Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Social Media and Journalism

I'm sitting on a panel this week on social media and the future of journalism being sponsored by the Columbia Social Media Club. It should be an interesting time with the likes of Dan Conover and Jeff Elder.

The organizers sent out a bunch of questions, and Dan's already expounded on his in a "virtual interview" (figuring that we probably won't get around to all this), so let me take a crack at some of mine here, too:

  • How is the institutional knowledge of a newsroom different than the collective knowledge of your readers?
Well, let's start with these two assertions: at least half of your audience knows more about a story than you do, but two-thirds of them really have no clue about much outside their own little world. In other words, the collective and institutional knowledge are complementary. If you don't acknowledge a lot of people know more than you do, all sorts of bad things result. You tend to write down to your readers. You tend to ignore nuances and oversimplify. You might miss valuable information.

But it's also hard to ignore the value of the newsroom veteran who remembers the mayor's second cousin's son's daughter is the wife of that contractor who seemed to get that sweetheart contract out of nowhere. Unfortunately, a lot of that institutional knowledge has walked out of or been shown the door in the past decade. That's compounded by newsrooms' inability to effectively capture most of the information they gathered anyhow. Do you know any other business that leaves 90 percent of its raw material on the shop floor?

Part of the challenge is how to effectively acknowledge and use the audience to broaden and deepen our journalism while understanding that the institution does not give us license to think we are delivering tablets from the mountain.

It's a tough nut for journalists because for decades the reinforcement has been institutional. "Credibility," such as it was, was institutional, not transactional. (In other words, the fact that you were from the local metro in itself imbued a certain gravitas and credibility. Now, it's a "show me" situation where more and more that credibility comes from whether what you've done holds up to scrutiny.) Awards were - and still largely are - institutional: journalists judging journalists. You don't have a "People's Choice" awards for journalism, and even if you had, chances are they wouldn't have carried much sway in the industry.
  • When it comes to the public’s role in journalism, can the public be trusted without introducing bias?
I don't mean to be rude, but that's a dumb question. Can journalists be trusted without introducing bias? No, starting with journalism's narrative bias and its other ingrained biases, such as that existing institutions and markets are largely good, or at least better than most alternatives, or that "officials" carry more credibility than "the public."

It is questions like this that leave us mired in the journalistic equivalent of "I'm great, you suck." And that leaves us unwilling or unable to consider the nuances and multifaceted nature of things. Sure, the public has biases. Among them is the tyranny of the majority (which is why we have set up institutions whose jobs ostensibly are to protect the minority from the majority). The public also has valuable information and insight. But it takes work to filter it and evaluate it, hard work.
  • How do community bloggers fit into the larger role of online sites and media companies?
Ideally, they help broaden and deepen the information and debate. They broaden it by dealing with areas that a community's journalism institutions just can't, either through lack of resources or lack of conviction (sorry, but there are sacred cows in every community). They deepen it by bringing into the conversation people who have specialized information or who are just willing to spend the time and resources necessary to burrow deep into a subject.
  • What could be the possible role of the hyper-local news bureau?
Oh, I don't know. I tend to think hyper-local is over-hyped at least in the context of most communities. In a New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Atlanta, maybe it has a place. Those areas are so big they are almost like aggregations of little states anyhow. There it might make sense. It made sense in Rhode Island when the Providence Journal-Bulletin had a bureau almost every town. There have been debates about how effective the coverage was sometimes - whether it was more process than revelatory - and the paper has now severely cut back. But I think it had a place.

But in a city like Columbia, I'm not sure you have the resources to set up and manage such a system. First of all, the neighborhoods are smaller (maybe not geographically but in population) than in those larger cities. Second, If you use the old 90-9-1 rule, that means you probably have darn few people willing to help cover those areas. And then there's the reality of how much of a news stream you have coming out of those areas.

For instance, some of the students in my public affairs reporting class are covering a neighborhood, Washington Park, just south of The State newspaper. No one covers Washington Park, a lower middle-class enclave wedged in a commercial/industrial area. But in just a couple of weeks down there they've found that the neighborhood may lose the eponymous park that is the center of the community. And residents want speed bumps because they say speeding cars threaten their children - but officialdom keeps passing the buck (one of my students is getting a schoolin' on the arcane S.C. "state highway" system under which cul-de-sacs can be designated state highways). Now, those are good stories, but you're not going to have enough going on there to really develop a hyper-local presence. Do you throw several neighborhoods together? Well, maybe, but it's not like highly contiguous urban areas, so can you find a person or two in those scattered neighborhoods to really watch all of them effectively; and then how do you manage this network?

Hyper-ocal is an organic thing, really parallel to social media. It has to grow naturally and be nurtured. There may be a few areas where it will work; you may just have to monitor the rest to see if they ever reach "critical mass." In the meantime, it may be worth your while to reach out to other institutions such as schools, nonprofits, etc., that might be able to help with coverage or at least monitoring.
  • What roles in the newsroom could papers crowd-source? Would a micro-payment service work for rewarding help?
I don't know that you crowd-source roles as much as you crowd-source aspects of stories and information gathering. Crowd-sourcing can be effective when you have a large amount of information to ingest and relatively few internal resources to do it. Or when you have the need to put information through a really specialized filter. The former is what I call the "ant" method - unleash the anthill as was done in tracking down earmarks or dissecting the U.S. attorney firings. The latter - marshaling expertise - is what Fort Myers used in tracking down problems with city utilities.

Crowd-sourcing, hyperlocal, they're both there to be used when they make sense, and not used when they don't.
  • Do we miss the point of hyperlocal? Should we be approaching communities from the ground up?
Hell, we should be approaching journalism in general from the ground up. Part of the problem is that we got away from being on the ground and instead relied more and more on handout journalism. That's not surprising; ground-up journalism is real, but it's also expensive and unpredictable. It takes staff, which we have less and less of these days. Top down is predictable - you can almost plan your paper out three or four days. It's also predictably boring.

When you approach communities from the top down, you seek to define them using all the preconceived notions and outside socio-economic measures at your disposal. When you do it from the ground up, you have to listen, watch, smell and hear first.

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At 10/8/09, 10:52 AM, Blogger Daniel said...

So maybe one of the things that we need are better terms than "local" and "hyperlocal." Because while I don't mind flexible terms for journalistic concepts, the REAL issue in coverage is a business issue.

As we all know, old school metro profits were based on a predictable and lucrative economy of scale. Which was why the consultants who overhyped "local local local" over the past 20 years were misguided. People might want local, but local is expensive, and the unit cost of providing everyone the local they want (even if you could do that without boring everyone else to tears) blows up your business model. Regardless of the web, TV, etc., local local local is a problem for metros.

I've had some interesting conversations with hyperlocal news bloggers, and what I got from them was that while the unit cost of their coverage could be profitable on lower income, it was still driven by the same basic math: the value of an eyeball.

We can have local and hyperlocal coverage in a variety of configurations based on CPM & CPC ads, but the cap on that isn't likely to expand, and it isn't likely to provide an abundant future.

Which is why I think if we could start getting a bit more specific about terms, we could start having a bit more success when it comes to developing alternative business models.

One reason: You cannot invest in hyperlocal coverage, because you cannot possibly get a return on a sizeable investment. Even if you improve the percentage, the size is too small to get the attention of a significant investor.

BUT if you could talk about audiences and micro-markets in ways that could be bundled efficiently, then you could start imagining a franchise system that separates content-creation from content-enabling. And if you could do THAT, then you might be able to attract the investment necessary to build the tools that could provide alternate revenue streams for coverage at levels that we would consider viable today.

Maybe even down to Washington Park.

At 10/8/09, 10:55 AM, Blogger Daniel said...

Excuse me. Should read "levels that we WOULDN'T consider viable today."


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