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.

Inventing journalism

I’ve been reading Guns, Germs & Steel for months now.

(I take these bound paper items you people call ‘books’ slowly sometimes.)

There’s a number of striking stories about technology, innovation, and invention in the chapter I’m in the middle of right now. One of those stories is about the QWERTY keyboard layout, which was actually devised to slow typists down, lest the hammers jam.

And there’s quite a bit in the book on geographical barriers to the diffusion of innovation, the sort of thing I read and wrote about (still writing about) as a grad student.

When I think about barriers to innovation in newsrooms, I’m usually picturing a variety of ‘cultural’ stoppers built up over the years by organizational hierarchy and interaction, whether we’re talking about organization within a given newspaper or the industry as a whole, or even the marketplace pressures that act as distractions and push us off course — away from our core mission.

It’s striking to me how much the re-invention of news these days is really just a move to go back to the (pre-Watergate?) basic responsibilities of journalism:

  • Serve the community.
  • Bring disparate facts together to form a larger, clearer picture.
  • Tell necessary stories that otherwise vanish into obscurity.

We gather information, see the narrative elucidated by the facts, and tell the story in the best possible way to get the thesis of the narrative across to our readers, viewers, listeners.

That’s the goal of journalism, right?

(Feel free to answer that in the comments.)

The shape and size of the community will vary, the reliability of ‘facts’ depends on much craftwork, and the clarity of our narrative depends on our artistic skill.

Keep these three variables in mind — community, facts, narrative — and you can tell your story in any medium, using the technology and tools of your choice.

Journalism can be that simple. Hemingway wrote text, Capa took pictures, others shoot video or design Web interfaces, but we all flip those three switches. Community, facts, narrative.

Howard Owens has a list up of “Ten things journalists can do to reinvent journalism.” Note that none of those ten things really fit into this triad of variables, but what they address are all the distractions that get in the way when we try to think about those three things.

When we worry about whether our story will make it to A1, that stops us from serving our readers. When we cover meetings, we think too much about the process and not enough about the narrative. When we ignore our readers we forget our audience, our purpose, and our community.

Keep community, facts, and narrative in mind when you read Rex Sorgatz’s interview with Adrian Holovaty about Everyblock.

Think about how the facts that Everyblock surfaces can serve your community and how they form a narrative.

So run every piece of text, image, video, data, or commentary that you produce through those three filters as you work. Let’s re-invent journalism by doing it.

This post is part of the February Carnival of Journalism, hosted by Bryan Murley at the Center for Innovation in College Media. 

Five ways to innovate today

A colleague looking for a few new ways to integrate free Web services into his newsroom asked me to chip in with a list of five, so here they are. A note to student journalists: These are all free and easy ways to get something new and different online, and they probably serve a need you have right now in your newsroom.

Instant social networking for a niche in your community. Need a high school football site? A way to let readers weigh in on a controversial issue without allowing too much anonymity? A place for school clubs to run groups, slideshows, video, blogs and forums? Done. This thing is plug and play. Move around the modules as you please, and promote the crap out of it on your news site. For 5 bucks a month, use your own URL. For $20 a month, run your own ads.

Fun, inventive multimedia, with Zero Flash Knowledge required at the door. Heck, you don’t even need to know how to use an FTP program to get this to work. Play with images, audio, and video here, and embed the results on your own site. Check out this ScobleShow video of Richard Koci Hernandez from the San Jose Mercury News talking about using Vuvox.

One of many projects on the plate of the guy who pretty much invented RSS and blogging and podcasting as we know it. The basic premise is that you call a phone number and record a short message. A link to the resulting mp3 file gets posted to your Twitter stream. Keep in mind that your Twitter stream has an RSS feed, as well, which increases the number of games you can play on the tail end of this. Think of it as live audio reporting that gets fed straight to the Web.

The latest in a short line of live video streaming startups. Also consider If you’re reporting with a laptop in your backpack hooked up to a webcam (or a more expensive miniDV camera, whatever floats your A/V boat), this is a way to broadcast live via the Web, whether you hook into wifi at the coffee shop or an EVDO card to get online.

YouTube? What? How many different remixes of Soulja Boy can I watch involving Spongebob and/or kittens? Or, you could use your free video editing software (iMovie, Windows Movie Maker) to create video content (ahem), podcasts, or audio slideshows. No FTP access or Soundslides license? No problem: Edit your images and audio in iMovie and export it as a video file. Upload to YouTube, embed on your site, and voila, audio slideshow. Podcasting? Why not do the same trick with a few relevant photos over an audio track?

Take advantage of the free software and services that are out there: None of these will create compelling content for you or teach you how to be a better storyteller. What they will do is make it easy for you to deliver those stories to your audience in compelling and interactive ways.

Make me cry.

I’ve been repeating versions of this on recent training rounds when folks ask about learning Flash, so I thought I’d post it here for reference and credit purposes…

Richard Koci Hernandez, near the end of a great Starter Kit page at Multimedia Shooter:

“Soundslides or Flash? Put it this way, if you don’t know what Soundslides is, then there’s no need to even think about Flash. And if you haven’t mastered Soundslides (meaning, brought someone to tears with your two minute Soundslide) there there is no reason to be thinking about Flash.”

Download Soundslides here.

The eleventh obvious thing: Your subscribers are dying

Here’s a newsroom exercise sure to drive a stake of fear squarely into the heart of your circulation manager:

Count the number of obituaries printed in your paper in the last year for local residents over the age of 60.

Now compare that number to your paper’s drop in circulation over the same period.

If you see a correlation, you’re probably not alone.

At least once a week, it seems like another study or survey or poll or Pew report pops up explaining the obvious: The young’uns don’t care much for the newspaper these days.

Sure, you can go all Redeye and ASAP on their asses with a tab or a pretty site that shovels the same old news into a colorful, modernized wrapper, but *tricking* young people into reading the news isn’t exactly what I had in mind.

It’s the content, stupid.

(Yes, I realize I’m throwing around quite a few early-’90s references here. Forgive me – they were formative years.)

How many 18- to 30-year-olds in your town do you think give a shit about what the city council passed or didn’t pass at Tuesday night’s meeting? It’s not that they’re not politically active — don’t make that mistake — it’s that the issues are far more interesting than you make them out to be.

Let’s put it this way: I grew up on stories, not city council meetings, so why would you tell me a city council meeting when you could tell me a story?

Will a redesigned print edition or Web site bring in the flock to read about city council meetings and legislation that your local representative floated in a press release months before it will ever hit a committee, much less the House floor?

Again, if you’re serious about staying in business, you’re going to need content that the LIVING people in your circulation area are interested in. So let’s start brainstorming: What does the younger demographic in your town need to know, and how do you frame the story so it catches their eyes?