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

Saul Alinsky would be proud

The students and I talked current events today in my Web Publishing and Design class, and the chit chat wasn’t about the Super Bowl or Super Duper Tuesday. It was about Microsoft’s bid for Yahoo and what that could mean for all of us.

One among them knew that Google’s CEO reportedly called Yahoo’s CEO to offer help in the battle, as Reuters reported here.

For some context and food for thought, I screened the short Flash movie Epic 2015 for the class, and we talked more about mergers and the media and the future of journalism. (Note to the creators — it needs updating again!)

I was surprised again at how many elements of that movie have become routine parts of our everyday lives, and tickled that it seemed to anticipate something Twitter-like, even though it saw Friendster and not Facebook.

Some of the students said the movie left them depressed, just as it had been a downer for my print journalist friends when I first showed them Epic 2014 back in 2004, and the remake in 2005.

But I think perhaps the movie doesn’t give adequate credit to the indomitable spirit that lives in all of us who can self-publish (for free!) to places like our blogs, YouTube, Flickr, Twitter, and wherever.

So here is why I am smiling, and thank you Laughing Squid, for pulling it together:

In response to Microsoft’s hostile acquisition bid for Yahoo, many Flickr users are expressing concern for what might happen if Microsoft is successful. They have even created a Flickr Group to address this issue, Microsoft: Keep Your Evil Grubby Hands Off Of Our Flickr, complete with photo pool of MS/Flickr takeover images, including some that envision what a Flickr website re-design might look like with Microsoft at the controls.

 

They are using the system to fight the system — as it should be.

I’d like to think that somewhere, Saul Alinksy is smiling upon them.

One of my friends named Kim


What’s Happening Cover

Originally uploaded by Something To See
Thanks to Facebook and LinkedIn, I’ve been stumbling across a bunch of not-so-old friends, people I haven’t seen in many, many moons.

Many of them have gone on to do wonderful things while I was in another time zone, doing something else.

That’s the case with my friend Kim Carney, who I worked with at the late, great, Dallas Times Herald way back in the 1980s.
Kim’s an illustrator, photographer and designer up there in that Redmond, Washington place, working with MSNBC.

She has a lovely blog here, which has great links to a lot of neato stuff, including this illustration that just reached out and said “blog me.”
And so I did.

Blog it (well) and they will come

Students in my Digital Storytelling class zoomed into the prime time blogosphere this week, providing live, multimedia coverage of the Democratic presidential debate and the accompanying mayhem at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Besides making more than 150 posts to the UNLV Presidential Debate 2007 blog, many of the students published audio, photos and text directly to the blog from their cell phones, using a new, free tool called Utterz.

The 17 students also provided solid journalistic coverage of the week’s events, including writing about CNN’s shabby behavior on campus. The post about CNN consistently ranked as the second most popular one on the blog after it went up Tuesday evening.

As of Friday morning, the blog was less than 100 hours old and had received more than 1,100 pageviews. Stats from our host, WordPress, show that the audience is coming from WordPress tags, MySpace bulletins, emails and link-love from places like Utterz and from my alma mater site in San Antonio and from my own Facebook profile, where I’ve posted and linked to it.

The students have been required to maintain a personal blog all semester, and this breaking news group blog was part of the plan in the syllabus all along. (Translation: They are being graded on their work, so there was some incentive — besides the sheer fun of it — to participate enthusiastically!)

Some aspects of the blog came as little or no surprise, because we spent a lot of time in class discussing things such as:

  • Transparency and ethics. So when I accidentally broke the blog Thursday evening, I wrote about it. That’s transparency — letting viewers know what’s going on, particularly when you’ve just screwed up.
  • Journalism. They know one of my basic rules is “quote ’em if they can’t take a joke.” So when representatives of CNN acted rudely in public, the students wrote about it here, here and here. They told the truth. (New basic rule: Don’t underestimate students who buy their pixels by the barrel.)
  • Finding and telling true stories in different mediums. So they were as comfortable as could be expected when I didn’t give them any more specifics on their assignments than “don’t bore me,” and “tell me what happened,” and do it with text and audio and photos and video.
  • Marketing, search engine optimization and visibility. So when it came time to do this blog, they tagged the blazes out of their posts (and sent out bulletins on MySpace!) — and they got your eyeballs.

But one thing I hadn’t expected was how much time we would spend in class wrangling with technology. It amazed me how difficult it was to even get a blessed piece of audio off of a digital recorder and onto the students’ blogs.

So after I talked to Randy Corke, the co-founder and president of Utterz when I was at BlogWorld last week, I decided the student bloggers would try something I hadn’t planned on or tested because it sounded like just the pixie dust we needed to make this blog fly.

Utterz lets you use your cell to send in photos, video, text and audio, then it mashes them together and plunks the finished product right down into a blog post. If there’s anything else like this out there, I sure hadn’t heard of it. Update: Here is a linknk to what somebody a lot smarter than I am had to say about Utterz two months ago.

Because these students are almost digital natives and all the way fearless, they tried it on deadline, and they not only made it work, they made it sing. One of them immediately waded into a crowd of demonstrators, interviewed people with his cell phone and had the audio up on the blog in less than 10 minutes — it was his first live “radio” interview. Holy cow!

(Here is a list on Utterz of all of the student posts tagged UNLV — you can see the good, the tests and the things we can learn from.)

How long have I been waiting for something like this? I told Randy a story about something that happened long ago and far away, in Phoenix, where my husband was the assistant city editor in charge of the cops and courts team at the Arizona Republic in the mid-1980s. His reporters were lugging those huge, shoebox-shaped Motorola “mobile” phones around to crime scenes out on the sticks, and they also had those whiz-bang Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 100s to file their stories.

One day my husband asked the Motorola representative if they couldn’t come up with some sort of gizmo to make the two devices physically connect to each other. The dude from Motorola just shook his head dismissively. “No one would ever use that,” he said.

And then there was the year of deadly hurricanes, Emily, Katrina and Rita.

As content director at MySanAntonio.com, I launched what I jokingly referred to as the world’s first interdenominational, multimedia hurricane blog. We pulled off the unthinkable: We got television reporters and newspaper reporters and newspaper photographers to all get along inside the same blog, and to file like someone else’s life depended on it.

We had it all — except the technology to easily pull it together. In the end, the “man behind the curtain” at that blog was one of my Web editors taking dictation over the phone because we had no other way to get the television meteorologist’s spoken words to go from a cell phone in a satellite truck in the field directly into the blog.

Well, now we do. And that’s not just a baby step toward real independent and mobile journalism.

Billionaire Mark Cuban says bloggers should shun ads, sponsors

Easy for him to say.

Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA Dallas Mavericks and a net worth north of $2 billion, also happens to be a blogger. So when he came to speak at the BlogWorld Expo in Las Vegas, a couple hundred bloggers showed up and listened up.

Cuban said a lot of provocative things, but what I’m still shaking my head over his is “get-thee-to-a-nunnery” attitude about blogs and money.

“Should you worry about revenue?” Cuban asked the audience.

“No. 1, if you get a sponsor, your customers always own you,” he said. “No. 2, I have no doubt in my mind that a blog that has Google ads — it cheapens it, and it won’t get read.” He acknowledged that he’d outlined a “no win situation,” but added, “it is reality.”

So should bloggers take a vow of poverty for life? “Once you start getting some traffic, then you can make a decision (about advertising), but (not) in the beginning,” he said.

Cuban called bloggers who take ads “sellouts,” and included those who bring in sponsors or sell themselves to aggregators in the unapproved column as well.

“Are you still a blogger if you are getting paid to do it for somebody else?” he asked. “I don’t think so,” he answered. “What’s the difference between someone getting paid to write for Huffington (Post) vs. writing for the Dallas Morning News?”

Cuban clearly sees blogging as a higher order. “Blogging is a way for truth to come out — blogging is a way for alternative ideas and opinions to come out.”

In part because he sees his blog as a way to counter the mainstream media, he doesn’t have a lot of regard for newspapers turning their reporters into bloggers. “I don’t get it,” he said. “Either you are a reporter or you are not. To me, you got to keep them separate.”

Working for the man, so to speak, “your brain is gonna change,” he said. “If you take the step to get paid to blog, you are going to lose your ability to be perfectly honest. Because somebody wants something for their money … You go to work, you got a boss, you can’t be brutally honest.”

He celebrates the fact that with his blog, “instead of talking to one or two people I got to talk to a whole universe of people.”

But at the same time, he says a blog is “just an application.” And he’s not a fan of user-generated content. “When it is easy to create, then everybody does it,” he said. “The longer the tail, the longer it takes to crawl up to even the ass, much less to get to the head.”

With such an ocean of information to choose from, Cuban said he has set up RSS feeds on about 500 blogs and newsfeeds, and goes to the homepages of about 10 sites daily.

One of the automated feeds he said he gets is through IceRocket.com where he has a vanity search for his own name and misspellings of his name.

OK, so what would the billionaire like to buy next?

He likes Facebook. (And Facebook likes him. Mark has 4,459 Facebook friends as of this writing, along with a relatively private public profile.) “I look at my own Facebook page, and no place else is like that. Facebook is where you are who you are. Facebook has the opportunity to be ginormous.”

“Facebook, if I could afford it, I would buy it in a heartbeat.”