our team of web producers. They agreed to offer up the valuable real estate in a way the site historically hasn’t done.

No, I don’t expect a party to be thrown in our honor. I know some people will roll their eyes and make comments about it being 1998 and such.

But this is a clear step toward opening’s gates, which is something people like Wink have been waiting for us to do. I’m not rolling out any Mission Accomplished banners, as there is a looong way to go, but it’s great to see a tangible step.

If you’d like to debate the merits of this, or how success will be defined with such an approach, let’s feel free to discuss it in the comments.