Tag Archives: Staffs

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.

Defending the underlying principles of crowdsourcing

“One thing we don’t get with online sourcing : verification of the source. When you have a nickname and a maybe-fake email addy, how can you resist manipulation and ill will ? Are virtual witnesses as valuable as real ones ? How can we backup our stories with sources we can’t really identify ?”

— Someone named “JPF” on my first post about crowdsourcing

This is a point worth fleshing out. And it doesn’t bother me that I don’t know who JPF is because he/she provides valuable content.

There have been some legitimate arguments against some forms of crowdsourcing. Many have been expressed in the comments on my last two entries (Part 1 made the argument that crowdsourcing can help ease the pain of shrinking staffs, Part 2 gave some specific examples in which it can be easily, immediately and responsibly deployed.)

Virtual, pseudonymous sources are not equal to verified ones. No one has ever disputed that.

But the skeptics of crowdsourcing tend to ignore what those sources do ably provide, overstate the likelihood and significance of vandalism, and understate the value of when it’s done well.

There also seems to be a fear, which JPF expressed, that it will totally replace standard reporting practices. Nope. I’m just talking about replacing specific, wasteful forms of reporting that no reporter will miss: Traffic, gas prices, Man on the Street stories. I’m not turning over council coverage to the crowd.

Generally, the crowdsourcing skeptics tend to go directly to the council scenario and other forms of hard news. So let’s refocus the argument on the more benign uses of the crowd and show why the newsroom and the community benefit.

Legitimate source verification won’t suffer: We must remember that every deployment of crowdsourcing requires varying levels of source verification, just like the journalism we do now.

Let’s take your average Man on the Street story. You’re a reporter, and you approached a man at Riverfront Park to ask him about his opinion on the economy. You ask him for his name and his hometown, and he gives it to you.

How often does the reporter ask to see his driver’s license? How often does the reporter check that against the phone book or LexisNexis once back in the office?

For most reporters: Not very often. That’s rightly because there’s a significant gap between a man on the street and someone e-mailing you leaks and claiming to be an insider at a company.

When it comes to sources that obviously need to be strictly verified: Do you really know any reporters dumb enough to use information from an anonymous person just because it was read on the Internet? Really? Think about the mindless cariacature of a reporter that would be.

No one is talking about compromising core journalistic values. To JPF’s point: No one is backing up significant stories with sources we can’t identify. That won’t happen and it’s not part of the discussion.

Crowdsourcing creates a better product: But remember: Only in specific areas where the crowd’s collective wisdom far trumps the newsroom’s ability to make phone calls and drive out to scenes.

Part 2 covers this in-depth. I understand there will be some hesitations on gas prices and MOTS stories, but I’m trying to anticipate the opposite arguments on crowdsourced traffic updates and I just can’t conjure any up. The information will be far more current than we typically get now, and it’ll be done with zero staff input.

Crowdsourcing saves the newsroom time: A good MOTS story can take up a reporter’s entire day. No longer would a reporter have to call each individual gas station for a weekly roundup.

We don’t have as much time as we used to before the attrition and buyouts and layoffs. It’s an absolute necessity to find areas of greater efficiency, or core community stories and significant enterprise will continue to evaporate at the expense of some easily outsourced stories.

Crowdsourcing gives the readers a small sense of satisfaction: Some will get a thrill out of knowing they helped people save time by avoiding I-83 because of that ill-timed construction.

Crowdsourcing is already happening, you just haven’t been calling it that: At my paper, The Fan Line is one of the most popular features. It allows people to anonymously call in and share their thoughts on the sports news of the day.

It’s awful. It’s wonderful. You can’t look away. It even caused a local reader to start up a blog criticizing and mocking the people who call in.

When I interned for The Wichita Eagle, they had a similar feature about news that ran daily on the Opinion page. I’m sure there are countless others around the country that have figured out that people love reading candid thoughts, and they’re not concerned about where they come from.

Crowdsourcing is fundamental to the Web: And haven’t you heard? The Web is kinda important these days.

It’s part of the participatory culture that people expect out of the Web. Our we-tell-you-and-you-listen model that’s served us well since the printing press is crumbling.

Adjusting to the Web isn’t just a matter of shoveling our fantastic material so our loyal readers can experience it on their monitors. It requires a shift in all of our processes, including the new gathering process.