2012 Civic Media Conference takeaways, open questions, reactions, notes

It’s been three years since I last made the trek to Cambridge for what we once called KNCMIT, and although the cast of characters has changed (with little-to-no representation of 2007-8-9 Knight News Challenge winners, different faces at the MIT Media Lab, and a rebooted Knight Foundation posse) the outcome was similar.

All unhappy airport terminals are alike, so the sense of deja vu carries over from the hotel to the cab to the fluorescent carpeted discomfort of Logan, and the foreboding sense of dread that comes with a United flight. (Prove me wrong, airline. Prove me wrong.)

On to the obligatory, but hopefully not exclusively duplicative and obvious notes:

  • Homicide Watch is excellent, and repeatable. Whether or not you use the code powering the DC site, the model of reporting on every homicide in a city — and not just reporting it, but reporting on it, while maintaining pages for every victim and suspect — this is something that doesn’t depend exclusively on technology, although the platform is perfectly tailored to the job. But it does depend on being obsessed with telling the stories that we often hide behind numbers, or a map. (Previously.) Also, it helps to be as driven and passionate about it as Laura, and to care about people.
  • Sometimes, there’s just no story in the data. Jonathan Stray hoisted this banner of editorial force, and Daniel X. O’Neill waved it high, the sort of basic news value that journalism school drills into us if we listen: Check the facts, check the data, then double-check it and account for the fragile chain of human actions that produced the data. Because a spreadsheet packed with invalid data and intervening variables is not a story. It’s a mess, and a risk, and it might be the start of the reporting process, not the end of it. (Session video here, worth watching.)
  • The contraction of the Knight News Challenge grant cycle into themed 90-day periods is a right and good thing, as is the new prototype fund. You should apply to one or both, right now. This minute.

Not pictured in this list: An improved opinion of the food and beverage options in Cambridge, Mass.

Knight Foundation expands into investment with an Enterprise Fund

Knight Foundation expands into investment with an Enterprise Fund: I missed this while on vacation last week, but as a sort of expansion of the Knight News Challenge, there’s now a 10 million dollar Knight Foundation fund to invest in for-profit companies. I continue to think this is a good idea.

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.

Thanks,
Ryan

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?

LOOK LOUDOUN

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.)

So long, ReportingOn

In 2008, I was awarded a Knight News Challenge grant to build ReportingOn, a backchannel for beat reporters to share ideas, information, and sources. The goal of the project was to provide journalists of all stripes with a place to talk about content, not craft, or process, or skillset.

I taught myself enough Django — and sought out advice from friends and coworkers with little regard for their interest or priorities — to launch the first iteration of the site in October 2008. In July 2009, with fresh design and development from the team at Lion Burger, ReportingOn 2.0 launched.

And almost immediately, I stepped away from it, buried in the responsibilities of my day job, family, and other projects. To grow and evolve, and really, to race ahead of the internal and external communication tools already available to reporters, ReportingOn needed far more time, attention, and dedication than I could give it.

Yesterday, I shut down ReportingOn.

In its last state, it only cost a few bucks a month to maintain, but it has more value at this point as a story, or a lesson, or a piece of software than it has as a working site.

To head off a couple questions at the pass:

  1. No, you can’t export your questions or answers or profile data. None of you have touched the site in about a year, so I don’t think you’re that interested in exporting anything. But if you’re some sort of webpackrat that insists, I have the database, and I can certainly provide you with your content.
  2. Yes, the source code for the application is still available, and you’re more than welcome to take a stab at building something interesting with it. If you do, please feel free to let me know.

And a few recommendations for developers of software “for journalists:”

  • Reporters don’t want to talk about unpublished stories in public.
  • Unless they’re looking for sources.
  • There are some great places on the Internet to find sources.
  • When they do talk about unpublished stories among themselves, they do it in familiar, well-lit places, like e-mail or the telephone. Not in your application.
  • Actually, keep this in mind: Unless what you’re building meets a very journalism-specific need, you’re probably grinding your gears to build something “for journalists” when they just need a great communication tool, independent of any particular niche or category of users.

As for the problem ReportingOn set out to solve, it’s still out there.

Connecting the dots among far-flung newsrooms working on stories about the same issue is something that might happen internally in a large media company, or organically in the wilds of Twitter, but rarely in any structured way that makes it easy to discover new colleagues, peers, and mentors. Sure, there are e-mail lists, especially for professional associations (think: SEJ) that act as backchannels for a beat, but not enough, and not focused on content.

(Prove me wrong, kids. Prove me wrong.)

As for me, I’m working on another (even) small(er) Knight-funded side project a few minutes at a time these days. Watch for news about that one in the coming weeks.

Here’s what a “beat” page looked like. Note the PR/spam in need of a “flag as PR/spam” button.

Here’s a single question page. (Thanks Joey, Chris, etc.)

Here’s a profile page. (Thanks, Greg.)