The challenge of a (university research) council website

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The newsroom of the Future?Image by Getty Images via Daylife

“Those ‘traditional’ consumers are joined by younger readers who prefer to find their news ‘unfiltered’ on the web. We are trying to serve both groups, and we are delighted with the enthusiasm that our new British partners bring to the effort.”

That from a press release for reported in

It’s essentially a website for Universities to publish research and news about their research. Why? Because…

In an increasingly complex world, the public needs access to clear, reliable research news. Futurity does the work of gathering that news. Think of it as a snapshot of where the world is today and where it’s headed tomorrow. Discover the future

A lot of this has a familiar ring. The claims sound a lot like the reasons why journalism is so important and the role of journalists will be vital.

But it also reminds me of the some of the issues that surround much of the ‘council newspapersdebate. These are organizations who should be open up to a bit of ‘filtering’ especially when there is public money involved . The content they put out should be open to scrutiny and question.

Of course this risks becoming a circular argument. If journalism was doing its job and reporting science properly then they wouldn’t need to do this.

But it also goes to underline what we already know but many media orgs seem to be unable to respond to; communities are using the web to tell their own stories.

In the case of it’s a community of interest (with all the self-interest issues that brings) but it’s just as common with hyperlocal communities of geography.

Whatever the motivation, is this the kind of thing that journalism needs to step up to?

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Looking the wrong way down the telescope

There is a future for news – a sustainable and once-again profitable future with the prospect of expanding and improving journalism by taking it deeper into our communities with increased relevance, engagement, accountability and efficiency.

That’s the view of uber J-blogger Jeff Jarvis who, when not asking “what would google do”, is asking (along with his students at CUNY) “what happens to journalism in a city when its last daily newspaper dies?”. According to Jeff’s article in the Guardian, what happens is that the local community could step in and fill the gap with something new and, most importantly, profitable.

Bottom line: after three years, we project that a blogger could hire editorial staff and advertising help – citizen salespeople who help support the citizen journalists – and net $148,000 out of $332,000 revenue. That’s a conservative estimate when you consider that a community weekly paper in such a town probably earns between $2m-$5m.

There are more facts and figures of amounts that, even with the exchange rate as it is, are pretty eye-popping.

In a comment, I questioned if there was enough of a culture of hyper local in the UK to sustain the ‘ecosystem’

Given that most of the metro blogging and hyperlocal networks in the US are driven by/motivated by/focused on politics, you also have to wonder if the legislative structure in the UK would effectively stop the kind of ecosystem you are talking about at a county, or at a push, city, level.

That prompted a response from the Guardians Kevin Anderson who noted that very little of the ‘hyperlocal’ stuff is to do with politics. Pointing to an older post he mused that there was still “much to learn from two-yr old report on hyperlocal” which, for him, underlined a key problem news organisations had.

One of the most common mistakes that news organisations make when it comes to community is trying to build participation strategies around an extremely narrow, overly-professionalised definition of news.

I have a lot of sympathy with that view. Maybe the media does look the wrong way down the telescope at this issue. But I still think there are questions to be asked about the roll of news in the ecosystem and the role the community has to play.

Is there room for a Preston City Chronicle?
Is there room for a Preston City Chronicle?

Much of the tone of the debate around the ‘death of the traditional media’ is framed by the general consensus that we need to know what is going on in the community around us – it’s our democratic duty. That may not be the fun stuff. It may be the hard stuff, when the community fails. It may be the dull stuff like the endless council meetings.

The argument goes that, whatever it is, we need it and as newspapers die the gap needs to be filled. It’s in that context that many of the best examples of hyperlocal journalism seem to exist. The oft cited Ann Arbour Chronicle is a great example. The frontpage is all politics and metro news and the civic watchdog roll is one that is part of their daily routine.

But that brings me back to my comment and few (of many, many) questions.

  • If sites like the Ann Arbour Chronicle are the model for a successful hyperlocal news service, will the model travel? Does it work in Ann Arbour because of the city and the way the public administration work in the US?
  • What would need to change in the UK for it to work? More open government, less ‘big media’ or a more politically motivated electorate?
  • Should we be trying to make it work at all?

Open09 seems like the perfect opportunity to ask those questions.

This article first appeared on the Open09 blog.

Want to know the answer…ask a journalist

I know, I know. I’m supposed to be taking a rest from blogging.  Well, it’s getting close to term time again (I had that in my mind as a time to revist the blog) and with a bit of space behind me to clear my head I wanted to dip in – sorry.

What’s peaked my interest. Well, Ryan Sholin threw up an interesting link via twitter to a site called which recently picked up a Citizen Media Award in the Knight-Batten Awards for Innovations in Journalism - award winning simple idea - award winning simple idea

It’s a simple idea. provides a personal link between the journalist and the reader, allowing the reader to submit a question about life in southeastern North Carolina. Within a week, a StarNews journalist will provide an answer on, where readers can find a wealth of information about historical places, famous people and oddities in the area.

Add to that the ability of people to comment, or add clarification and detail to answers and you can see how the vision that that Executive Editor Robyn Tomlin has that ” at some point this becomes a living encyclopedia of local information,”

Questionland - crap name but good idea?
Questionland - crap name but good idea?

Ryan also highlighted another one, wonderfully titled questionland from Seattle paper The Stranger.

What’s so great about that, you ask. Why not just put the question in to google? Surely that will get you the answer.

Well, yes, maybe it will. But in a world where people are time poor, local newspapers still have some brand to work with and Google’s inability t really do local search (not without some strong arming of search terms) this seems to me to really reflect the local newspaper being the ‘source of local information’.

It’s one example of the connection with the community local journalism is supposed to have and I think it would be fantastically easy to implement it on any local news site. is built on WordPress – easy to hack together – and questionland runs on a third party Q&A platform called yousaidit. But there are other sources.  Ryan Sholin points out that the source code for his nascent reporting back channel service ReportingOn (a knight news challnge winner) is available as open source.

I know that the first reason why a site like this wouldn’t happen on many UK papers is resources. Who answers the questions? But as something that falls between the crowdsourcsing of reporting and the often one way input of comments, this could be an interesting way for people to move questions and conversation out of the ghetto of forums and make it more accessible and obvious.

Have you come across any other sites that are doing this? Are you running a site just like this. I’d love to know.

There are no stories on the web

I‘ve been pondering that titular mantra for while now. I’ve got to the point where I’m wondering whether my focus on the idea that the web will not just simply cough up a story is really about a broader shift in mindset that journalists need to make or more about me getting my head around the process.

So I’m posting this to get it out of my head.

It got in my head again at the end of last week as I found myself eavesdropping on a group of students sat at their computers.

“I need to do a search for a story for my portfolio assignment” says one student who then proceeds to fire up a collection of news sites including the BBC and a number of different local news providers.

Frustrating as I find this behaviour sometimes, I know it’s not limited to students.

Reverse engineering stories – finding an article online and then unpicking the threads – is more common than I think any of us a prepared to admit. Is that a bad thing? Maybe not, but it happens. But that’s not finding a story, it’s just (re)reporting the story for your audience. It’s also a mono-media approach to the journalistic process. Everything is geared towards servicing an article at a publication point.

Web 2.0 journalism

Working the ‘Web 2.0’ way approaches the story from a different direction. It builds a critical mass of content through the appropriate application of digital technologies. Web searches, crowdsourcing, alerts and all the other good stuff can be weaved in to the ‘traditional‘ journalistic process to serve the increasingly voracious content machine.

But does that process really address where stories come from?

What you will find on the web is data and information. But they are not stories. They can help develop and support a story but they are meaningless without context. You need to know the story you are trying to tell before they become useful. You still need the story.

People make stories

Ultimately, stories come from people. They come from the collective experiences, social contexts and relevence of communities. To find a story and know why it’s a astory, you have to be part of or active in those communities. That’s something that ‘traditional’ journalism is supposed to be good at. Understanding the communities/audience they serve. Being relevant through the intimate knowledge of a patch. Having the ‘in’ at the ground floor of a story.

Of course the web will get you next to people, sometimes in the most direct and immediate way. But the web still won’t give up that story unless you approach those people in the same way you would in real life. That means going to the places where people gather and inhabiting them.

The thing to remember is that people don’t gather in the same place and, more importantly, you cannot force them to.  So even though RSS feeds and alerts will allow you to monitor the conversations effectivley (and if you arent using these tools then you should be) you need to get out there.

Platforms are places for conversation

Web 2.0 is all about platforms. Sites that enable people to do things are real honeypots. But the really successful web2.0 sites are the ones that encourage conversation between users.  We have thise platforms in real life. People will go to the post office to send a letter or the pub to get a drink.  But the conversation in those places could be about anything. The same thing happens online.

Take a look at Pistonheads – a site about motoring. The site has some very popular forums

Over 2 million posts in the general area
Over 2 million posts in the online 'pub'

Lots of good stuff about cars (in minute detail) but take a look at the Pie and Piston (general chat areas in forums are often called the pub, bar or take pub names). 2,401,820 posts. Over 2 million posts and the majority are not about motoring.

Push not pull

The thing I recognise more and more is that’s a challenge in a journalistic environment where strategy and staffing is defined by pull rather than push; the idea that you can bring everything to your desktop could be one of the reasons more journalist find themeselve effectivly desk bound.

But we can still exhibit a bit of that push behaviour when it comes to communities even if it is just virtual. Think of the platform as a place – a shop, a pub or a street corner.

Hang around long enough and someone will give you a story.

The virtuous circle of journalism process

Say a quite word of thanks dear reader to Mr Kevin Anderson. Why? Let me explain.

Yesterday I posted a graphic that tried to sum up some of the problems that still exist as we try and engage with community.

I’d been thinking about it because I’ve been updating content for my Digital newsroom module next semester. One of the things I found was that it was tricky to get the students to buy in to benefit of sharing. They got the power of the web to gather content but I guess you could say that they where still in that gatekeeper mentality.  Sharing photos on Flickr or using twitter was too geeky for them. It didn’t fit the journalistic process.

A phrase that popped in to my head, and I used a lot, was the ‘virtuous circle’. You give and people will give.

This strikes me more and more as a defining element of a journalist who understands how to work online. You only need to look at the debate around plagiarism and the link economy in journalism to see that.

Anyway, I promised a ramble post or two may follow. So in an effort to head one of those off here is a little video I made to try and explain my thinking. I’d love some feedback:

The virtuous circle from Digitaldickinson on Vimeo.

This isn’t original thought by any stretch of the imagination. The virtuous circle is not a new concept and if anyone else is talking in the same tones then I’d love to know. I’m also not trying to make a new ‘model’ here.  I based many of my lectures on Paul Bradshaw’s news diamond and the discussion that generated. All credit to him. The way that model was developed through his blog and the discussion it generated in my lectures is a fine example of that virtuous circle in action.

Yeah, yeah, Video shimdeo. What about Kevin Anderson you ask.

Well, Kevin picked up on my illustration and commented on how a different attitude can reap rewards.  Thanks to his concise example you have a hell of a lot less ramble to sit through.

A few years ago, colleagues asked me why bloggers responded to my interview requests when they had trouble getting a response. The problem was, they were often sending out form e-mail interview requests and treating bloggers, usually ordinary people, as if they were members of government or industry spokespeople. I usually started my search for a blogger through a blog search engine like Technorati. When I found a relevant post, I would quote the post and ask them if they wanted to join a discussion about the topic they had blogged about.

I also use Creative Commons licenced pictures in Guardian blog posts (Attribution licence that allows for commercial use). Unless, I’m really pressed for time, I send the Flickr user a short note and a link. They always thank me for being a good member of the community, and the sometimes even blog about the post. I’ve acted in good faith, and they have reciprocated by flagging up their photo on a Guardian post. We can be good members of both virtual and real world communities, and I think it’s one of the things that can rebuild journalists’ relationship with the people formerly known as the audience. Becoming better citizen journalists might just save professional journalism.

Thanks Kevin.

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Parking violations and parochial content

Yesterday a colleague asked me what crowdsourcing was. So I chattered on about pothole maps, and crowdsource maps, pertrol and CD prices. As I was talking I realised that on the surface a lot of the subject areas seemed pretty mundane. Not the kind of thing you would win a pulitzer for.

Later on in the day Justin McLachlan, a US journalist (blogger and superhero), stopped by to leave a comment on my ‘something for the weekend’ ireport post. So I popped over to his site – which is very nice – and came across a great post about a parking violation:

Downtown this morning, I saw a 12 News truck parked outside the courthouse. In front of a red curb. Illegally.

So, I did what any good digital journalist would do: I snapped a picture with my iPhone and ran back to my office to blog about it.
There is a picture and everything.
What surprised me is that it’s generated 28 comments. And I mean heated debate.  From parking violation to journalism ethics debate in one sweep. Wow.
The two connected for me in gentle reminder about what can sometimes get lost in digital journalism.
What matters is what matters to your audience
Of course potholes, dog dirt, petrol and cd prices are mundane. They will always annoy, engage or motivate someone to participate because they matter to them.  Perhaps more than embedded reporting with an army or a clever online bulletin.  Maybe local,or better still parochial,  is the ultimate in viral content.
Never underestimate the everyday to attract an audience.
Oh, and never park near a red curb.

Big portals look for niche sites to work with.

Corey Bergman at Lost Remote highlighted a Wall Street Journal piece about large portal sites looking to niche sites for talent.

“Big Internet companies such as MSN and Yahoo have small teams whose job it is to ‘discover’ these smaller sites before their competition does. They scan the Web, attend industry conferences and hobnob with start-ups to get names of talented but obscure content providers.”

I know that some regional sites are doing this with bloggers but we are missing a trick if all we end up doing is reporting a success story of a local blogger signing a deal with AOL.

Get out there and find those sites before they do.