Tag Archives: Patriot-News

Facebook delivers interviews for breaking, after-hours story

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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 TheMilt.com — 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.

CLIPS: Alumni want state to save the school that saved them (02/08/09)

BY DANIEL VICTOR
Of The Patriot-News

Of the ways Deborah Griffin’s life wouldn’t have been the same without her eight years at the Scotland School for Veterans’ Children, chief among them is that she would have never known what a fishing rodeo was.

You don’t see ponds in inner-city Philadelphia, where in her early years she struggled through public school and a dangerous neighborhood. Nor do you see ducks or rows of blooming flowers or the grassy hills of central Pennsylvania or an abundance of teachers who make students believe they care deeply about them.

Now she has a love of fishing, a strong network of alumni friends, a college degree and a job as a housing inspector for the city of Philadelphia — none of which she thinks would have been possible without the taxpayer-funded school.

So the thought of the Franklin County residential school being axed because of the state’s budget crisis was devastating for her.

Shutting its doors would save the state $10.5 million. The Rendell administration says it simply can’t afford the costs. The state spends $45,000 per student at Scotland each year, compared with $11,000 per child in public schools.

But the possibility of the school closing is heartbreaking for its alumni and the parents of Scotland’s children.

“They gave me a chance to succeed and become somebody,” said Griffin who graduated in 2000. “This is our life. This is our family. There’s no way they can close it.

“Oh, my God, it hurts. I was in tears the other day when I was told they were closing. That’s all I knew, and that’s all a lot of us knew. They were our rock. There’s no way we can do without it. There’s no way the community, that Pennsylvania, can live without it.”

Alumni and parents are fighting to save the school, which serves at-risk children of veterans. Dozens of alumni called The Patriot-News to describe how the school instilled discipline, gave them a family and saved them from wreckage.

Many of them said they wanted to someday send their own children there. Unless the school finds money soon, its 114th graduating class will be its last, and 186 employees will lose their jobs.

Why it could close

The school’s $13.5 million budget comprises $10.5 million from the state, $2.4 million from school districts and $500,000 from the federal government.

Under Gov. Ed Rendell’s proposed budget, about $1.4 million would be redirected to veterans programs, said Joan Nissley, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. The rest of the savings would be absorbed into the general budget.

“It’s too great a cost for too few students who are actually enrolled in the school,” Nissley said.

There are 1.1 million veterans and active-duty service members in Pennsylvania and 288 children at the school, Nissley said. In light of the growing deficit in the state, Rendell had to look hard at every program, she said.

Scotland is one of the last remnants of what was once a national trend.

Heidi Goldsmith, the executive director of the Coalition for Residential Education in Washington, D.C., said most states built similar schools after the Civil War.

Only two remain: Scotland and the Indiana Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Children’s Home. That, too, is fighting for its life in the Indiana state budget process.

Scotland costs a lot of money, but Goldsmith has urged state officials to seek improvement or better efficiency instead of closure, calling it a “treasure that most states do not have.” Having to fight the battle is why she urges new residential schools to seek private money, like the similar Milton Hershey School, which is paid for by the $5.9 billion Hershey Trust Co.

“I say do not rely on public funding because when times get tough, the poor children get cut,” Goldsmith said.

The town’s identity

Who will buy Little Vince’s pizza?

For the 15 years Mike Anzalone has been in business in tiny Scotland, it’s been the teachers, the students ordering in, the parents visiting their children. There’s not much business elsewhere.

Take that school away and you’re not just cutting into his business; you’re also losing much of the character of the town.

“When you think of Scotland, that’s what you think of,” said Lisa Keefer, 28, who arrived from Chambersburg three years ago to find a quieter place. “It’s the only big thing in this town.”

Ten minutes northeast of Chambersburg, Scotland has a few mom-and-pop shops on Main Street, a community center, a post office, a township office and an elementary school. Otherwise, it’s mostly filled with houses, where people have planted themselves for generations or moved to so they can enjoy the peace.

The school, with its 183 acres and 70 buildings, takes up a huge chunk of the town but largely remains tucked away by itself. Most residents said they rarely interacted with the students, except when they watched the renowned sports teams. Some would congratulate the players when they were spotted in the nearby Chambersburg Mall.

Martha Whitsel, working at Scotland Automotive, said the school adds more than business to her town.

“Maybe a little prestige,” she said. “That you can extend the education to those who need it, that they have the chance to have a good education. I’m just proud.”

Robert Smith, the postmaster of the local post office, which features a mural of the school in its lobby, said he aches for the many people he’s met who attended or worked for the school and fears what will happen to the campus.

“It’s hard to believe they’re actually closing it,” he said. “That just really shows how bad the times are. It’s really hitting close to home.”

The impact on students

Most of the students come from difficult urban environments, with about 70 percent of them from Philadelphia.

Scotland School alumni said they often think about where they’d be had they never gone to the school.

Randell Williams, a 2004 graduate, thinks he would have never gone into the Army, he said just weeks before he’s due to ship out for a year in Afghanistan.

Shirlee Patterson, a 2005 graduate, thinks she’d be fighting like the girls on her street where she grew up, or she’d be in jail. “That’d be the total opposite of the person I am now,” she said.

Daniel Woodlin, a 1996 graduate, doesn’t see his Columbia University diploma, his job as a manager for the Vanguard Group, his wife or his two kids without the school.

“You grow from a boy to a man, fast,” said Marcus Spence of Philadelphia, who graduated in 2007.

Melanie Nichole Pollard-Alford’s father was a Marine, serving two tours in the Gulf War. She said he developed emotional issues that left him unfit to care for her, and she ended up in the foster care system in Bucks County.

There, she said, she had no support system. It’s difficult to think of how she would have turned out if she hadn’t spent her high school years at the Scotland School, she said.

“I probably wouldn’t have gone to college. I probably wouldn’t be married. I probably would have had children early,” she said. “To say that I would have graduated from high school would have been a stretch.”

Now she works in financial aid at Mercer County Community College, and her job feels meaningful. She’s giving back to the community — something she learned at the Scotland School, she said.

When Gerald Robinson came from Philadelphia, he said, he had low standards. He rarely attended school and was getting in trouble.

But the Scotland School atmosphere turned him into a B student. He went on to college, is getting a degree in business administration, and works as a retail manager.

“It forces you to really find out who you are, as opposed to just staying in Philadelphia,” Robinson said.

Dozens of alumni said they learned discipline and structure. They felt loved by their teachers and classmates. Some said it kept them out of prison. Some said it saved their lives.

They knew they’d get at least one Christmas gift per year, something like a Barbie doll, an alarm clock or a lamp.

Diallo Daniels was just happy he was allowed to bring books home with him to read, which he couldn’t do at his Philadelphia school.

Kimberly Duncan thinks back to the big prom night, when a line of classmates would watch everyone else emerge in their fancy dress.

“That’s how they treated you,” she said, “like a big red carpet.”

Central PA NewsVote has launched

Thanks to all who have contributed your thoughts to the evolution of my new community-directed blog: Central PA NewsVote. It’ll be the keystone of my new job responsibility at The Patriot-News.

The idea started with a blog post in January, and dozens of comments from other journalists and readers really helped me sharpen the idea. Now we release it to the wild.

I’m crazy excited for it, and stubbornly optimistic that it’s going to work. No matter what, I know we’re going to learn a lot from it, and I’ll be sharing the lessons with you here.

I hope you’ll follow along and keep the feedback coming.

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.”

——-

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.

———-

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.

———-

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

———–

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

————-

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.

————–

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.

————–

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.

—————-

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.

————–

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.

—————

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.

How I want to redefine my role, and the reader’s role, in the newspaper

Once the equipment arrives, I’ll be starting in a new position at The Patriot-News as a mobile journalist, or mojo.

What that means is, correctly, still to be determined. We do know it’ll involve video, still photography, print stories and a lot of updates for the Web. We know I’ll have a laptop and an aircard, will file most of my stories from my car and coffee shops, and will aim to be in the office as little as possible.

What we don’t know is exactly what stories I’ll be covering. I’ll be one of three mojos, and the other two will focus more on being first responders to fires, shootings and other cops-related happenings.

Which leaves an interesting question: What exactly is my role going to be? Why am I better off as a mojo instead of going back to the newsroom in a more traditional role?

To me, the opportunity to take this blank piece of paper and figure out the answer is tremendously exciting. It’s an opportunity to discover a more efficient reporting model that pumps great stories into the print edition, while simultaneously feeding my need to discover building blocks to future news models.

And I think I’ve got an idea that will do both.

If I can sell my editors on the concept, I would be the author and community manager of a new blog. My stated goal will be to have at least one originally reported story per day, usually some combination of text, photography and video. Sometimes it’ll be a three-minute video with 200-word text, sometimes it could be a great photo with 800-word text.

The stories I’m looking for are next-door slices of life that are usually the first to go because of shrinking staffs. A new museum exhibit, an innovative classroom project, a personality profile, a soup kitchen gearing up for a busy time, a little-known hiking trail, a new business opening, etc.

If you check this new blog every day, you will always learn about one new wrinkle in your community. That’s a wonderful promise for a news site to make.

That’s the content. But the fun part is who decides what that content will be.

Every day I’ll solicit story ideas from my readers via comments on the blog. At the end of the day, I’ll post their story ideas in poll form, and my readers will vote on which one they want me to cover tomorrow. And that’s the one I’ll do.

I’ll no longer have an assignment editor. The collective community will be my assignment editor. What a strange concept: Asking our readers what stories they want, then giving it to them! Yes, we’d maintain veto power for outlandish stories (write about why councilman Jones sux!!!) and needs of the newsroom (if no one’s around to cover a court case), but we’d try to limit that as much as possible.

By forcing myself to write one story per day, I’m creating a reliable pipeline of stories that can be repurposed for the print product (this is where you should pay attention, my skeptical editors). No matter how cool it may be on the Web, and whether or not it succeeds in being an important step in our future, at the very least it’s producing a lot of stories for print in an efficient way.

I could also produce some great long-term enterprise through this, while packaging it in a completely new way. I think of a story I did last year in which I occasionally followed a four-year-old around for six months while I documented her transition to a new school. What if I took a video each time, wrote a short story each time, teased to the long-form print story that would eventually come each time? It’d be great to watch the process, and would build a lot of anticipation for the final project.

As for the form of the blog: Very conversational, with a persistent focus on cultivating user participation. Lots of voice, personality, maybe even wit if I’m lucky. Every day I would also offer a bevy of links: The day’s best content from The Patriot-News, interesting posts from local bloggers, thought-provoking material from around the Web, maybe even some funny videos. It would rely on a totally new skill set for journalists, one in which I practiced somewhat at my now-defunct Ning site, the Hershey Home. It’s a skill set I’d love to have a part in figuring out and teaching to other journalists.

For the reader, it’s an unprecedented amount of access to the pages of The Patriot-News. If you called up now and told an editor about the science project your child is doing, you probably wouldn’t get very far. Make that same pitch to the readers of this blog, and make it a convincing argument, and that project will be in the paper. It could be a rewarding feeling to think that you’re actually playing a legitimate part in the news.

For journalism’s future, the goal of this blog will be to foster a self-sustaining, invested community around it. We’ll implement rules aimed on creating that culture (which could be several blog posts in itself), both through the level of conversation and making clear what kind of story pitches we’re looking for.

Community-building is a skill we must, must, must master in many forms, and we’re not spending enough time practicing it. Even if it doesn’t succeed, it’s the kind of trial balloon we need to be sending out, and it comes at little to no cost.

I have my own reservations about the idea, of course, but I’d really like to hear what you all think. if you’ve heard of similar ideas at other papers, if you have any recommendations for improvement, if you’ve found any trouble spots, etc., anything would be appreciated. I’d like to allow for a day or two of comments before I e-mail a link to this entry to my editors, so your feedback could be very valuable.

UPDATE 1: I forgot to make one important point: By virtue of me taking my time to do these slice-of-life stories, that allows all the other reporters to pass their slice-of-life stories off to me and opens up time for them to do the meaty enterprise that we really need to be producing.

UPDATE 2: Wondering if it would be a trademark infringement to use the tagline: “You Decide. We Report.”

UPDATE 3: Jeff McCloud makes an important point in the comments section about ceding editorial control. He writes:

I like the idea. I just wouldn’t want to be framed in to always writing what the majority of your blog readers want. I think you need to reserve your news judgment for yourself and your editors. Of course, the rub is in the balance of that and making readers happy to know they are participating. The rub is also in making sure that readers feel they don’t “own” you and your assignments.

And I respond:

Jeff, your point about reserving news judgment is an important one and probably the trickiest thing to balance here. I think that’s likely to be developed as the process goes along. My feeling, though, is that editorial judgment is best exercised not by yanking control from the readers after it’s promised to them, but by story placement in the physical newspaper. If my readers led me to a great story, editors will see that and put it on A1. Total waste of time, and it’s relegated to B10. I just fear nullifying the entire concept if we say “You have total control…unless we don’t like your idea.” That’s kind of what the current model says.

Now if it turns out all the story ideas are bad, bad, bad, we’ll re-evaluate. As of now, I’ve got faith in the readers.

UPDATE 4: Colin Lenton weighs in via Twitter:

@bydanielvictor nice that youre excited for new role, but why do the work of 3 by yourself? won’t you diminish quality by doing too much?

And I respond:

@colinmlenton Time is probably 2nd-biggest concern. I don’t think it has to be the work of 3, though. I’ll know if I’m stretching too thin.

Colin also expanded his thoughts in the comments section, wondering whether this is the best use of staff time.

UPDATE 5: Via the comments, Daniel Klotz wonders:

I’d like to know more about how you would plan to handle more “hard news,” political, and investigative stories. You’ll get people asking you to report on things they believe are under-reported, and often those stories have a (local) political bent. How will you proceed if that’s what you’re given, rather than a more human-interest topic?

So I say:

I think my moderation skills will have to make it clear that it’s not what we’re looking for. I anticipate cutting-and-pasting the same kind of disclaimer on each entry, clearly stating the purpose of what I’m doing and what stories we’re searching for. And if I’m going to put it in poll form, there’s a little bit of active selection involved on my end.

UPDATE 6: I’ve had to work on some of those pesky newspaper stories today, so I haven’t had a chance to go through most of today’s comments to respond or highlight them. But Meranda Watling offers this interesting idea via Gmail chat:

I can’t remember if I read it somewhere or someone told me but I remember hearing about an editor who would hold office hours kind of at a local cafe.

You could try something like that as a complement.
Posting well you’ll be in certain areas and encouraging readers to come visit, tip you off to ideas.

Easy, immediate, responsible deployments of crowdsourcing

(This is Part 2 on my series about crowdsourcing. Part 1 argued the crowd can help ease the pain of a shrinking staff, and Part 3 defended the underlying principles of crowdsourcing.)

I understand that crowdsourcing is a scary word to a lot of journalists. So I thought it would help to offer some specific examples of how it could be utilized.

When you read this, keep in mind: Staff resources are very limited, and becoming more limited by the day. We’re searching for newsroom inefficiencies, old practices we can cut or change that will open up time for the core enterprise that will keep news organizations relevant.

Something’s gotta give, and I’ve targeted these traditional story genres as areas that can be overhauled by utilizing the crowd:

Traffic: When big traffic events happen, the local Twitter community goes into action without anyone commanding it to.

About a month ago, the search for bank robbers shut down a major interstate, and the local Twitter users were sharing back-road detours. I told Twitter when I was on a jammed-up North Front Street, and one of the users said she took a different route because of it.

This is an outfit of several dozen. Now imagine if an army of the entire community could contribute to something like this, even if they’re not on Twitter. Imagine if any Pennlive reader stuck in a traffic jam could send a single text message, and alert everyone in the community to stay away from I-81 northbound.

You’d get immediate updates from every corner of the region, and you wouldn’t need to invest staff resources into calling busy police dispatchers who are just as far away from the scene and often have old information.

It could be presented in its own area, with the standard disclaimers that it’s provided by the community and not verified by The Patriot-News. And no one would care about that disclaimer, and they’d probably check it often before driving home for the day.

The risk of vandalism is minimal, you’re saving staff time, and producing a much more comprehensive product than the staff can anyway.

Gas prices: The argument I hear often is that station owners would provide false information on competitors.

But taking that scenario just a few minutes or hours down the road shows the wonderful self-policing nature of crowdsourcing. That competitor would see the false price, then offer the real price. He’d then keep an eye on the price of his station. The site could ban the fraudulent user.

I tend to think that kind of vandalism would be far more rare than the skeptics fear. But regardless of the outcome of that scenario, you’d have to consider it an outlier. Sites like GasBuddy have thrived on this model.

And as we’re searching for our own inefficiencies as staffs get smaller, the more important question to ask is: Does the slight risk of vandalism outweigh what would be a more comprehensive product for the readers, and the elimination of a time-consuming task for reporters? It’s a minimal price I’m willing to pay as we’re forced to make tough decisions.

Man on the Street: Reporters complain about these stories more than any others. And with good reason. You can’t get a mathematically representative sample and it often takes a lot of interviews to get valuable insight.

That’s a lot of staff time spent on stories that don’t add much more than the comment thread below a story on Pennlive. There’s a lot of static in those comment threads, but you’ll also occasionally find some valuable insight.

No, you don’t know the identity of hbgmom233. But when you want opinions on how Penn State will fare in the Rose Bowl, no one cares who she is except maybe journalists.

Indeed, surrounding her comments with background on her PSU fandom and follow-up questions is better than just reprinting her comments. But again, the real question is: Does that extra context outweigh a greater quantity of opinions and a considerable expenditure of time by a reporter?

Notice that this list doesn’t include council meetings. I’m a crowdsourcing centrist — I’m not sold on a responsible way to crowdsource those without making too many journalistic compromises.

We may get to that point, but I list these three now as immediate examples of ways the crowd can be responsibly deployed. These are very minimal compromises, and it just takes a cost/benefit analysis to start saving reporters’ time and producing a better product.

Crowdsourcing can lead newspapers through buyout blues

(This is Part 1 of a three-part series on crowdsourcing. Read Part 2 for specific examples of ways the crowd can be responsibly deployed, and Part 3 for a defense of the underlying principles of it.)

Last week, my newspaper said goodbye to nine journalists, a combined 227 years of experience between them.

In the coming weeks, we’ll say goodbye to another load. By January 1, the reporters in the cubicles to the front, left and right of me will be gone.

As the entire newsroom gathered around the city desk to pay tribute to the departed, you couldn’t help but be struck by how much more real, how much more human it all seems when it hits your own newsroom. We’re fortunate that these nine were all bought out, not laid off, so for them it seemed an awkward mix of emotions that falls somewhere between sadness, exhaustion and relief.

Until now, those of us Left Behind just had to shoulder through the nagging pain of attrition, responsibilities piled upon responsibilities. Now, with an estimated 25 percent of the newsroom leaving, it’s become unavoidably clear that stacking can no longer be part of our newsroom model. Not when we’re losing this many people; no one can stack that high.

The only possibility is to drastically cut open and operate on every practice we know. Eliminate inefficiencies. Find new opportunities of strength. Sacrifice the sacred cows that don’t deserve to be sacred anymore. Refocus our priorities.

I’m annoyingly stubborn in believing that despite the devastating cuts, The Patriot-News can redefine itself and serve the community better than it ever has.

It’s a simple formula: As the number of reporters decreases, the importance of efficient sourcing increases.

And it just so happens there’s a wildly efficient pool of sources just waiting for us to tap into it: It’s time for a wider embrace of crowdsourcing in its many forms. All it would require is a sledgehammer to the institutional arrogance rooted deeply in the newspaper industry.

There’s an active base of readers, even in central Pennsylvania, who would be perfectly willing to chip in when it comes to reporting traffic or gas prices. Given easy access to reporters, they like to share news tips.

It requires a newsroom-wide commitment that sees the benefit of turning over tasks to the community when it will open up time for reporters to spend on significant stories.

It requires a Web operation that doesn’t just shovel our content to the masses, but actively curates the information out there and promotes useful Web activity in the area.

For the resistant reporter, it requires an acknowledgment that reading a forum posting from DerryDynamo isn’t any different than talking to her after the board meeting or answering a phone call, a willingness to sift through the crap for the wealth of valuable information out there, and the ability to develop an online presence in all forms necessary.

And let’s get this straight: The buyouts get us nowhere closer to these goals. There’s a misconception out there that buyouts tend to filter out those who “don’t get the Web,” but that simplistic logic just didn’t bear out here. Among our losses are two journalists on Twitter, our best computer-assisted reporter, and a reporter who’s been blogging since long before it was fashionable. All of the journalists leaving are big losses for the community.

I hold tight to this annoying optimism because we have no choice but to consider this a turning point of some sort, so we might as well make it as positive as possible. Here’s hoping a culture change is very much a part of it.

American Journalism Review writes about reporters on Twitter

Here’s a nice story by Laurie White for the American journalism Review: All the News That’s Fit to Tweet. Scroll down about halfway and you’ll see me quoted in this story about reporters who use Twitter.

Daniel Victor (@bydanielvictor), a reporter at the Harrisburg Patriot-News, says he was originally a Twitter skeptic, but is now a major fan. One of the more prolific tweeters at the ONA conference, he says he uses the service routinely to find stories.

“I use a combination of TwitterLocal and Tweetscan to find people from Harrisburg/Hershey,” he says, referring to third-party applications that allow searches of Twitter by topic and geographic location.

Victor never asks Twitter users he finds through these applications for story ideas. Instead, he finds them in their “normal conversation.”

“The key is, I don’t treat my Twitter account like I’m a reporter-bot,” he says. “I’m a full member of the community who goes to bars and tweets about the Eagles’ game just like them.”

She did a nice job with it, so there’s not too much to add. In case anyone doubts it, yes, I was very much a Twitter skeptic at first.

And though I certainly Tweeted a lot during ONA, everyone there knows Greg Linch was by far the most prolific. He easily wins the crown.

Laurie asked me if anyone has ever felt uneasy knowing they’re being followed by a reporter. I told her it’s only happened once (that I know of), and I offered to unfollow him.

I could be wrong, but I suspect no one feels uncomfortable with my presence because: A) They’re not going to Tweet about anything too scandalous anyway, and B) I’ve made clear that I’m a full participant instead of just some guy mining for stories. That’s why I made the reporter-bot comment…I am indeed a real person enjoying the community there as much as anyone else.

And these aren’t elected officials and campaigners hanging out on Twitter, these are everyday people who will occasionally lead me to interesting features. Or, for one or two of them, they’ve enjoyed having access to a reporter so they can send in a meatier story tip.

Even outside of the local users, I often find my ideas sharper once I bounce them around the global network of journalists I’ve built.

It’s great having that out-of-the-building network, both locally and globally. And for some of us, it’s even pretty fun.

Hopefully you’ll follow me if you’re not already.

How to turn an inside brief into a front page centerpiece

Front page of The Patriot-News, 07/24/08It was the kind of press release every reporter hates getting: The dreaded check presentation. You’re almost tempted to cover it, but you know it’s only considered news if you’re lazy or desperately need to fill space. I was neither, and backed by an editor who similarly hates canned press conferences, I decided to ignore the check presentation to announce federal assistance for a new parking center in Hershey, Pa. Check presentations aren’t news.

That said, my editor and I agreed that the parking center was an important topic, even if it was hang-me-please boring. So I set out to update the project’s progress, likely to land inside the local section, maybe sneaking out to the section’s front if it got lucky.

This is the first spot where a reporter can choose to elevate a story higher than your editors might initially think it belongs.

Instead of a simple and hang-me-please boring update on where the project has gone, I wanted to focus on where this new parking center could fit in the area’s long-range plans, especially when it comes to public transportation.

I called the usual suspects: A township official who offered an insightful interview. The director of the bus company to discuss how it could fit into future schedules as a park-and-ride, and how much ridership statistics have increased. An out-of-town public transportation activist to pontificate on why the Hershey community has a lot of potential for bus and rail traffic.

Since we came into this story with low expectations, I likely could have stopped here, written the usual 12 inches and moved on to work on a story everyone liked better.

But I decided to act on a hunch and take a round trip on the bus around the time professionals would be going home from Harrisburg to Hershey. These are the people everyone had been speaking about attracting, and no one — myself, my editors, the bus company officials, the locals I asked on Twitter — really knew  whether or not they existed. It was a pure fishing expedition.

And it ended up better than I could have ever imagined. I spoke to a large group of regulars who passed out cookies and sang carols at Christmas time, went out for drinks together on Friday, spoke glowingly about how much money they were saving, and were even thinking of starting a bocce team together. It was a fantastic human story that most people would be surprised to read about. And they even offered support to the idea that their group is indeed growing.

So now the story has evolved:

Check presentation –> Project update –> Look ahead at regional public transportation –> The revelation of a money-saving subculture

And the final product got to incorporate all that project updating and looking ahead that we set out to do.

For young reporters or interns who are gunning for the front page and struggling to make it there, it requires an open mind and a willingness to occasionally go on that fishing expedition. Even the most mundane check presentation can become front page material with a bit of luck and elbow grease.

More good advice here from Hilary Lehman, an intern in San Antonio.

More Twitter: The news organization’s presence

A local blogger, proving that he doesn’t just throw hand grenades at our newspaper’s Web site, offers this piece of friendly advice in his blog today:

Here’s my good deed of the day:

Whoever is in charge of your self-promotion, go over to http://twitter.com and register “pennlive” for an account.

We’d hate to see you not get the domain name which would be the most effective to keeping your Website in the sight lines of the 18-34 demo.

(For clarification, I work at The Patriot-News, and the PennLive Web site that publishes our work online is owned separately by Advance Internet. Which means I couldn’t personally register that name on Twitter, and I wouldn’t have the ability to suggest it more than any other blogger. )

(For further clarification, Twitter is a blogging tool that allows users to post messages only 140 characters at a time. It’s essentially a blog mashed up with a chat room, and there’s a lot of speculation that it’s the next great medium for reaching young people.)

Anyway, I mostly agree with the blogger. It makes more sense to have a presence on Twitter than not to, even if it is as rudimentary as using TwitterFeed to display an RSS feed of recent headlines. Take 20 minutes to set that up once, let people follow you if they want to, and at least you’ll make it available if people seek you out.

That said, using Twitter as a link dump is a big missed opportunity. It’s better used by individual reporters to discuss the stories they’re working on, inviting commentary or criticism, then linking to those stories afterward to drive traffic. It doesn’t feel like a link dump when you’re actually talking to people.

It shouldn’t just be one more example of something old awkwardly being forced into something new.

@whptv is a good example of a local TV station that’s better off being there than not being there. But it has 26 followers in the area, and isn’t bothering to follow anyone back. It clearly says they’re not interested in hearing from you on Twitter, they just want to send more eyeballs to their Web site. It’s not the spirit of the site — Twitter is not the place for I-talk-you-listen.

For now, news organizations ought to set up an account and get those stories pumped through the site, because it takes no maintenance and a very small time commitment to set up.

But if they do that, they ought to also consider a long-term strategy that involves using the site the way it was meant to be used.

UPDATE (3:30 p.m.): John Hassell checks in at his Exploding Newsroom blog with details of a New Jersey network of Twitter users.

Same thing exists in Michigan. Both are on newspaper Web sites.

If the newspaper site doesn’t aggregate local users, chances are someone will. In my town, someone else just did.

ANOTHER UPDATE (7:25 p.m.): I was pleased to see an e-mail come across my in-box at 7:10 p.m. to notify me that “pennlive” is now following me on Twitter. The first two updates are links to a story on the site, and a conversation in the forums.

The first few people that “pennlive” is following are all local bloggers, so kudos to the site for being responsive to the local blogosphere.