Category Archives: Journalism

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.

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.

If community is the vehicle, action is the destination

Community is the vehicle, not the destination.

Action is the destination. Any output beneath that may be fun, but it’s not what we should be shooting for.

It’s a necessary distinction because you may think your work is done once you build a vibrant community, if ever you’re so lucky. For too long I’ve fallen into that trap. You think: Once I build this community, it will create solutions.

No it won’t. Not automatically, at least. It may have been damn hard to build that community, but you’re still just halfway there.

For the past several years, I’ve made “building communities” my end goal without much vision beyond that. I’ve had vague ideas of what output those communities could produce: A marketplace of ideas, stronger community ties, better journalism, etc. But even that output, which is indeed valuable, falls short of what every community aims for: Making that community better, stronger, safer. To achieve that you need to produce tangible action, which is a step or two further down the road.

So simply gathering people together isn’t enough. Fostering discussion isn’t enough. What we need, then, is discussion leaders who can laser-focus the community on what action they might take. There needs to be a strategy for what the community can achieve and how it might do so.

I realized this as I considered the self-assigned and unofficial title I gave myself at Community builder. It’s accurate, but it’s incomplete. It’d be like a football player calling himself a weightlifter; he may work his tail off in the weight room, but that doesn’t mean anything unless it translates to wins on the field. And I can build all the active communities I want, but it won’t mean anything unless they’re leading to actual results.

I pitched an idea for how communities might produce action at several of my job interviews. I hope to implement that idea, and others I’m cooking up, in some community initiatives I’m working on at (more details coming soon). I personally believe anyone can serve as those discussion leaders, but we’re all better off if a trusted news organization is at the center, undergirding those discussions with reliable reporting.

One brilliant idea is emerging in CAT Signal (CAT stands for Community Action Team). I’d love to hear more ideas on how we can get from discussion to action. There’s a big gap in there that hasn’t been mapped out enough.

Telling high school students there really is hope in journalism


(Thanks to Bryan Calabro at The Wilkes Beacon for the video)

I was lucky to speak to high school journalists this morning as part of  the 2011 Tom Bigler High School Journalism Conference at Wilkes University. Its theme was the “future of journalism,” so I aimed to show that there really are a lot of reasons for optimism. I wanted to counter the doom-and-gloom voices they’ve probably been hearing loud and clear.

When I started the speech, I asked my Twitter followers to give them a 140-character reason to pursue journalism as a career. Here are the inspiring results of that, along with the text of my speech.

Continue reading

My true motivation behind a month-long series about dating

…it wasn’t getting dates. I swear it.

It really was about infusing reader contributions into the reporting process.

The idea started as a feature that would land on Valentine’s Day about single life in D.C, complete with bells and whistles and whosits and whatsits. I’d conduct a month’s worth of interviews, so this thing was really going to rock hard.

But if you’re going to spend a month reporting on something, limiting yourself to one big burst of content is a mistake in a lot of ways. I approached each element of the bigger story as a stand-alone piece, publishing one or two stories per week. When I interviewed a local dating blogger, I immediately wrote it up instead of sitting on it for the next month. I did the same as I interviewed online daters, speed daters and attended a conference of pickup artists (you’ve got to read that one if you haven’t). I ended up with six stand-alone pieces, including the final story that ran on Valentine’s Day.

All of this makes it sound like it was a reporting project. Yet my business card says I’m a “community host,” not a “reporter.” I wasn’t hired primarily to be a direct content producer; I was hired to bring our readers/users into the news process. So I like to think of it more as an engagement project, and an example of how the best springboard to engagement is – gasp – original reporting. Every bit of original reporting I did had a prompt for readers attached to it.

I always come back to this brilliantly simple graphic, originally conceived by The Guardian’s Meg Pickard and recreated by Joy Mayer:


The traditional story structure says that the reporter does all of the work pre-publication, interviewing and gathering information, before bowing out upon publication. Then the readers take over, discussing amongst themselves to what extent the other readers are idiots. (Mostly joking.)

We engagement types like working in those empty two quadrants. I want to get readers involved in my story before it’s published, publicly soliciting information that would be useful for all to hear. Then I want to participate in the discussion after publication, seeing how I can aid that discussion with my prior reporting while looking for readers’ knowledge that could inform future stories on the subject.

Now let’s say we succeed in filling in those empty two quadrants. Our new graph looks like this:


Now, that blue “publication” line becomes irrelevant, because you could put it anywhere in the graph and it’d look just the same. Then “publication” becomes merely the point when the journalist decides to tackle the topic. In a living story, there shouldn’t be a wall between pre- and post-publication.

So how’d I use that principle with this dating series? Well:

  • At the end of my first story about a dating blogger, I put out a call for online dating stories. Since that first story got solid traction, more people were exposed to that call than had I simply tweeted a few requests, e-mailed some friends or invaded OkCupid.
  • About a dozen people contacted me because of that, and they became the basis of my next story. At the end of that one, I renewed my call for more online dating stories.
  • Due to that request, I was overwhelmed with great anecdotes, so those anecdotes became a stand-alone story.
  • Since every story is mentioning that it’s one part of a longer series, momentum was building for the pickup artists story, which ended up getting significant viral attention (thanks Jezebel). And that continued to bring attention to my final stories about speed dating and lessons learned.

You also have to think of the more practical elements that’ll make anyone who likes page views happy. Consider:

  • The pickup artists story, which required just two days of reporting but ended up at about 3,600 words, got far more traffic than the end result on February 14. Had I condensed that reporting so it’d fit into that later story along with everything else, it surely wouldn’t have gotten as much traffic.
  • One of the pickup artists/dating coaches I featured had allowed the Washington Post to follow him around over several months for a story that would run Valentine’s Day weekend. That reporter couldn’t have been happy to know that I was able to post my story just three days after my reporting was complete – two weeks before her story was published. By not waiting until the end, I scooped the Post on a story they had gotten to long before I did.
  • Instead of one chance to collect pageviews, you now have five chances. Instead of one chance to go viral, you now have five chances.
  • Giving our readers original content was the nudge they needed to later contribute. Simply saying “gimme gimme gimme” isn’t enough to get people involved. I gave them something they’d enjoy, and then asked for help on the next one.

Quora for journalists: Daydreaming on its potential

The big buzz today was on Quora, a question-and-answer website that’s getting all the requisite “It’s going to replace Twitter/blogs/unsliced bread” hype. As with any bit of Mashable-fueled hysteria, it’s worth examining to see not what you can do here, but what you can’t do as well anywhere else.

That said, it appears on first glance to be an exciting tool. I feel much the same as when I discovered Storify: A lot of potential here, but let’s not move in together just yet.

Here are some ways journalists can potentially use Quora. Some of these ideas, admittedly, go against what Quora seems to want to be. Frankly, I don’t care. These would be valuable uses for all participants, so there’s no reason to not explore them.

1) Crowdsourcing elements of your reporting. This is the obvious one. New on a municipal beat and wondering why it took the developer three years to get his hotel approved? Ask your readers and gadflies, and they’ll inform each other on the background as they simultaneously inform you.

On Quora, Chris Amico offered the example:

Getting actual answers (possibly from actual experts). For example, if I were writing a story on startups at SXSW, I might source What is the process involved in launching a startup at SXSW?.

What I like here is that when a reporter starts a topic here, users won’t be participating for the sake of informing the reporter, which is how crowdsourcing is most commonly (and sub-optimally) conducted, especially over Twitter. People will be participating here because it’s a productive conversation in itself, and the reporter simply gets to share in the benefits of what he or she started.

2) Ranking submissions. At TBD, we recently asked people to suggest New Years resolutions for Metro. We used All Our Ideas to have participants rank the submissions, and it worked pretty well.

If we did it again, Quora might allow participants to more directly rank the ideas by voting them up and down, while having the space to further elaborate on their ideas. It feels like a cleaner experience to me.

3) A community-written story. Start with the question: “What was your experience at The Rally for Sanity?” Or: “What did you think of the Courtney Love concert at the 9:30 Club last night?” Or: “What’s the best medium-priced place to take a date near Union Station?”

It says right in the directions at Quora that you’re not supposed to do this. Twitter also told us initially that we were supposed to tell it what we were doing right then. My hope is that Quora will loosen its tie a bit and this kind of valuable discussion will become part of the community.

The ranking system elevates this over the typical comment thread. Congrats to the blogs/news sites that have effective ranking systems, but most don’t.

That’ll get the ball rolling. What else ya got? Answer here or at the topic I started on Quora. There will likely be a lot of attention on the crowdsourcing aspect, but that’s the easy one. Let’s think past that.

UPDATE 12:20 p.m. 1/5/11: Lots of good ideas in that Quora topic, but I especially loved Joy Mayer‘s response:

There are some great answers here, and all of them focus on how Quora can benefit reporters. What about how reporters can benefit the Quora community? Reporters are subject matter experts who could do a lot of good shedding light on their topics. What if reporters were to give a little back by devoting some time to answers? Relationships go two ways.

I imagine smaller communities will develop within Quora. What if reporters fostered a group of people interested in their specific geographic community, and worked to recruit and sustain those members? It could become a hub of information about the community. If reporters are doing that on behalf of a news organization (no matter the size), they’re becoming part of the fabric of an information culture, whether it’s on their own site or not.

Facebook delivers interviews for breaking, after-hours story


It was almost 6 p.m. when we discovered in the newsroom that Andrew Stack, the pilot who attacked the IRS building in Austin, was a graduate of the Milton Hershey School, right in our backyard.

For my first 2.5 years at The Patriot-News I covered the residential school for underprivileged children, so I offered to help find classmates who knew him in the 30 minutes I had before I needed to leave for another commitment. I first checked the two main online forums where alumni gather — the Milton Hershey Alumni Forums and — but no one was discussing it yet.

So I turned to Facebook. I searched for “Milton Hershey School,” but there was no discussion on the school’s main fan page, nor in several other general groups. I searched for “Milton Hershey School alumni,” but no luck there either.

Then I tried “Milton Hershey School Class of,” hoping to find his specific graduating class. Wouldn’t you know it…the very first match was a 33-member group for the Milton Hershey School Class of 1974, which was Stack’s year. As Maeby Funke would say: “That was a freebie.”

Less than an hour earlier, one classmate had written on the group’s wall:

I’m in disbelief…it’s apparently our Andy Stack that crashed his plane into the building in Austin Texas today…I read his “manifesto” online, and he even mentions living in Harrisburg after graduation…I can’t belief it…

I sent him a message, respectfully explaining that I was a reporter who was looking to speak to classmates who had a recollection of him. I sent the same message to four others who had posted recently on the group’s wall.

At this point, as is always the case with using social networks for reporting, you simply cross your fingers and hope that someone is motivated to respond. I find my success rate is usually about one response for every five or six messages I send out. I personally had to get going — my dodgeball team was counting on me! — but I had given the classmates our city desk number, so I was free to leave.

I was literally standing up from my desk to leave when an editor said someone was on the phone for me. It was one of the classmates, and it had been less than five minutes since I had messaged him. I can miss the beginning of the dodgeball game for this, I thought, so I took the call and got a great interview. From my story:

Several years ago, trying to find lost graduates of the Milton Hershey School class of 1974, Mike Macchioni tracked down a man in Texas whom he hadn’t seen in 35 years.

“He was polite, but very abrupt,” Macchioni recalled. “He said he didn’t want to have anything to do with anyone from the Milton Hershey School or the Milton Hershey School itself. He didn’t give the reasons why, but he said, ‘You know, it’s nothing against you personally. That’s just the way it is.’ ”

Macchioni then asked if he could update the man’s contact information in the school’s directory.

“He said he didn’t care one way or another,” said Macchioni, a Hershey native. “He was always very short-tempered. He always struck me as very odd, but brilliant. Smart as hell.”

I filed that and a little bit of the locally relevant material from his “manifesto,” assuming it’d be an addition to an AP story or a break-out, then got up from my desk to leave.

Once again, my phone rings.

It’s another of the classmates I had messaged. This one considered himself friends with Stack. Stack was the bassist in his band — he even remembered the band name, The Mythical Maze — and offered some insight into Stack that no one else would be finding:

“Even though we were practicing all the time and really trying to do well as a group, Andy was still distant,” he said. “He was a part of the group, but he wasn’t the party kind of guy. He wasn’t the type that wanted to get together with his buddies. He was off on his own.”

At this point, I know I’m not playing in any dodgeball game tonight.

I quickly type up the two interviews I’ve got, and all of a sudden I’ve got a 15-inch story that came out of nowhere and took less than an hour to assemble. Just when I hit the send button, I get a message from a third classmate on Facebook:

“Andy was always a little off and unsteady,” Mottin, of Sewell, N.J., wrote to The Patriot-News. “He also had a hair-trigger temper. Plus he had a brilliant mind. Combined, they were a highly volatile cocktail just waiting to explode.”

A few things to remember out of this (the final story is here):

1) I would not have been able to find these sources if I weren’t already familiar with the school and the advanced searching abilities of Facebook. What if the aforementioned online forums, not Facebook, were the home of all the discussion, and I didn’t know those forums existed or how to find them? It highlights why, as a beat reporter, you need to know where every ounce of online discussion in your area is happening.

2) This all came together in less than an hour, after hours, but any reporter familiar with using Facebook for reporting knows there’s nothing extraordinary about what I did. If you’re in a hurry, you have to know how to use these tools before they’re quickly needed.

3) If you’re a reporter who happens to be well-sourced with every graduating class of the last 40 years in every school district in your area, more power to you, but most of us aren’t. For the rest of us, the value of a network like Facebook really shows up in stories like this.

In a pinch, Twitter found a long shot source

When you’re the only reporter in the newsroom on a Sunday night, you have to be ready to write any kind of story — even if you have no prior sourcing on it whatsoever. I know how to reach the police chief, but what happens when you need to do a political story, you can’t reach the reporter who usually covers it and you don’t have any important numbers on file?

For me, the answer was Twitter. And it saved my story.

The situation: We were behind several newspapers and Web sites that were reporting Sen. Dave Argall, a relatively big-name politician in Pennsylvania, was going to announce his candidacy for a Congressional seat Monday morning. My job was to catch up, and as anyone who has ever worked a weekend shift knows, that’s no easy task mon a Sunday night.

I didn’t immediately know who to call. Once I came up with some ideas, I was only able to uncover work numbers and e-mail addresses. Sometimes on a Sunday night you have to just cross your fingers and send a few e-mails, make a few hail-mary calls to people who may possibly know people and then accept the reality: chances are good that none of it will work and your story won’t be all that great. It’s not a good feeling but sometimes it happens.

Instead, I turned to Twitter. I knew the county’s Republican committee was on Twitter, but it wasn’t following me so I couldn’t direct message the account. Shortly before 8 p.m. I tweeted:

I realize it’s a longshot, but anyone out there have contacts with @DauphinGOP? One that’d be available for comment on a Sunday night?

Then I intended to go back to work on more old-school methods, trying to think of other ways to get people on the phone. But it took just two minutes before the responses started coming in.

The first person, who works for a political campaign, had the GOP chairman’s home phone number, which was unavailable in the phone book. There was no answer when I called, but I left a message.

The second person had an ex-boyfriend who works as a political consultant for Republicans. She had already e-mailed him, asking if he could help me out.

The third person describes herself as a GOP activist and simply asked: “What do you need from the Dauphin GOP? May be able to get you in touch with them.” I told her about my story, and she went to work for me.

The fourth person was a Republican committeeman himself, and though I knew he was a local politician I was unaware that he was on the committee. After determining that he wouldn’t be the best interview himself, he gave me the chairman’s cell phone number. No answer there either, so I left a message.

The fifth person was also well-connected, but at this point I told her I was feeling optimistic about my chances from the other four. I might come back to her, I said.

Even though I left two messages earlier, I tried the chairman again. This time he picked up, and though he was minutes away from putting his kids to bed he was happy to answer a few questions. The interview was exactly what I needed, and turned what would have been a fairly lousy story into one that accomplished exactly what it needed to do.

A few take-aways for journalists:

  1. If I were sitting in my cubicle thinking, “Who could help me with this story?”, none of the five people would have immediately popped into my mind, and I certainly wouldn’t have met them outside of Twitter since this story wasn’t on my beat. This is the power of Twitter for reporting: You can find help in unexpected places, from people you wouldn’t normally have access to.
  2. But it only paid off because I’ve taken the time to build a useful local network. I’ve counted 415 Twitter users I follow in the Harrisburg area, though I suspect I follow more who I’ve neglected to add to the list. Every one of them could prove valuable in a pinch — we just never know when it’ll be.
  3. You’ll notice Twitter didn’t replace fundamental reporting, it just facilitated it. I still needed to persist and call the chairman three separate times before I got the source on the phone.

Reporters who use Twitter know that this is a pretty pedestrian example of its effectiveness. This kind of situation has become routine as I incorporate Twitter (and sometimes Facebook) into my everyday reporting. And it should also be noted that you shouldn’t see the people who follow you as potential minions…there’s just as much value in listening as there is in sourcing.

An opportunity for smaller news organizations to show digital leadership

When I had an internship at The Wichita (Kan.) Eagle, my life was turned upside down: Jeopardy was on at 6:00 p.m., and Wheel of Fortune was on at 6:30 p.m. Back home in Pennsylvania it was the other way around: Wheel of Fortune was on first, then Jeopardy.

They were the same two episodes countrywide, just presented in a different order. This presented a rare opportunity for my friend back home: I could tell her the answers before they aired in her time zone, and she’d look much smarter to her roommates.

I know you want to call it cheating, but I’m going to go ahead and call it resourcefulness.


I picture a similar scene when I look at what’s happening to journalism in cities bigger than mine.

I see people – they were formerly called an audience – who are so fractured that their thousands of niches will almost certainly never again be assembled into one. I see mobile news as the lifeline in commuter cultures. I see tech-savvy crowds feeling empowered by tools like Ning, WordPress and their own start-up sites.

Then I look back at Harrisburg, my own city. We have comparatively lower broadband penetration and a smaller population, so print still unites us all. Few people use public transportation, a big reason why mobile news isn’t in high demand. We have a spattering of bloggers and phpBB message boards, but you can’t find many active communities built around them.

The temptation is to look at those facts and decide our market has different demands than the bigger cities. But I think they’re just showing Jeopardy a half-hour earlier in the bigger cities – and it’s about to come on here.

We’d be foolish if we didn’t listen to the answers ahead of time.


Outside of the bigger cities, we’ve been handed an opportunity they never had.

We’re seeing exactly what’s coming our way. We’re getting a step-by-step guide to what will happen should we choose a path of inaction. First, your audience will fragment. Second, they will expand their demands for news delivery. Third, they will take it upon themselves to meet those demands. This is already happening, but not to the extent we’ve seen elsewhere.

It need not be that way. And though the purely grassroots model has its virtues, I’m a believer that the community is best off if an organization of talented professionals is at the center of the local news ecosystem, and I say that not just as the employee of one of those organizations. The expanding and necessary role of bloggers and independent organizations can continue, but they’d prefer to work in tandem with a resource-heavy news organization that excels at its investigative role. Few readers or non-readers actually wish for our destruction; everyone applauds when we do our job right, and everyone in the community is better served when that happens.

I don’t think it’s too late for a nimble news organization in a small- to mid-sized city to place itself at the center of that ecosystem. Don’t let the audience fragment itself away from you – become the platform where their niche exists. As rail, buses and carpooling find more riders – and there’s a lot of evidence that says it will – have a scannable, feature-rich mobile site already running.

When readers realize their news demand is changing, they shouldn’t have reason to create the solution themselves. We can have it ready for them.


Digital leadership is about getting ahead of future demand, and it’s not something news organizations have been known for. That can change now.

My favorite compliment as a journalist came when Josh Karns, a local blogger, traced to me the initial tipping point in local Twitter use. He argued it was my use of it, and my blogging that followed, that gained the attention of others in the area and prompted a wave of sign-ups.

So if a single journalist with a sparsely-read blog can launch a small-scale movement, what could a large news organization with tens of thousands of readers accomplish? I think it could change the news consumption habits of an entire region. I think it could shape those habits in a way that encourages productive participation, involves every reader in the news process and ensures that those readers still value the professional product.

But that’s only if they get out ahead, using the lessons of the bigger cities. If they lag, the same story will play out over and over again.