Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Thoughts from Greensboro

Finally gettting to assemble my thoughts about this past weekend's ConvergeSouth gathering in Greensboro.

From the "They really should do something about that" department, this sign on a door in the N.C. A&T journalism department:

This computer lab for journalism student's only.

OK, now that I have that off my chest. ...

Pay attention to the cartoons:
During Elizabeth Edwards' presentation (more a discussion than anything formal), she noted that her children were watching a "Rugrats" episode in which a character had a dilemma -- he wanted to go go a birthday party that was the same time as an online chat he wanted to be in. Cartoonists and animators are wonderful observers of culture. When something like this makes the cartoons, pay attention. Take notice. Please post this on your publisher's door.

Creating and policing online communities:
It may be popular to portray the online space as some kind of Wild West, but it's clear that a lot of people care a lot about civility online. The session with Edwards spun a lot toward how she manages to keep civility in the online communities she sponsors or is involved in. Her response is that they really do tend to police themselves. I think this is a good sign. We've seen it in Hartsville, too. Despite the flame wars and craziness that things such as the L.A. Times' ill-fated wiki editorial experiment brought, more and more I am believing that online groups left to their own devices tend to police themselves pretty well. We're just there to occasionally set some boundaries. Now, that's going to be a hard sell to a lot of publishers because they are gun-shy, and they have a right to be. Media companies are still big targets, and each one has at least one horror story ingrained in company lore. The exceptions -- the flames, trolls and hackers -- will be the ones publicized; they always are. But gently, but continually and firmly keep pointing to the success stories.

Notable thought from Edwards
A major strength of the online community is that you come together with a common interest and develop that relationship often long before you find out other things about each other. That smoothes over a lot of the rough edges that stick out when two people actually meet or otherwise develop a fuller social relationship. Hmmm, maybe it's time to set up a chat room so that President Bush and North Korea's Kim Jong Il can get to know each other. We can call it

Never forget this -- they care about us
Call me naive, young and impressionable (OK, two out of three ain't bad), but I never fail to be amazed at the amount of caring communities have for their newspapers. It was quite evident on Saturday. What they want is some respect and to be heard in return -- something this business is struggling with mightily for reasons from arrogance to just plain structural problems in the way it is set up, its mindset, and the equipment and software it buys.

Neither of the breakout sessions I was in -- the morning's "Building a Media Culture Within the News Organization" led by News & Record Editor John Robinson (his thoughts) and the afternoon session "The Greensboro Model -- Where is the Participation" led by Lex Alexander, the paper's citizen-journalism coordinator, worked particularly well, I thought. They were easily derailed and did a lot of moving sideways instead of forward. But that's to be expected in an "unconference" format. What did strike me was the eclectic crowd of about 80 that packed the classroom -- journalists, developers, community activists, from those intent on destroying old media to those of us who want to preserve it. But there were dang few intent on destroying it. They were more like Will R. of Citizen Will, who said there is a need to preserve and strengthen journalism, a need to allow the community an access to its story. But the current business model, he said, is to commoditize that story and sell it to you over and over.

What ensued was a robust discussion about why the News & Record, arguably one of the new-media leaders in the country, especially in opening its online site to the community, still does not have comments on stories. Editorial page editor Allen Johnson noted that comments are on letters to the editor and launched into a litany of the problems the newspaper has with even that, let alone expanding it (a list I suspect could be duplicated at most any paper in the country):
  • Not enough time or bodies to moderate them all. Some letters to the editor get 100 or more responses. There's no way to deal with that kind of volume on stories.
  • The newspaper's software, a proprietary system, does not have the tools to do it. (For instance, even the inability to have a "report inappropriate content" button.) Lex Alexander of the N&R noted that it takes six to seven years "between the time we dip our toe in the water and tools become available."
  • Reporters are talking about it in the newsroom but it "seizes us up" (that last from Joe Killian, one of the N&R's more tech-savvy reporters). There's the time to respond, etc.

The response from those there, who represented a large swath of the blogging community in Greensboro: Let us help you. We'll help police the site and turn in the trolls and flamers, if you let us. We'll help you try to work around your software, if you'll let us (after all, the software brain trust in Greensboro is pretty deep). We think you are important -- so important that we'd like to be involved in how one of the main information organs in our community grows and adapts. We don't particularly want you to die, but if you don't listen to us, we'll move on.

First Observation: If you listen really closely, you'll hear a lot of that. Newspapers have a wonderful opportunity. Their communities realize the challenges they face. They want to help. But this is a limited-time offer. We're squandering it by treating readers as some kind of product to be "captured" and even, it seems in some cases, almost as the enemy, ready to jump ship. If we can get over the psychological barriers and learn to work with our audience as partners, the possibilities are tremendous.

Second Observation: What we heard from Robinson and Johnson reinforces the notion that newspapers remain mired in their legacy as manufacturing operations in a world where news is now a service, not a product. Heck, it's reflected in the language we use. Even at ConvergeSouth, we were talking about newsPAPERS instead of talking about newsROOMS. Mere semantic difference? No, a critical orientation.

Consider, even Robinson and Johnson, among the leaders in trying to make news a conversation, have to retreat to manufacturing operation explanations for why it's so difficult to do -- we're locked into our equipment/software, it has to be depreciated, our culture isn't there yet, etc.

As long as news is manufacturing, for instance, that person needed to monitor the comments is seen as a cost, not a revenue producer. As a service, that person now is generating contacts, keeping the operation in front of the public, as any service business must. Now that person is a key part of revenue generation. So are reporters who are given the tools and structure (from time to vehicle to even the reassurance that you don't have to answer everyone) to respond to the community. However, few newsrooms have either today.

I guess I was a little disheartened that at the end we were reduced to discussing guerrilla ways to get "the bosses" to even notice what is going on around them, inside and outside their newsrooms.

Third Observation: As long as this business relies on others to do its R&D, the systems it has to work with will be expensive boat anchors. Django shows what's possible when a media organization pursues true R&D tailored to the industry's needs. Heck, don't do it in house. Fund two or three university journalism think tanks with the specific objective of developing the news and media software for the future. Make it open source or available under a Creative Commons-type license. Take the tax deduction.

As a discussion leader in the afternoon session, my recollections have the disadvantage of not being as complete (no notes) and colored from the perspective of inside looking out. But first a suggestion:

It is hereby stipulated: Reporters and editors are not objective. At best they try to be fair. Yes, transparency would probably help. Now let's move on and figure out how to do it.

Unfortunately, the session kind of bogged down as the same old complaints and arguments were trotted out. I'm not marginalizing them; I'm just saying we need to move it to the next level -- and part of that is how to broaden participation to get more voices. I was there to relate our experiences with Hartsville Today, the citizen journalism site that seems to have started catching on in that South Carolina community. And I did get to ask my question: Should we even worry about participation if time after time it's shown that only a sliver of people will ever become truly active?

I was intrigued when the audience took up the discussion with some folks observing that many people barely have time to keep their lives juggled, let alone click around blogs and chat rooms and Web sites. I think that's the kind of reality check we need and need to discuss more. Those of us who blog and those of us in the media tend to have tunnel vision. We need to remember all the media in the world don't mean squat if people don't use them.

Fourth Observation: More of a proposal, really, that I expect the growth of new aggregators (beyond the Technoratis, Diggs and Newsvines of the world) to address this reality. I envision a system that brings together independent voices in a way convenient for the audience and that gives those independent voices the support system they need: legal, benefits, technological. Newspapers are really just aggregators of individual reporters' work. So why shouldn't they be developing -- and implementing -- these new business models? Why should the N&R, for instance, have had to cede that territory to a Greensboro101. (G101 is excellent. I simply point out the necessity for its creation as another example of old media inertia.)

Finally (yes, finally). The session wrapped up with an expanding discussion on the N&R's lack of linking to outside sites and sources. It's urgent we continue this in our newsrooms. What I heard, I think, was that we need "The Greensboro Model - Plus" -- in other words, Greensboro is doing what it can. It is trying to push the boundaries. But participation is more likely to come when it and other news organizations acknowledge the many other voices, with expertise, that are out there.

But part of that solution begins in journalism schools. Do we teach "effective" linking? Do we really know what it is? We are starting to try at South Carolina as part of our senior semester newspaper. We also are starting to do short message system instruction -- how do you effectively boil a story down to 133 characters? Don't assume the "younger generation" instinctively knows how to do this anymore than young people growing up in the Industrial Age instinctively knew how to make a coil of steel.

Unless newspapers examine the limits of their industrial culture, make a determined effort to understand service instead of production, and work with their communities on multiple levels, from helping to cover the news to helping to develop the needed software, no amount of "young blood," no matter how large the transfusion, will save them.

Some other thoughts on Converge South:
Daniel Rubin, Philadelphia Inquirer, one of the discussion leaders
Ed Cone
Dan Conover A lot more on the idea of managing online communities.

(And yes, John, I will call, as soon as the Mets win the NLCS and I get out of this pile of grading.)


At 10/19/06, 5:02 PM, Anonymous Lex said...

Doug, We hear you.

At 10/20/06, 10:11 AM, Anonymous WillR said...

I've used your newsroom "manufacturing" metaphor about a zillion times this week.

I believe that's part of the blindspot news organizations have in terms of archived content.

I agree that too much time was spent on "the moderation" problem. There are many ways to use the "wisdom" of your online community to ease the work of weeding out cruft...each method, at the core, requires the trust of the site runners. So, only organizations that trust their readership will implement a "think again" button or a Slashcode comment weighting scheme.

Oh, and that means the news organization, in a sense, is partnering directly with its readership. Back to the manufacturing metaphor, no longer is online content produced and shoved out to a waiting mass of consumers - instead, the enterprise becomes a cooperative effort.


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