Tag Archives: Ning

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.

AND NOW, THE AWFUL ANALOGY

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.

OUR LUCKY PREVIEW

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.

SHOWING DIGITAL LEADERSHIP

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.

In online reporting experiment, a good start is essential

The gears are turning, and pretty soon I’ll be embarking on what Ryan Sholin called a “community-directed reporting” experiment. From here on out I’m stealing Ryan’s name for it, because it’s a good one.

The short version: I’ll soon be starting in a new role at The Patriot-News as a hyrbid mobile journalist/general assignment reporter — with a twist. I’ll manage a blog that will solicit story ideas from readers, which they will leave in the comments section. I’ll take some of their best ideas, throw them in poll form, and allow the readers to vote on which story I should tackle next. And that’s the one I’ll write, for both the blog and the print product.

Catch up on more of the thinking behind it, and more details on how the concept will work, in this post from last month. Since then, the project has moved from “That’d be a great idea” to “Got the green light” to “Holy crap, I have to come up with a real plan for this thing.”

An important lesson I learned from my Beatblogging.org experience, during which I set up a Ning-powered social network for the Hershey community I covered: It’s wildly important to get the project off on the right foot, establish the right culture early, and pray that it takes root.

What do I mean by “the right culture?” As I wrote in a Facebook note to 30 of my friends in the area, I’m seeking contributors who:

“are leaving intelligent, productive comments in the early going. I want to establish the culture where the smartasses are ostracized and overwhelmed by the valuable people, not the other way around. If that can be established in the beginning, it will become entrenched and expected behavior among everyone else. If that doesn’t happen, there’s no way my idea can work out.”

“Smartasses” is a term that got me in trouble — rightfully so — when someone found my Twitter account and posted one of my poorly worded Tweets in the comments of an introductory post on PennLive:

@ashleygurbal I ain’t skurred. I have a plan to establish the right culture…building an army now to overwhelm and nullify smartasses.

I shouldn’t have called some (obviously not all) readers that, but the point remains that it’s the users perceived as smartasses that have chased away valuable content by creating a hostile, intimidating environment. They exist on every news site and have a toxic effect.

I considered that introductory post, in which I asked for help picking out a name for the blog, as a bit of a trial run. The response from readers was, quite expectedly, mixed.

to comply with truth in advertising, you need to name the blog, “A general assignment reporter’s worst nightmare.”

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How bout naming it “Farmed Out” because you’re too cheap to go get stories, so you want them to come to you.

How long until this thing gets pranked?

I’ll give it 2 weeks until we see a story about a cat nursing a puppy.

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Have any of you heard of the saying, “unless you have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all”??? My gosh, why the negativity? I think this sounds like a fun idea.

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Instead of worrying about what to call your blog, why don’t you invest that time to spellcheck all of the articles.

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You guys are a joke. Can’t wait to see great articles about spelling bees and summer camp.

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Forgive my negativity, but this is not what I’d like to see good reporters like Dan wasted on.

Respectfully, newspapers are shrinking all over and I agree with the commenter above – considering the shrinking nature of journalism please use your resources for more important things.

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I think this is a great idea! And it might give voice to some cool stories from readers that might not warrant a whole article but would still neat to hear about.

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That’s great; play the fiddle while Rome burns.

Our local, state and federal governments are getting more corrupt by the day and you don’t want to allow political discussion on a forum designed around the readers’ interests. Just sunshine and lollypops.

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Wow this sounds like a terrible idea. Has anyone ever read the comments on any of these articles. These people are going to start to determine what is newsworthy? Are you kidding me???? Look at the 81 comments on the racist flyer article and you tell me if this is still a good idea.

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The ridiculous ideas can be weeded out easily enough. I can honestly see this improving the stories that pour out of the patriot news building.

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Awesome! Too many times I’ve witnessed good community events go by the wayside and not even be acknowledged in our local newspaper.

This is coupled with an overwhelmingly positive response on Facebook, Twitter, other j-bloggers and real life people I’ve told about it. I think the success in those areas has a lot to do with me previously establishing credibility, but it still confirms to me that the audience is out there. It’s just going to take a lot of work, and maybe a lot of luck, to get this thing started right.

To that end, I’m relying heavily on social media to spread the word. I’m hoping the people who already approve of the idea can help carry some weight early on, or pass the word on to others who they think would be interested.

There remain a lot of questions about how I’ll actually implement the plan, and how I’m going to avoid some of the trouble spots that are probably on your mind. I plan to address those in FAQ format in an early post on the blog, so please let me know what you think readers (or you) will be concerned about, and I’ll try to address them now.

Beatblogging: A future model for the shrinking newsroom

Ten years down the road, beatblogging is going to be much more important to the news organization than it is now as we’re in the primitive stages of trying to figure it out.

I see it as the future band-aid, if not the solution, to the epidemic of emaciating staff resources.

Let’s first acknowledge that beat reporting is going to undergo some serious evolution as staffs continue to shrink. It won’t much resemble our beats of today, and beatblogging is just one part of that.

We have to figure out how we’re going to cram two, three, four times as many subject areas into the workload of the reporters who remain. Somehow, we have to figure out how to do that without severely under-reporting the communities that depend on that work.

Our current model — attending meetings, working the phones, hoping sources will voluntarily e-mail us with tips — will crumble on top of us. The remaining reporters would be overwhelmed, meetings would conflict, there wouldn’t be enough hours in the day to call all the sources necessary to keep in touch.

That’s already happening if you ask the right reporters, and it’s only going to get worse.

So I’m sending beatblogging in on its off-white horse. I say off-white because it’s not the only evolution necessary, but certainly an important one.

In my personal efforts — which are really stuck in neutral right now as I shift from a mostly discarded Ning network to a not-ready-for-primetime blog — the lack of user activity was the kiss of death. The return on investment wasn’t quite there for me, not just yet.

Ten years from now, that won’t be nearly as much of a problem. There must be Friendster before there’s Facebook. Ten years from now, it’ll be a much easier sell to get a variety of community members contributing to the news process via their computers, or whatever they’re using at that point.

My Ning network never became the set-it-and-forget-it Story Idea Delivery System some might dream it to be — beatblogging and other equally important forms of online interaction will probably never get to that point. They still require the input of the reporter’s time to make it valuable to the readers, and in return valuable to the reporter.

But cultivating that kind of network can drastically increase our return on (time) investment, which is exactly what we need to cram more responsibilities into our schedules. It has the potential to increase our sourcing tenfold, while not increasing our time commitment nearly as much.

And since we know fewer reporters will be left 10 years from now, guess which ones are more likely to survive the slaughter so they can create these beatblogs?

Yep, the ones who have already demonstrated these skills. Better learn ’em now.

Beatblogging.org recaps the Hershey Home

Pat Thornton’s interview with me, and his resulting recap, is up at Beatblogging.org. His conclusion: Sometimes a Ning network just doesn’t work.

I believe the experience of the Hershey Home is a valuable laboratory for other journalists, especially those outside of the big cities. This is why I love the beatblogging.org project — it’s real reporters trying out new methods, sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing. Both will benefit journalists who care to listen.

And here’s streaming audio of the interview, or you can download the mp3.

Five months later, reflections on Ning

At the end of the final June meeting of the Derry Twp. school board, I told a parent that I’d see her at the next meeting.

But until then, I enthusiastically said to the Hershey Home member, she should participate a lot on the Ning network!

“Ehh…” she said, shrugging her shoulders.

I half-smiled in acknowledgment, because it was hard for me to argue she should have a different reaction. Truth is, the online network I set up for parents and residents as part of the beatblogging.org project in February just hasn’t caught on with them.

Some raw numbers:

  • Of the 36 members, only 15 have written something in the discussion forum.
  • Of the 15 members who have posted, two of them wrote 35 messages apiece. The other 13 combined for 36 messages.
  • Of those 15, eight of them responded to just one or two topics.
  • Only five members started their own discussion topic.
  • About half have taken the time to fill out minimal profiles.
  • Just six have uploaded photos of themselves for an avatar.

There are six of what I’d call the “highly committed” members. These are people who have really bought into the idea in one form or another, either uploading their own photography, inviting friends to participate, contacting each other through the site, contributing to the discussion, etc.

But even among those six, only one or two of them are really into social media. One has her own blog and Twitter account (and I recently recruited another Twitter user who hasn’t yet participated in the site).

I had very high hopes coming into the beatblogging project, and in some ways I still do. This kind of network has exciting potential as a small-town community organizer, and I don’t intend to give up on the idea.

But the failure to launch of the Hershey Home has necessitated a new strategy that involves shifting my time and effort toward a new blog — and details will be provided in an upcoming post. But for now, a brief retrospective from my beatblogging experience so far.

WHAT WORKED WELL:

  • Though the network didn’t bear much fruit in terms of immediate translation to the print product, it did help create offline relationships that were very important. Contacting these people, either by phone or by e-mail or by messaging new members, meant I was able to make personal contact with 36 potential sources I might not have otherwise. A lot of public and private messages on the forum led to productive phone calls.
  • As I detailed in an earlier post, the site’s mere presence was an advertisement for my willingness and desire to hear from residents. I called it an “Open for Business” sign.
  • Due to my insistence that members use their full, real names, the quality of conversation was usually higher than some of the noxious forums that are used otherwise. The members often expressed appreciation for that.

WHAT DIDN’T WORK WELL:

  • It hasn’t been the “Set it and forget it” reporting solution I hoped it might be. One time a big story broke, and I only had about two hours to gather community reaction. I took 20 very precious minutes to pull into the Panera Bread parking lot to use the wifi and solicit reaction on the site. I e-mailed all the members to let them know of my desire to hear from them. When I came back two hours later to see the mountain of riches that had come in, there wasn’t a single message in response. I ended up just calling one of the members.
  • In a community with very little activity on social networking sites, it was difficult to find a full buy-in to the concept.
  • The site did nothing to overcome what residents have repeatedly called a “culture of fear” when it comes to criticizing local officials. So in some of the most contentious and important issues, the ability to be anonymous elsewhere redirected traffic to those other forums.

Since this is getting a little long, I’ll split this up. Coming soon: Where the beatblogging project goes from here, and lessons to be learned for small-town journalism and networking.

Beatblogging success story: The “Open for Business” sign

I love the beatblogging project because it’s innovation in real newsroom laboratories, as opposed to tsk-tsking and dreaming.

My foray into it has had its ups and downs, but I recently had a kind of success story that I didn’t expect when I signed up.

And it shows why I believe so much that social networking can revolutionize small-town beat reporting.

A woman in the town I cover believed that she had spotted an injustice. (I won’t go into detail for competitive reasons, and because my work on the possible story is ongoing.)

But she didn’t know what to do with this knowledge, so like any other computer user, she turned to Google. She typed in the name of a resident in town who her neighbors had recommended, a person who might know what to do with this information.

One of the first results took her to The Hershey Home, the Ning network I set up for the beatblogging project. The resident she sought has been a frequent contributor to the network.

Once there, she strolled around the site. She read all of my solicitations for story ideas, background information on stories I was already working on, and feedback for stories I’ve already written. She went ahead and e-mailed me to set up a meeting.

After she spilled the beans at our meeting, I asked her why she contacted me.

“I just read through your comments on the site, and you seemed like the type of person who would want to hear this,” she responded.

Imagine that! I may have stumbled upon a high-impact story based on a tip from a person who isn’t even a member of the network. She chose to contact a reporter because the network put up an “Open for Business” sign,  and revealed that I have a genuine interest in hearing from as many residents as possible.

An obligatory listing of our e-mail address at the end of our stories doesn’t invite our readers to contact us, it just allows them to. Setting up this kind of network, interacting with people online, and really advertising that we really, really do want to hear from people can directly lead to stories.