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 I promise it’s not (too) salacious, just an outdated, stale sort of secret project that never came to fruition.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.)

At IdeaLab: Paul Bradshaw on crowdsourcing investigative journalism

Over at IdeaLab, I’ve been way past deadline for a post, after (again) making all sorts of promises about helping out more over there.  Until now.

After playing the modern equivalent of phone tag (Twitter DMs and e-mail across two operating systems and one ocean) for a week or so, Paul Bradshaw and I landed on Skype at the same time for 15 minutes for a quick chat about his freshly funded project, Help Me Investigate.

Here’s the post at IdeaLab, where you’ll find the full video interview.

If you want to head directly to the background on this, read Paul’s post about the funding and the next steps for the project.

Here’s why I’m so interested in this project, and in my Knight News Challenge project ReportingOn, and David Cohn’s efforts with Spot.Us, and in the Collaborative Reporting tools we launched at Publish2 recently:

I really, REALLY, REALLY want there to be easy ways to gather structured data from readers, users, journalists, and editors, and I want that data to be attached to their identity whenever possible.  I want that data to be portable and exportable, so it can be displayed in any and all useful formats. I want profiles for everyone so I can track their participation, reliability, and levels of knowledge about different topics, beats, locations, and stories.

I’m becoming more and more passionate about this, with my level of surprise that no one has built the right tools for this job yet growing by the day.  But we’re getting closer.  Platforms are emerging.  Standards will follow.  Collaboration is key.

Community-funded news launches at Spot.Us

Fellow Knight News Challenge 2008 winner David Cohn took the wraps off the latest iteration of Spot.Us over the last few days, launching an engine for community-funded reporting from donation to publication.

Here’s the explanatory video:
Spot.Us – Community Funded Reporting Intro from Digidave on Vimeo.

I love the idea that Spot.Us could do at least three jobs:

  1. Provide news organizations with investigative/enterprise content they have less funding and staff to produce on their own.
  2. Provide freelancers (increasingly experienced and skilled freelancers recently out of a job at a newspaper, perhaps) with an outlet for reporting and quite possibly, a source of income.
  3. Provide readers with a request line for news in their community.

Plenty more floating around about the launch and the idea today:

Cross-pollinate or shrivel

I’m profoundly enthralled by things like rapid news-driven development in Django, and building a CMS that can switch from a beautiful feature layout to a Drudge-like breaking news linkbomb on a dime, and of course, leveraging the steady stream of free embeddable tools showing up online every day for your own newsy purposes.

But none of those pieces of the puzzle I’ve become so interested in these days — on their own, at least — come close to connecting readers to each other, or to the news, or to a news brand in some sort of interesting way.  I’ll get back to that in a moment.

Learning from Design

The SND session I went to last week with the highest awesome quotient was clearly Stephanie Grace Lim‘s session on “finishers” — design moves that take an idea from fruition to execution in a series of short repeatable steps.

One of the many fun parts of her presentation pro wrestling exhibition was “The Pollinator,” a way to get into the habit of listing the possible ingredients in a graphic and connecting the dots to create eye-catching juxtapositions to tell your story.

That’s the sort of basic thinking that’s necessary to brainstorm our way into new story forms online.

For example, here’s a doodle I just came up with:

Cross-pollinate your stories and tools to experiment with new online story forms.

When the “interactive” tools at our disposal consisted of Flash, and “multimedia” was a way to organize text, stills, audio, and video in a button-pushing environment, there were plenty of ways to decide whether the one tool in our box could do the job.

So here’s what I’m proposing:  If you’re the online editor, or the interactive director, or the news developer, or the innovations editor, or the title of your choice, when you come across a story — whether it’s a noisy breaker or a long-term FOIA-rich piece that a reporter is putting weeks (months?) of their life into — stop for a minute and think about which tools to deploy in response.

Obvious enough, right?

Just keep in mind, you’re allowed to stray from the established norms (blotter = database, profile = slideshow) and cross-pollinate stories and tools to make something new.

Onward to stage two

I mentioned a problem earlier, wherein much of what I’ve become interested in lately is, essentially, one-way communication.

That’s yesterday’s news, if I can beat a dead horse cliché.

So, the next piece of cross-pollination I’m selling you today is this:  *Every* piece of content, or interface, or display that you create should be infected with two-way communication.

Simple method: Comments.  If you can’t build it, embed them with something like js-kit or Disqus.

More complicated, but still basic: User-contributed photos, video, stories.

Challenging goal: Tie each reader’s interaction with your online news product together with a social profile and opt-in tracker, allowing readers to gather their favorite stories, comments, photos, and yes, perhaps they’ll want to follow their friends as well.

There’s more to this, of course.  There’s embeddable video players and widgets and Facebook apps and Twitter as a conversational tool, but none of this really address the larger issue:  Organized media no longer has a monopoly on content creation.

So while we do our best to insert our own content into the diasporic spread of homebrew news and information, or to adopt the successful methods of social networking on our own sites, it remains likely that the tide has turned against organized news as a tenable business.

It’s time to cross-pollinate.

To become news development shops that sell tools as a product.  To let readers into the reporting process.  To build evergreen content with legs — to think in terms of permanent information stored online, rather than temporary news, flashing by as a headline on a page or a screen.

Read Ethan Zuckerman’s write-up of Persephone Miel’s Media Re:public presentation at the Berkman Center earlier this week.  That’s the thread that’s tying these two ideas together in my head. (Um, cross-pollinating, even.)

Persephone and I talked more than a little about the twisted relationship between the future of professional news organizations and the future of citizen media in Boston earlier this year.  She’s been studying the problem in great detail.  From Ethan’s excellent paraphrasing:

There’s a million things we can try. We can experiment with networked reporting, with new editorial structures, with partnerships between professional and amateurs.

But we probably won’t. Legacy media is focused on the bottom line. Journalists are becoming more like bloggers, but often in bad ways. Civic-minded projects (like mine, I’m guessing) ignore how people really consume media. Amateur investigative journalism isn’t easy, and crowdsourcing is really hard to do well. We’d hope that public broadcasters would lead us into the promised land, but they apparently live in their own world.

I’ll leave off today with this:  Think about what you, your newsroom, and your organization are doing to cross-pollinate.  To mix and match story forms, to invite the public into the news, and the news into the public, and to participate in figuring out the future of news by trying to build it yourself.

Now, back to work.

I happen to know some people with ideas.

If you’re not already subscribed to the PBS IdeaLab blog, the forum for Knight News Challenge winners to talk about their projects, spout off on related topics, and generally try to change the world, now would be a good time.

Here’s a few recent posts over there that I’m still thinking about:

Check it out, leave a comment, rate a post.  I’ll be posting there for the next two years (!) about the progress and upkeep of ReportingOn.

Citizen journalist killed in Iraq

{ Those of us that were in the room during the ‘Video’ session at the Networked Journalism conference in October remember witnessing Brian Conley of Alive in Baghdad basically make a plea to anyone from the numerous large, profitable news organizations at the conference to help out the cause of citizen journalism in Iraq with a contribution.

A call quickly went out to everyone in the building – the notion was that if 4 or 5 people could throw down $4,000 or $5,000 each, that would keep Alive In Baghdad going a while longer. }


Late Friday night @baghdadbrian sent out a message on Twitter that an Alive in Baghdad correspondent had been killed.

He was Ali Shafeya Al-Moussawi, 22.  He was shot 31 times.  It’s not clear if his death was related to the story he was working on for Alive in Baghdad.

Here’s a clip from the post on the AIB blog:

“Ali lived in Habibya, it’s considered as a part of the Sadr city. On Friday the 14th at 11:30pm Baghdad time, Iraqi National Guard forces raided the street where Ali’s house is, one of the neighbors heard a gun firing after 15 minutes from the arrival of the Iraqi National Guard convoy to the street, the force left at 3:00am.”

No matter what your politics are or what you think about this war, if you’re reading this post, the odds are good you believe it’s a good idea to put communication tools in the hands of the people around the world who have the hardest time getting the most important stories to our eyes and ears and hands.

That doesn’t mean it’s an easy job to do — or a safe one.

Put your money where your mouth is: Chip in to help this 22-year-old kid’s family bury him.

Crowd wisdom, some assembly required

Scott Karp points out the difficulty in waiting for the monkeys to write Shakespeare and Ian King reminds us all that free content requires filtering that costs time and money.

Both are talking about the NYT bit on Heinz’s ketchup-stained UGC ad ploy.

Which brings me to the point: User-generated advertising content should be amateurish. That’s the whole idea. You’re trying to appeal to an audience that prefers YouTube to slick production values. They’re looking for people who look and act (and are lit) like themselves. That’s pretty basic stuff, I thought.

Now let me put on my news hat: User-generated news content must be edited. (Damn, I just felt my workload increase.)

Seriously, it’s all well and good to aggregate the YourTownNameHere Flickr tag on a community site, but you’re going to need to keep an eye on it, depending on your audience and how much they like your publication.

If we’re talking about crowdsourcing the news, then, yes, the wisdom of the crowd is fully in play.

But if you put out a call for comment and get 100 replies and 4 of them lead to sources, congratulations, you’ve done well, because it’s not the 96 people with an opinion that are going to make your story, it’s the 4 with a personal experience to share. Find them. Give them places to talk to you and give them places to talk with each other.

The Ian King post closes with this:

“Don’t tap the wisdom of the crowd; it doesn’t exist per se. Find the wise people in the crowd, and tap into them.”

I’d expand that: Tap into the crowd of 100 to find the 4 wise people and then do it again and again with every story. Pretty soon you’ll find yourself with a field of community leaders to do some of that UGC filtering for you. (Ah, now I feel my workload going back down a notch.)

Why Citizen Shovelware doesn’t work

…or “Sometimes hyperlocal just ain’t enough.”

Community site engine/citizen journalism startup Backfence (Here’s the Palo Alto version.) appears to be well on its way to falling apart.


Because people don’t want to participate in your brand, they want to participate in their community.

I don’t know if YourHub, a hyperlocal site framework developed by the Rocky Mountain News, is faring any better, but I think there’s a distinct difference between developing and selling to other newspapers a piece of software and developing and selling to other communities a brand.

This might have been part of my problem with Bayosphere, Dan Gillmor’s SF Bay Area community site that eventually became a part of Backfence. I stated a variety of cases here, and Dan engaged me in conversation in comment threads here and where I posted it on Bayosphere, and we’ve talked about other things since, but I think when it came down to it, I wanted a little space for my own neighborhood, where I could find out where to play pickup soccer on Sundays, how to sign up for the softball league in the spring, and where parents in my town sent their kids to preschool.

I’m still waiting for that.

Instead of giving us a site focused on OUR TOWN, YourHub and Backfence and now American Towns (Fremont edition here) give us a site focused on THEIR BRAND.

I can’t emphasize this enough. No one wants to connect with your brand, they want to connect with their town.

That’s why Baristanet kicks ass. It is so focused on a small chunk of New Jersey that the set of links for resources just outside the city limits of the three towns it primarily covers are called “Outer Baristaville,” because they’re just of tangential interest to folks living in Baristanet’s, um, circulation area, if you will.

So how can a newspaper provide this sort of tightly-focused hyperlocal community site?

First of all, if you’re going to use pre-fabbed syndicated software, re-brand the damn thing and localize it.

Second, if you’re going to roll your own, I want that thing braised in the juices of your town. Think about getting input from outside the newsroom. Go to community leaders and ask them what they want out of this sort of site. Ask them what they would post, and what they would want to read.

Then, brand the thing as if it were created from the bottom up by the locals in your community. Think about how both the least tech-savvy and least newspaper-friendly locals are likely to interact with the site. Serve the community, not your brand.

Danny Sanchez serves up the call to action:

“Make no mistake: If the local newspaper doesn’t get hip and develop an online community (and that doesn’t just mean snarky message board minions), they will eventually face someone who will. And it will then become a choice of bearing another spirited online competitor or spending the bucks to buy them out.”

He also points to Tish Grier, from whom I lifted the pleasant coinage in the title of this post.

To check out what the real hyperlocal animal looks like in the wild, visit a few of the Top Ten Placeblogs in America over at Placeblogger. I’m fond of #10, having lived in El Burque for a year. Duke City Fix covers Albuquerque like an online alt-weekly and then adds links to local bloggers and has its own Flickr pool.

Hint: If your hyperlocal site makes me think “Hmm, maybe we’ll move back there someday,” you’re probably doing something right.

So does Duke City Fix run on an expensive built-for-hyperlocal all-in-one solution?


It’s a free, open-source CMS called Nucleus.

How your newspaper can monetize citizen journalism

The traditional way: Content, community and local search build brand loyalty and page view traffic to sell your standard leaderboards, skyscrapers, squares and tiles.

Some fresher ideas pointed out by the NAA Presstime magazine:

  • Charge a little less for small businesses looking to advertise on your locally-targeted pages.
  • Let the community (i.e. the Little League) do the work of selling the ads, then split the profits with them.
  • Connect local bloggers with local advertisers and take a commission.
  • Roll all that user-generated content up into a weekly print edition and sell print ads.
  • Zone your local editions online (instead of consolidating them) to appeal to more local advertisers in more neighborhoods.

If you’re in the online news business and you haven’t taken at least a cursory glance at YourHub, or at what’s going on in Bakersfield, it’s time to take a look.

The tools to help you develop your own hyperlocal site driven by reader-contributed stories, photos and video are already out there.

All you have to do is pick them up and build something. If you build it…

via CyberJournalist

The Internet is for democracy

The Center for Citizen Media has lifted the curtain on what it’s planning to do with a Sunlight Foundation grant.

It’s a political transparency project, with the goal of gathering everything there is to know about this year’s race for the 11th congressional district here in California, featuring incumbent Richard Pombo (R-Tracy).

All nonpartisan caveats aside, the presence of Pombo will make this a great example of what can be done with online tools when citizens decide to make a difference.

Why? Because Pombo has Jack Abramoff connections and favors the always-popular-in-California duo of drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and undercutting the Endangered Species Act.
It should be an interesting, well-funded, moderately ugly election campaign, which makes for good copy and better research.

The kicker for me, of course, is who is going to be managing the whole online citizen-reporter shindig:

“The material we collect will be posted online. The site will be designed, built and initially maintained by the students in an online journalism class (J298) this fall at the Graduate School of Journalism, University of California, Berkeley. Assisting the students will be co-instructors Dan Gillmor, director of the Center for Citizen Media, and Bill Gannon, editorial director at Yahoo!, as well as Scot Hacker, webmaster at the journalism school.”

That’s right, the Berkeley online journalism class will be playing with real live political information, audio, video, and most certainly databases.

Sounds like fun.