New age journalism: With a pickaxe and a crap detector

This is going to be a little random, but I am grateful to Adrienne Flynn, my long-time friend, sister journalist, and now University of Maryland journalism professor, for asking me what I think journalism students should be learning these days.

Away from academia, these centipede legs sometimes take me on a run, when what I really need is to pause and think. And reflect.

So I did.

Anyone can be a publisher. Everyone is a publisher. Whether you blog or Twitter or update your Facebook status, or just text or email, we all publish news many times a day. And it’s accurate and fast. When Spain won the World Cup, Twitter beat the New York Times email alert by 15 minutes – an eon in ADD Twitter years.

Each day, people take and publish millions (or is it billions) of pictures from cell phones, not because they are paid to, but because they love to and are passionate about it. (amateur=love) Facebook edged out everyone else to become the biggest photo upload site in the world, and that was how many years ago?

Everyone can be a broadcaster, by uploading video to YouTube, live-streaming video with UStream or going two-way interactive with live video and live, commenting audience on Kyte. That my Nokia cell phone could stream live video to the web was a big deal in 2008. Today? Not so much.

Everyone can find information. First there is Google, where you can find out what people did say, and now, the second-biggest search engine is Twitter, where you can find out what people are saying about any topic at this very moment, everywhere in the world.

When all the world’s a publisher, there is no such thing as meaningful market share. I am typical: I go to 19 different places for my news every day. I am fickle. I follow shiny objects, not big, grey, pulpy lumps.

So what can make news organizations or journalists special when everyone can (and is) doing it?

Journalists have access to people and hidden information. They can put it in context, make it understandable and curate the flotsam and jetsam into a meaningful exhibit that helps people understand and make better decisions.

Journalists have special access to people and policy makers. Journalists can pose questions to policy makers, and they can — via live web casting — share that access with the community.

Think about the folks who hang out in city council chambers for hours, waiting for the “public comment” section in the end. What if you could give that access to people on a periodic basis? Often, normal mortals ask the most penetrating questions. I’ve found that policy makers agree to participate in the online “town halls” when a journalist is involved.

Journalists can find things that are not on Google. Important things. Like the HTML feed for 311 calls or the PDFs of a city council measure explaining how  ADA money will fund new sidewalks in a run-down part of town, or the scanned and PDF’d copies of each council person’s expense account. All those things are online at City Hall or somewhere, but otherwise invisible. (See Deep or Dark Web )

Journalists can find those things, put them online in context, in a visually comprehensible framework, and create people-magnets.

Don’t you want to go to the map and zoom in on your block and see what people are calling 311 about, or how fast the city fixes things, or how that compares with other places?

Don’t you want to scour your council person’s or congress person’s expense account and see where the hell they went and what they claimed they spent and compare it to their peers’ expenses?

Don’t you want to be able go back to the part of the video in the public meeting where the developer told the neighborhood association that his high-rise would have friendly, street-level retail shops, and not a high wall that screams “Keep Away?”

When it comes to data, journalists can decide which bits and bytes to turn into eye candy to help the people formerly known as the audience examine it from all sides. I collect links to examples of  data visualization, and love this video of “Gapminder” data visualization software.

And then the journalists can help people annotate the information with their own stories. And they can put it in context so we know whether it is big or small, red or green, unusual or normal.

So the students need to be in newsrooms and bureaus to brainstorm and to feed off of each other and learn from you.

Teaching them to be mere news and photo and video publishers is too pedestrian. Everyone’s doing it.

They need to be archaeologists and artists, collectors and curators.

Give each of them a shovel and a crap detector (thank you Howard Rheingold!).

Tell them to dig until they find something that you don’t get on a simple Google search.

When they come up with something, tell them to examine it, and then write about it and weave a solid backbone of context around it, then make it visually understandable.

Then you curate it: Is it good enough for this most amazing exhibition?

And when it is good enough, then you put it to the people (journalists’ best co-conspirators) and say, “What do you think? Can you help us fill in the rest of this picture?”

Then you say to the policymakers, “These people raised some interesting questions.” And you give people access to ask their questions of the policy makers. So the community can be informed and people can make better choices.

I was going to add, “and Democracy will be safe,” but I don’t want to go out on a limb.

I have no idea if this is comprehensible or if it helps. But it is where I am going.

“Whatever you do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius and power and magic in it.”

~Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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Quote ’em if they can’t take a joke

That’s one of my basic rules of journalism, and never has it been so delightfully true as today, when we can not only tell you what someone said, but let you hear how they said it — in their own voice.

One of my students got a very rude awakening last semester thanks to an Embarq screwup, but she turned the incident into a very nice piece of digital journalism.

Have a listen to what she produced and published:

The challenge for the students in my digital storytelling class was to choose the right medium for the story, whether that was text, sound, video, graphics or still images. In this instance, telling the story through text wouldn’t have really done it justice. The sound makes the story.

Las Vegas Sun reporter Tim Pratt, who covers social services and the poor, wrote a piece Jan. 5 about the other victims of this bonehead snaffu by Embarq and the Clark County Housing Authority.

When he interviewed me, Pratt made it clear he understood the power of all things digital by asking if Ruby’s video might “go viral” on the Web.

That would be nice.

What’s important is that journalists no longer need a big old printing press, a radio station or a television station to publish and broadcast stories.

But knowing how to use digital recorders, cameras and editing software is increasingly important.

Just gather the facts, pick a medium, weave the story and publish!

P.S. — Check out the Sun’s Website redesign, which went live today. Among other essentials, they’ve added a field for comments under news stories, acknowledging that news is a conversation.