Hardly strictly the oldest person in the room

I’m genuinely excited to be on the short list of attendees at the round table Dave Cohn has been putting together at the University of Missouri’s Reynolds Journalism Institute later this month: Hardly Strictly Young.

Those of you who read this blog regularly (ahem, both of you) have probably spotted a monthly Carnival of Journalism post here for the last few months. As it turns out, those questions are the topics of conversation for the conference, which bears a tagline along these lines: “Alternative recommendations to implement the Knight Commission report.”

So, I suppose it could come off ¬†we’re marginalizing ourselves a little bit. We’re the young change agents agitating for alternatives?

Maybe. But I’d bet the Knight Foundation has an action item on their list somewhere: Get input from young change agents. ūüėČ

Happy to oblige.


Carnival of Journalism: An open email to Michael Maness, because no one writes letters anymore

This post is but one burning twig in the roaring campfire that is the rekindled Carnival of Journalism. This month’s two options both provide the carnibloggers an opportunity to give advice to organizations with a mandate to give away money and other resources for the sake of improving journalism. I’ve chosen the option that involves telling the Knight Foundation what to do as the five-year Knight News Challenge program winds down (or renews itself), and as Michael Maness steps up as the new VP for Journalism and Media Innovation.

Quick disclosures: Hey, I was a Knight News Challenge winner in 2008, and Michael and I worked for the same company for a few months, quite recently.

Hi Michael —

Ryan Sholin here. We’ve crossed paths once or twice at your previous gig, and had a good conversation or two about what you were up to back there.

Anyway, I wanted to write you to give you a bit of unsolicited advice about what to do about funding innovation in journalism and media at the Knight Foundation. (Well, OK, Dave Cohn solicited me, but he didn’t have to twist my arm or anything.)

A few ideas:

  1. Fund some for-profit companies. Startups. Take some equity. Focus on companies providing tools supporting new revenue streams and business models that support journalism. Alternatively, fund some disruptively innovative companies (Flipboard comes to mind) and point them in the direction of business models that support original, local journalism.
  2. When you do give out grants to journalists and not-for-profit innovators, include mandatory business sustainability training. Instead of asking grantees “How are you going to turn this into a sustainable project when your grant runs out,” make figuring that out part of your job from the beginning.
  3. It seems like the Knight News Challenge team has been working hard over the last two or three cycles to find grantees from outside the journalism world. Good idea, but make sure you don’t end up with a crop of edge case grantees building tools for edge cases. There are plenty of would-be innovators at small, unglamorous news organizations across the world. Do they know about the Knight News Challenge? They don’t read Nieman Lab or Romenesko or the Carnival of Journalism (not that there’s anything wrong with that). They just bust their tails 24/7 to put out a range of local news products, and when you look a little closer, you’ll often find they’re innovating their way around resource, technology, and even language issues to reach their community.
  4. Bring your IDEO-style innovation chops to Knight in full force. Send teams into underserved-by-journalism communities and find out what they need and want from local news sources. Then push grants, grantees, and programs in those directions.

That’s all for now. Eager to see what you do, and talk about it in person when we cross paths next.


But will they pay in Peoria?

But will they pay in Peoria?: Journal Star website launching metered format.

That’s one of GateHouse Media’s largest papers/sites in terms of readership, launching a metered access plan (15 free stories a month, unlimited views of “public service news”) with pricing tiers for print subscribers and non-subscribers.

The paywall is being handled by Press+ (ne√© Journalism Online), and if you were paying attention way back in the day when they announced the incredibly large number of papers signed up to do business with them, you’ll note with a sense of smug confirmation that GateHouse owns around 350 papers.

(Disclosure: I used to work at GateHouse, but I wasn’t involved in any sort of paid content investigation at the time whatsoever.)

The other young gentleman in the sweatshirt running a social network is Moot

Christopher "Moot" Poole at SXSW in 2010, as photographed by mirka23.

Striking, isn’t it, how Moot appears to be some sort of anti-matter to Mark Zuckerberg’s matter? How Facebook and 4chan can simultaneously be ubiquitous, but you’re much more likely to admit to an account on one than the other?

In the throes of my constant and ongoing research and curiosity about comments and commenting systems, I couldn’t help but quietly raise an eyebrow as Facebook launched a sort of Facebook Anywhere commenting system in recent weeks. It’s a little bit like a Disqus with nothing but Facebook for authentication, if that helps compress the explanation for you.

Now there’s places where this — “this” being mandatory use of a Facebook account to leave a comment (whether the account uses a “real” name or not is a bit of an identity-is-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder problem, eh?) — might work, and places where it might not, but I wasn’t especially surprised to find out that at TechCrunch, using the Facebook commenting system quickly cleaned up discourse, right up to the brink of boring:

“But the other interesting thing we‚Äôre seeing is that whereas trollish garbage used to infest the comment section, now we‚Äôre seeing almost the opposite. Many people are now leaving comments that gush about the subject of the article in an overly¬†sycophantic¬†way. It‚Äôs quite odd. The cold pricklies have turned to warm fuzzies.”

That said, they seem to be happy with the quality of discourse, even if the quantity has decreased:

“With the Facebook system, the most popular posts are only touching around 100 or so comments (obviously, the ones¬†about the commenting system have more). But of those 50 to 100 comments, many of them are actually coherent thoughts in response to the post itself ‚ÄĒ you know, what a comment is supposed to be.

The emphasis on that last clause is mine.

“What a comment is supposed to be.”

Well, we certainly have high hopes about that, don’t we?

Look at the universe we’ve just discussed, where users with a real identity say nice things about products they like and contribute meaningful bits of commentary on the issues.

Now look at 4chan. [I’m linking to the Wikipedia entry so you can make the call on whether to actually, physically, look at 4chan.]

Before we go any further, let me admit that I fudged a bit in the title of this post. 4chan a social network? Not exactly. With all its users anonymous, no real history of what a user has said or posted, and memes that are carried on into the future more by abstract institutional knowledge than permalink, it is remarkably easy to label 4chan “the antisocial network.”

And even that would be a stretch. Network? It’s a message board. But more like a giant jellyfish, its tentacles spreading over the Internet and getting all tangled with the Reddit octopus and the Tumblr school of anchovies.

So what does Moot (neé Christopher Poole) have to say about the new Facebook Comments system, and the idea of real identity on the Web?

“I think that‚Äôs totally wrong.”

The quote is from this VentureBeat story on his talk at SXSW.

Read on:

“Poole argued that anonymity allows users to reveal themselves in a ‘completely unvarnished, unfiltered, raw way.’


‘The cost of failure is really high when you‚Äôre contributing as yourself,’ Poole said.”

And so we come back to the characterization made back on TechCrunch. The one about what a comment is supposed to be.

And yes, I’m going to make this about your news site. What is a comment thread¬†supposed to be, on your news site?

A watercooler by which to carouse and argue and shout and laugh and snort?

A serious space for questions and answers about important issues in the community?

A suggestion box?

A tip line?

All of those? Really? You’re expecting users to stick with the same (real, perhaps) identity and the same interface for all of those functions?




How to turn every reader’s mobile phone into a newsroom of one

On the occasion of the second stop on the Carnival of Journalism revival tour, we’re provided with a wide open question:

Considering your unique circumstances what steps can be taken to increase the number of news sources?

So without much further ado, we’re going to have a little “NOW IT CAN BE TOLD” moment here at Invisible Inkling. I promise it’s not (too) salacious, just an outdated, stale sort of secret project that never came to fruition.

To be specific, it was a Knight News Challenge entry submitted late in 2009 in the “remarkably private considering how many people must have screened and discussed the idea” category. It made the final 50 entries that year, and was my backup plan for what to do for a job in 2010-11 if I needed a backup plan.

Interesting story, eh? Well, to maybe four or five of you, so let’s move on to the actual idea, shall we?


The short version:

Using a smartphone app, “readers” take photos with location-aware mobile phones, and the phone provides them with a list of nearby news organizations to send them to.

Here’s the pitch, in full, as it stood abandoned in early 2010:

Look Loudoun will be a resource for local news organizations of all shapes and sizes to connect with the community in Loudoun County, Virginia, largely via photos taken with mobile phones.

The first product from Look Loudoun will be an iPhone application, using the geolocation feature set to suggest local news organizations to send a photo to, giving the user the opportunity to route photos of news in their community directly to a wider audience via local newspapers, hyperlocal news sites, and their own social media profiles.

Additionally, the project will begin to generate revenue by charging local businesses to list themselves on the screen using the same geolocation feature set. If the¬†Look¬†Loudoun¬†user takes a photo near their business, they’ll have the option to send it their way, as well, supplying the business with content for their own efforts to engage the local community.

The revenue generated by¬†Look¬†Loudoun¬†will go toward building a sustainable business — the long-term goal will be to share any profits with the participating local news organizations.

Loudoun County, a suburban, exurban and rural area in Northern Virginia (yet a short drive from Washington D.C.) is fiercely local and at the same time, highly connected, as a radically diverse base of families speed from work to school to activities to community service.

The county is covered by dozens of news organizations, some as large as the Washington Post, but many on the smaller end of the continuum, hyperlocal blogs run by passionate community members in their spare time. Local blogs Dulles District and Viva Loudoun are among the best sources for neighborhood news online, complementing a range of print newspapers that include Leesburg Today, the Loudoun Times-Mirror, and the LoudounIndependent.

You’ll notice a couple key things there:

  1. Yes, it was a KNC pitch in 2009, so it starts in one local community — the always popular for hyperlocal experiments Loudoun County, where I happen to live.
  2. Loudoun’s always popular for hyperlocal experiments because it shows up often at or near the top of the list of “wealthiest” or “richest” or “most full of money to be taken from consumers” counties in the country. Keeping that in mind, there’s a revenue component to this pitch: Users of the app can send their photos to local businesses, too. The business pays for the content, and/or the service of being included in the app, and the news organizations get a cut. Maybe the users get a deal?

Mobile! Location! Revenue! Hyperlocal!

What could go wrong, right?

So to answer the Carnival question directly:

A smartphone app like the proposed Look Loudoun, but on a larger scale with local, regional, and national news organizations taking part, would connect individual news “sources” — call them “citizen journalists” if you must — with traditional one-to-many channel news organizations in an unprecedented way.

Sure, 100 news organizations might have 100 of their own vendors/platforms/apps for collecting mobile photos from readers, but what I’m proposing here is 100 news organizations in one app, instead. Make it simple for the user to send their photo to the relevant news organization based on their location, no pre-existing relationship necessary.

Oh, by the way, here’s a Posterous blog I used as a brief scrapbook of inspiration at the time. Keep in mind this was pre-Instagram, pre-Facebook Places, and pre-Foursquare adds photos to checkins.

Now, it would be pretty easy to imagine Foursquare adding some features along these lines. I wouldn’t be surprised.

I’ll add some more bits of the old KNC proposal to that Posterous. If you were a screener back then, I’d love to hear what you thought of the idea. Like I said, it made the top 50, and having learned from my experience with ReportingOn, I was asking for enough money to make Look Loudoun my day job for two years.

(And yes, of course, I’m extremely pleased at the moment with the way things have worked out since the KNC entry was rejected, but it seemed like the right time to share the idea.)

About that graphic comparing the Trenta to the stomach…

Charles Apple points to an explanation from Canada’s National Post, getting at the details of how the illustration you’ve clearly already seen — the one comparing Starbucks cup sizes to the average human stomach — from which we learn a bit about the convoluted nature of news today.

To summarize the sequence:

  1. Reuters moves a story on the Trenta.
  2. National Post graphic artist gets to work.
  3. National Post puts it on their blog.
  4. National Post puts it on their Tumblr.
  5. Graphic goes viral.
  6. Graphic shows up on CNN, where Anderson Cooper, not really up on the Canadian newspaper industry, credits the National Post with a sort of vague but enthusiastic attribution, calling it “a website.” Well, sure, but.

Perhaps the most interesting question about this, which Charles Apple asks: Did this graphic ever appear in print?

I’m not sure the answer matters, really, other than as evidence that you can create original content and drive loads of traffic (fleeting as it may be in this case) to your original content, even if it’s just an online illustration intended to gussy up an interesting wire story.

More fun questions: OK, so the traffic came and went, but did the National Post expand its reach by scoring some new Facebook fans, Tumblr followers, Twitter followers? Probably.

Customer service, community management, and comment threads

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably been on one side (or quite possibly the other) of an exchange that goes something like this:

PERSON AT NEWSPAPER WITH WEB-RELATED JOB: Sentinel, this is Ryan, how can I help you?
USER: Your website’s all wrong.
PANWWRJ: Really? What’s wrong?
USER: You don’t use XMLT 4.1. It’s still on 4.05. And your feeds are all gunked up with UTF-7. And your reporters talk too much about the city council. They should be writing stories about what the county commission is doing to the street in front of my house! And why can’t I read your forums on my jailbroken Palm Pilot? I can read the [LARGE NEWSPAPER LOCATED ON A DIFFERENT CONTINENT]’s blogs on it just fine.
PANWWRJ: Interesting.

Fun, right? Right? Guys?

OK, so maybe it isn’t that much fun to take that call.

But why do we get them? Do print readers give us as much input? What’s the ratio of letters-to-the-editor sent by mail to the number of website comments expressing an opinion on an issue?

Paul Ford, who you might vaguely remember as the guy responsible for scanning and cataloging the archives of Harper’s a few years back, has given the phenomenon illustrated in the above call transcript a name:

Why Wasn’t I Consulted?

Read his piece on the Web as a customer service medium. Now. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

To loosely paraphrase, summarize, and otherwise interpret his thesis, for those of you that insisted on continuing to scan this post without pause:

The Web, and related communication methods, provide the instant gratification of a little “swoosh” sound as we send our opinions off into the ether, and a “ding” as they arrive in inboxes, as text messages, or even a handsome little bit of javascript that refreshes a “thumbs up” count next to a comment on a news article as we mash the little thumb in earnest, albeit truncated, appreciation of what’s been said.

Instant gratification.

Funny thing about instant gratification, however, is that it’s the perfect way to set the expectation that my swooshing e-mail, my dinging text message, and my refreshing little thumbs-up have an effect, a value, an importance. When my vote is added to the poll results, I feel I have been consulted on the issue.

Here’s Paul Ford on “Why Wasn’t I Consulted”:

It is the rule from which other rules are derived. Humans have a fundamental need to be consulted, engaged, to exercise their knowledge (and thus power), and no other medium that came before has been able to tap into that as effectively.

Let’s go back to our call transcript, and see what our news website user is trying to express, exactly.

USER: I am important, and my opinion matters.
PERSON AT NEWSPAPER WITH WEB-RELATED JOB: Of course you are, and it does. Honest.
USER: So next time you decide to upgrade your webserver to Venus 5.89 instead of Mars 4.12, you should ask me about it first. Why Wasn’t I Consulted? I probably know more than you about it, anyway.


Sound familiar?

“My readers know more than I do.” — Dan Gillmor

So if we’ve established that the Web is the best medium ever to feed the “Why Wasn’t I Consulted?” need, and we’ve established that in the broad, overarching sense of the relationship of a single reporter to the public at large connected by the Web, that our readers know more than we do, what are we doing to tap into that need and that knowledge?

Well, there’s an obvious spot on news sites where we can tap in, but we don’t always.

Comment threads.

A few ideas:

  • At the bare minimum, it’s easy to recommend that reporters pay some amount of attention to comment threads on the stories they report.
  • Giving users an up and down voting mechanism on individual comments is probably also a prerequisite to doing this efficiently.
  • From there, your reporters should now have a way to sort comments based on the thumbing-up users have taken care of for you. (Wasn’t that nice of them?)
  • Now, rather than jumping in to rehash, argue, or troll-feed the problem users (whose comments have now been voted down, and in an ideal world of commenting systems, you’ve collapsed and made all but invisible in the thread), your reporters can evaluate the best comments in the thread and participate, clarify, answer questions, or even just say “Hey, thanks, that’s a great idea and we’ll look into it.”
  • That’s that kind of feedback that meets a user’s WWIC need at a much higher level. Even if you’re just engaging users to say “thank you,” they’re now participating in a conversation instead of a one-way rant/complaint/critique, and are likely to behave accordingly.

If you’re a social media manager, or a community manager, or an online editor, or a web producer, or bear the weight of some other title that involves this sort of work, you’re probably already doing this, right?

More to think about

Metafilter founder Matt Haughey — and if you know anything about Metafilter, you know they do WWIC right — tells a story about spending a few hours in an airport with Craig Newmark:

“He was literally chasing down forum spammers one by one, sometimes taking five minutes per problem, sometimes it seemed to take half an hour to get spammers dealt with. He was totally engrossed in his work, looking up IP addresses, answering questions best he could, and doing the kind of thankless work I’d never seen anyone else do with so much enthusiasm.”

Is that how you handle customer service?

If not, what sort of software and systems would make the job easier?

Looking forward to ONA10

As I write this over breakfast, deep in the suburbs of our nation’s capital, ONA10 is already getting started, bleary-eyed workshop participants wandering the hotel halls in search of coffee, out-of-state attendees drifting through airports and trains and cabs and…

OK, I’m probably romanticizing this way out of proportion, but the honest truth is that I had a great time last year.

For me, last year, the theme of the conference was “swagger,” as in, “my posse has swagger.”

This year, I’m looking to focus more on paying attention during the sessions, learning something, and generally soaking up information from journalists with their boots firmly planted on the ground, putting ideas into action.

More on that in a moment.

I’ll be a bit more free to talk (and listen) without pretext or pretense this year. Last year I was in full startup mode, putting in marathon sessions of work at all the wrong hours as we raced to launch a new product, in between leading an unconference session and winning a real live award. When I did socialize, I have a bad feeling that much of what I said was steeped in the vocabulary of Pitching The Company. It was exhausting.

But I had a great time.

This year, here are the questions I’ll be asking everyone:

  • How’s your commenting platform? What’s working, or not, or missing from it? How could it improve?
  • Doing anything local with location yet? Building or buying?
  • Who is responsible for new product development in your news organization?
  • What’s the one thing users of your news site consistently ask for that you aren’t giving them yet?
  • What was your biggest success/failure of the year?

And here’s what I won’t be paying any attention to at all:

  • Pundits
  • Academic conversations about convergence
  • If you so much as breathe some sort of 2004-era “bloggers vs. journalists” framing, this conversation is over.
  • Competition
  • Awards

Oh, and I don’t really look like my avatar. I lost that hat a couple winters ago.

So, I’ll be the guy with the goofy grin on my face, excited about everything.

See you there.

ProPublica Photographer: I Was Followed by BP Security and Then Detained by Police

[NOTE: I’m experimenting with ProPublica’s new “steal our stories” republication feature. Forgive me as I continue to try out different online syndication models, using my blog (and you, dear readers) as a test kitchen. This story originally appeared at ProPublica.]

by Lance Rosenfield, Special to ProPublica July 7, 10:37 a.m.

Freelance photographer Lance Rosenfield was working on assignment for ProPublica in Texas City, Texas, last week, when a BP security guard began following him. Rosenfield was later detained by police after taking photos for two ProPublica stories. One revealed that BP2019s Texas City refinery had illegally emitted 538,000 pounds of toxic chemicals into the air in April and May. The other reported that the Texas City refinery continues to have serious safety violations five years after an explosion at the plant killed 15 workers.

What follows is Rosenfield2019s account of what happened on Friday night after the police, accompanied by the BP security guard, stopped him at a local gas station.

I parked my car on the shoulder of Hwy 197 near the Texas City sign that is in the pictures, on the south side of town and the refinery. I walked onto the median where the sign is and took the pictures. I walked back to my car and drove a couple of miles to a gas station that is on the way to my hotel. I noticed that what looked like a security truck, which had a light on the top, was following me, although he continued on when I pulled into the Valero gas station. I got out of my car to fill the tank and moments later two Texas City police cars pulled in next to my car, essentially blocking me in, although I wasn’t trying to go anywhere, I was trying to get gas.

The first police officer asked me what I was doing and said he had gotten a report that I was taking pictures near the refinery. I told him I am a photojournalist and had only taken some pictures of a Texas City sign. He asked to see the pictures and I told him I didn’t think I had to show them, legally. Another police officer walked up and again asked to see the pictures. I told him the same thing, but assured him that they were just pictures of the city sign, taken while I was in the public right of way.

He said I could show him the pictures or he could handle this another way, including calling Homeland Security and taking me in. I agreed to show him the pictures on the back of my camera, while he took my driver’s license. Meanwhile, the truck that had been following me showed up, driven by a security guard with a BP patch on his uniform. The first police officer seemed to fade back during all this, but remained present in the background. I asked the second police officer–¬†Officer T. Krietemeyer–for his card, which he gave me.

Officer Krietemeyer took my name, driver’s license, the car license number, my D.O.B., Social Security Number and phone number.

The BP security guard asked for my personal information and I declined because he is a corporate security guard and I had already given it to the police. Then the BP security guard asked Officer Krietemeyer for my information, which he gave him.

I protested and asked on what legal grounds could the police officer share my information with BP? I was never on BP property. They told me it was standard procedure and I told them I didn’t agree with it and didn’t understand what legal authority they had to share that information.

They said that when there is a Homeland Security threat, then BP files a report. I said I wasn’t a Homeland Security threat, that Officer Krietemeyer had already determined that the pictures posed no threat. Also, I was not under arrest, so why was BP getting my information? I asked the BP guard for his information, which he gave me: Gary Stief, BP Security.

They both told me they would call Homeland Security/FBI agent Tom Robison to come down and explain it, as if that were a threat to me. I said I didn’t think that was necessary but Officer Krietemeyer called Mr. Robison anyway and handed me the phone, which I didn’t ask for, but my natural reaction was to take the phone. They had already spoken to Mr. Robison when they arrived; when he got on the phone he asked what my problem is. I told him I didn’t understand why BP was getting my information, but he had it anyway and we were starting to wrap up here. He said, “Oh no you’re not, you’re staying right there until I get there.” This was obviously a scare tactic.

Mr. Robison arrived several minutes later and asked what my problem was. His demeanor was aggressive and antagonistic. I repeated myself, in a respectful manner. He aggressively explained that a refinery like this is a terrorist target and any time people take pictures of it, they have to investigate.

He asked who I was working for. I said I’m a freelance photojournalist working on assignment for ProPublica. He asked for verification of that so I showed him the letter from (ProPublica senior editor) Susan White. Officer Krietemeyer took down the information. Mr. Robison tried to dig at what the article was about, and I stayed mostly vague because I’m not the writer and I didn’t see the significance anyway. Eventually he asked if it’s about BP and I said yes, which seemed to make him angrier.

I then felt like Mr. Robison and Mr. Stief, the BP guard, started harassing me, primarily by keeping me there and talking to me in an aggressive and antagonistic manner, and relating what I had done to terrorist activity, ignoring what had actually happened. This went on for some time. I stayed calm and polite and on point.

Mr. Robison twice asked Officer Krietemeyer if had he reviewed the pictures carefully and concluded there was no threat, to which Officer Krietemeyer said yes. Mr. Robison seemed to be shaky with adrenaline; he was clearly worked up.

Stief said he was ready to go so the group broke up quickly.

I shook all three men’s hands.

I’m guessing the whole thing lasted 20 to 30 minutes.