“We know what to do, but we can’t get it done.”

To elaborate on the somewhat derisive one-liner (about Jay Rosen’s New Assignment plan for beat blogging with a social network) that I dropped into a post a couple days ago…

I think it’s a great idea. It will work. Good stories will come out of the project.

And that’s where I get off the bus, because I’m hoping for something that goes beyond a “project.”

I want a hunk of code that professional or amateur journalists can use to build social networks around their beat.

That’s my reservation about the plan as it stands right now: Leaving the technical choices of how to get this job done up to news organizations seems like it leaves a major step unfinished.

For me, that step is leaving behind software that a news organization can use to build more social networks around beats.

I have yet to work in a newsroom where its technical needs were caught up to its philosophy. For example, it is much easier to convince editors that presenting information in databases online is a good idea than it is to actually code up an application to make it easy for reporters or online staff untrained in MySQL and PHP to do it.

A few ways New Assignment could leave behind some useful code:

  1. Offer the participating organizations or soloists a WordPress theme and plugins configured to highlight the posts and comments from registered members of the source/social network.
  2. Or do it with Drupal.
  3. Build a application in Django that collects data from a set of forms and feeds it into a database, making it easier to collect quantitative data from the sourc/social network, and readers in general.

Then again, there’s a chance I’m just completely misinterpreting the mission of New Assignment, but I’d like to believe that part of it is to enable the Pros to collect and surface information from the Ams.

Am I way out in left field on this one?

The title of this post comes from AP CEO Tom Curley’s much blogged-about speech:

“I’ve been inside many major news organizations the last couple years, and, invariably, I hear the same refrain. We know what to do, but we can’t get it done. Or, sadly, we’re in worse shape than we were two years ago because we’re spending even more proportionately trying to keep the old model functioning.”

What I’m looking for are ways that those who have the tools to “get it done” can help those who “know what to do.”

It can’t be that hard.

6 Replies to ““We know what to do, but we can’t get it done.””

  1. Not out of line or out in the left field. I didn’t want to make using some nifty software a condition of joining the project because that would have made it harder for participants to agree to join.

    When you’re trying to get 12 news organizations on the same page, the fewer things written on that page, the better. So what I have sketched so far is the minimalist version.

    But I hope that something like what you propose will come out of this project: the right tools plus people who know how to get it done.

    So we’re on the same page. I agree: it can’t be that hard. My only qualification would be that I think reporters are going to end up using their social network in very different ways, and so the tools they need will also be different.

  2. Just to chime in — although my thoughts are along the same line as Jay’s.

    I can see value in doing the whole thing in Drupal, which as you know — I am a fan of. But then only organizations that use the Drupal platform can really take advantage of it.

    And while doing custom work in Drupal or Django is fantastic, it’s important to realize that there are all kinds of free web applications that news organizations can take advantage of without having to spend thousands of dollars reformatting their website.

    This project, as I imagine it, is about reaching everyone: So we need to start with tools that are free that anyone can use instantly.

    That said: I do hope we are able to build some real code/software from the project — But if we start small and build up from there, I imagine we will find out exactly what it is that needs to be custom built.

  3. Two questions come to mind:

    Does Ning play a part here?

    If we — broad we, industry we — wanted to go the roll your own route, what would it *look* like? What are we talking about? A dumbed down Facebook? A massively multi-author WordPress install? What are the features needed to pull this off? What does the networked beat reporter need in a web platform to make this work?

  4. @Jay and David – I see the benefit of letting each news org play in their own sandbox; I just want to make sure there’s a repeatable trail left for others to follow.

    @Matt – Ning would be the easiest way to get the beat+network job done, accessible to anyone at no cost whatsoever, with little investment required to get more return (a URL and your own ads).

    I think the key feature is a profile page (or blog, or blog category, or author page, etc.) where each member of the source network can blog, link, and aggregate their own comments.

    We’re not talking about an all-encompassing social networking platform a la Facebook; these would be much more like Ning-sized single-subject networks built around a beat, if I’m still in the ballpark.

    I’m starting to see how different approaches can (and already do) work for different beats: A City Council group blog runs side-by-side with a paper’s coverage of local politics; a Ning network for a local school district lets parents comment on issues and post their own pictures of events.

    I just don’t want to see someone throw up a blog and say “well, they can comment if they want to.”

    And, as often is the case, I’d like to see something smaller organizations can participate in, without a developer in their newsroom.

    We (in the media blogosphere) talk a lot about places like the New York Times and the Washington Post, but outside of Lawrence, Kansas, when’s the last time you saw something really cool at a sub-25,000 circ paper?

    This stuff is out there, and they have editors and reporters who want to play with the shiny new toys – they just need some help.

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