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.

Reuters covers ExtrAct

Reuters covers ExtrAct: MIT Web Tools Help Small Landowners Navigate Gas Leasing Frenzy. ExtrAct remains my favorite MIT Center for Future Civic Media project. Last time I saw the demo, there was (still) an amazing interactive map of natural gas wells, plus what amounted to a social rating system for “landmen,” the dudes who show up at your door looking to buy the rights to frack in your backyard.

Highlights from four days with my head in a blender full of wildly intelligent people

What follows is intended as a brief personal braindump from the four days I spent in Cambridge, Ma. last week, most of it deeply entrenched in the guts of #KNCMIT, a conference hosted by the MIT Center for Future Civic Media featuring Knight News Challenge winners from 2007-2009, and the announcement of this year’s winners.

Tuesday night, Margaret Rosas (of Radio Engage) and I took the train out to Harvard’s end of Cambridge to sit in on a conversation Doc Searls, David Weinberger, Jonathan Zittrain, and a classroom full of brilliant people were having about the 10th birthday (and a new edition) of the Cluetrain Manifesto.  (For an actual idea about what was said at the proceedings, see Ethan Zuckerman’s notes here.)

Made it to the Cluetrain talk at Harvard with @mrosas - Searls, Weinberger, and Zittrain talking.
That’s Jonathan Zittrain, David Weinberger, and Doc Searls leading the discussion about Cluetrain at Harvard.  Fact: Zittrain is a very funny guy.


I read the Manifesto at the beginning of my research as a grad student at San Jose State, when I was following the oversized head of the blogosphere, rather than the long tail of my interest group. Doc and David W. and Scoble and Dan Gillmor and Jay Rosen and Dave Winer and, for different reasons, Romenesko, formed the core list of names I paid attention to and used as hubs for my initial explorations of the intersections of media and technology.

So Cluetrain, for me, was a list of clues that led from one node in the system to the next like a scavenger hunt — or maybe, more accurately, a geocaching game.  Now I feel like I travel (or traffic?) in the diaspora of clues, learning from a corporate media refugee here, an unemployed reporter there, a blogger with 16 nonprofit affiliations over there, and running through cycles of employment and organizations myself, as I bounce from node to node in the evolving media system.


I spent Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday bashing heads together with Knight grantees and friends old and new, as we all tried to accelerate the evolution of that aforementioned media system.

When you’re in a roomful of geniuses, I recommend you try to get them to shout out their ideas.  They tend to oblige.

Then, get the people-who-physically-build-things (I sometimes call them Web developers around these parts)  to help them translate those awesome ideas into action.  Every idea can be a work in progress.

Knight News Challenge 2009 winners
The 2009 Knight News Challenge winners.  And @agahran‘s Tweetdeck lower-right.

Everyone present came up with some awesome ideas.  And we started translating some of them into action.  Interested in a hackathon to build social tools for SMS services?  There’s a group working on it.   How about a way to track (and score) the predictions made by sources in the news, including pundits, officials, and so-called experts?  Ask Dan Schultz about that.  And lastly, what if you could get a Twitter notification every time legislation related to your interests gets close to a vote in Congress?

How about a few lists of people who inspired me?

Inspiring as always: Lisa Williams, Susan Mernit, David Cohn

People I want to collaborate with, soon: Matt Thompson, Aron Pilhofer, Nick Allen

Great conversations with editors: Tom Fiedler, Owen Youngman, Anders Gyllenhaal

One of the most personally satisfying experiences of the whole week for me was showing off ReportingOn 2.0 (coming soon!) to real live journalists of all stripes who might be interested in setting up backchannels for their beat, or their organization, or their company.  Just like it says in my script, right?

Hint: There is no script, but I’ve spent more than a year honing that pitch.

Of course, if you want to check out ReportingOn 2.0 for yourself, I posted a screencast tour on IdeaLab, though it will cost you eight precious minutes of your life.  You have eight minutes free, right?

Thanks to everyone who made my week so inspiring, and to the Knight Foundation and Knight News Challenge staff as always for funding ReportingOn’s first year.  Have an innovative idea for local news?  Apply for a grant, and I’ll see you on stage next year.

Upcoming proof of my physical existence: Boston and Pittsburgh

I’ll be showing up in person in at least two different places outside the lush springtime confines of Western New York over the next few weeks, believe it or not.

The rough details

Next week, I’ll be in Cambridge, Ma. at MIT for the Future of News and Civic Media Conference, including the announcements of the 2009 Knight News Challenge winners.

What I’m psyched for: Hanging out in Barcamp-esque sessions with the brilliant squadron of past and present Knight grantees, with the added salt of supergenius MIT grad students and their professors.  Oh, and I’m planning to pressure at least a couple people into designing mockups or developing prototypes — on the spot, in the hall, or back at the hotel — for some cool idea that starts out as a conversation in a session.  So, beware, if you speak the words “wouldn’t it be cool if…”

Later in June, I’ll be unleashed on the APSE conference in Pittsburgh for an afternoon, where I’ll lead two sessions on networked journalism.  I still like that term, because it gets straight to the point: Use (social) networks as a reporting tool.  I’ll talk about Twitter, share my recommended social media guidelines for reporters, and touch on some tools for collaboration, like Ning, and beatblogging.

What I’m psyched for: Hanging out with sports writers, finding ways to take cheap shots at the Red Sox, showing off how simple it is to get started with lightweight tools to engage your community in conversation.


My new gig at Publish2 has kept me extremely busy, and it’s likely that many of you reading this have heard from me about it lately, usually trying to get your newsroom involved in one way or another with the set of tools Publish2 has to offer.  But, I still do get a lot of questions about what we do.  So here’s my entry-level explanation:

  1. We build tools to help journalists bring the best of the Web to their community.
  2. We build tools to help journalists and their readers collaborate on reporting the news.
  3. We build tools to help journalists collaborate with each other, inside their newsroom, across news organizations, even across media companies.

Double meanwhile…

Those of you who have been keeping score (hi Dad!) know that my Knight News Challenge grant for ReportingOn hits the one-year mark — and its end — at the end of June.  The Lion Burger crew has been building all sorts of tasty goodness into what I still like to call Phase 2, and I’m planning to flip the switch on a few things as the clock strikes July 1.

What you can expect: A brand new focus on questions and answers, a new design, some cool UI features, a lot of transparency about the process of building this iteration of the network, and the full KNC-funded codebase as a ripe Django project, open-sourced for anyone and everyone to try out for themselves.

How to find me

Yes, there’s a lot going on, not to mention the awesome stuff the two-year-old does these days, but I’m still pretty easy to find.

  • I’m @ryansholin on Twitter.
  • I’m always on IM as ryansholin on Google, AIM, and sometimes even Skype if you’re lucky.
  • Questions about Publish2? Hit me at ryan@publish2.com and I’ve got answers.

The A Word: Information and Activism – MediaShift Idea Lab

Christopher Csikszentmihályi from MIT’s Center for Future Civic Media talks about co-teaching a class on building mobile tools for social change. (The applications mentioned in this post are probably the most innovative work going on in the field today. If want to get a good solid idea of what the future of journalism and activism could be at their best, read his post and watch the videos embedded in it.)

The A Word: Information and Activism – MediaShift Idea Lab

Cambridge, MA is full of really, really smart people, yes?

Stata Center at MIT

The Stata Center at MIT.

Highlights so far from the first evening and night at the Center for Future Civic Media:

  • As usual when I show up for these things, putting dozens of online “friends” into the friend-met category.  People like Amy Gahran, JD Lasica, Ethan Zuckerman, Brian and Ryan from Rich Gordon’s teach-programmers-journalism project at Northwestern, and……. yeah, so trying to make this list means I’m leaving a bunch of people out, obviously, but you’re all frickin’ amazing.
  • Henry Jenkins talking about the parallels between Spock and Obama.
  • Checking out the MIT research projects.  Gotta love the guy who gave a dorm full of undergrads hacked iPhones so he could study how their music sharing habits match up with their calling habits and physical proximity to friends.

Plenty more live-tweeting on Twitter, today, I’m sure.  Look for the #futurecivic hashtag somewhere like Summize.com to follow the conversation.

Hello, Boston!

I’m at the MIT Center of Future Civic Media today and tomorrow meeting with fellow Knight News Challenge winners, Knight Foundation staff, and rock stars from the MIT media lab who are building all kinds of crazy stuff.

Seriously, there are lots of cool kids here, few of whom I’ve met in person before.

Say hello if you see me.

I’ll post cameraphone pictures to Flickr when I’m not physically underground…