Tag Archives: Pennlive

Early success and struggles, and why Central PA NewsVote isn’t Spot.Us

When Central PA NewsVote first launched last week, the initial post got 36 comments, many of which were story ideas I was very happy about. (Catch up on my new blog, in which I solicit story ideas from readers and allow them to assign me their favorite via polling, in my older entries on the subject.)

But the follow-up post, in which I actually put their ideas into poll form, had gotten just 68 votes as of 10:30 a.m. Monday. The poll had been up for several days, and it’s a high-traffic web site. That’s a very low number.

I had done my best to promote it via social media, tweeting the heck out of it and promoting it amongst my interested friends through Facebook. I suspect that led to a lot of out-of-town journalists voting, which is nice and all but not exactly what the blog needs to thrive.

Such low numbers leave it open to gaming, as I suspect one of the subjects might have started an e-mail campaign to boost its voting numbers. I noticed a quick rise in one of the story ideas.

Since I put the poll up Thursday, it had never been promoted on the home page of PennLive as the original post had. So shortly after 10:30 a.m. I got the OK to put a teaser up in our breaking news blog, which has its headlines displayed prominently on the home page. We’ll see if that improves the numbers, because I’m seeing now how important it is to have a true cross-section of readers if this is going to work.

In the future, there will be more consistent promotion in the breaking news blog and the print edition, so I’ll be less worried about voting numbers. The Web site folks did a great job promoting the launch, and I probably should have lobbied to get significant promotion for the first poll, too.

Other thoughts:

— Though it wasn’t voted on, opening myself up to story suggestions led to an A1 story that ran above the fold Saturday.

I got an e-mail from a reader with a simple idea: When someone is laid off, what do you say to the person? Does anyone really know what to say in that situation?

It was a great idea I wouldn’t have come up with by myself, and ended up being a somewhat interesting read.

— Several people have drawn the comparison to Spot.Us, and I can see why. Spot.Us, for the uninitiated, allows anyone to pitch stories, then others can vote with their wallets by donating money to hire reporters for specific stories.

David Cohn, its founder, dared to tweet yesterday that Central PA NewsVote is smarter than Spot.Us because the news organization absorbs the cost of reporting. I happen to think that’s silly modesty, as Spot.Us is a much more innovative concept in that it operates outside the traditional news organization. Anyone can reshuffle chairs inside the news organization, but it’s something else to establish a completely new model.

But that’s a silly “argument” to have. What’s important to note, though, is that Central PA NewsVote is really working in a different area than Spot.Us. There’s a big difference between the community features my blog is soliciting and the investigative stories being pitched on Spot.Us. So we’re talking much different levels of reader engagement and different ways that readers are going to use our sites.

What we do have in common, though, is an acknowledgment that democracy has a place in the news process. The more people are trying similar concepts, the more we can find out where it fits.

— I’ve been thrilled and highly appreciative – yet slightly unsettled – by all the attention the idea has gotten so far in the journalism community. Among my favorites: Alana Taylor had a nice analysis on beatblogging.org, and Jay Rosen discussed the idea in a podcast with Dave Winer (about 28 minutes in).

Thanks to all who are excited by the idea, and I hope others try it elsewhere so we can compare notes.

I’m only uneasy because I’d like to see it produce first. I don’t want this to be a gimmick, I want it to be a legitimate gateway to great stories. I want it to be a genuine involvement of the readers. As of now, it’s still just an idea, and I’m looking forward to getting the real answers.

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.

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.

The new Syracuse.com is a big improvement

Via Syracuse.comI’m not sure when it went live, but the new Syracuse.com looks like a significant step up from the prior design shared by all Advance Internet sites (including Pennlive, which posts stories written by my newspaper. Clicking those two pretty much gives you the before and after for Syracuse). Read more details of the Syracuse.com redesign at the site.

Before I praise it too much, a caveat: It’s still lipstick on a pig. We need a rethinking far more than we need a redesign. I’m still waiting for a truly innovative newspaper site that establishes itself as the real town square of the local Web. That won’t happen until newspapers start leading the way in the social aspect of the Web, instead of just doing its duty with a few blogs and forums.

That said, the Advance team deserves some praise for what amounts to significant cosmetic and usability improvements. The labyrinthine layout of the Advance template has been the bane of journalists nationwide, as we produce great content that can’t be found by our readers. This looks to go a long way toward reducing the usability problems.

  • Placing the “Real-Time News” box in the top left corner is a fool-proof way of ensuring that the newspaper’s true brand, the breaking news and enterprise, gets the placement it needs. I don’t think five breaking news headlines are enough, and I wish there was a place to better promote the print stories, but this is a step in the right direction.
  • This is done without coming at the expense of sports stories, the apparent click-magnets, by giving them just as much visibility at the top. Under the previous design, sports and news competed for precious little space atop the site. It’s wonderful that they’ll never have to compete again.
  • The ability to search entertainment listings from the home page is a good idea, and I hope the staff is up to providing the exhaustive listings that it would really need. I know in Harrisburg there’s a hard-working crew at Spotobe who are plenty willing to pick up the slack.
  • Perhaps most exciting is the better play of videos and photos. Of all the usability issues with the prior design, this was perhaps the most glaring. At my paper, quality videos and photos were consistently buried in an obscure blog that wasn’t consistently linked on the home page.
  • I enjoy the Interact box, and easily seeing where the most comments are coming in.

Much more work remains, and I’m sure I’ll find more problems once I dig deeper through the site. But if this home page design comes to my paper soon, I’ll be a happy reporter.

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.

What happens when newspaper reporters with no training try to shoot video

This does.

So our photographer wouldn’t have to try to juggle his still and video cameras, I volunteered to shoot some video. I didn’t say I’d be good at it, I just said I’d try it. I clearly had no idea what I was doing.

My favorite moment came when a friendly videographer there said to me: “You know your tripod goes down another foot-and-a-half, right?” Uhhh, yeah…I knew that.

I’d love to hear any feedback — since I already know it stinks, there’s nothing that could be said that would offend me. I’m just hoping that with enough practice, and much more reading before the next time I shoot video, I’ll eventually learn to stink less. Might as well be trying, at least.

And before you say anything about the lack of audio, I would have offered a voice-over had I known it was going to be put online immediately. I’ll offer to add one on Monday.

(Also — if you want to play a game, go to the front page of Pennlive and try to find the video. Let me know if you make it, and if so, how long it took you.)