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

Students, Denver and the Fifth Estate

I’m in Denver today with a group of University of Nevada, Las Vegas students who are kind enough to call me their teacher. Fellow-learner is more like it.

Once again, we’re experimenting with the future of journalism — using the latest tools in different ways to help people get news and better connect with information, events and newsmakers.

The students are using Nokia N95 cellphones to stream video live from Denver and the Democratic National Convention straight to the Web. But that’s not all. The video is being broadcast on our Web channel at Kyte.tv that lets anyone with a computer or smart phone chat via text with the students and their video subjects live, in real time.

So if you have a question, you can type it in, and the student journalist can see the question on the phone, and pass it along to the delegate, protester, elected official or whomever. You can even ask them to change the camera angle. It’s transparent, so anyone watching can also see the question and comment on it or type in a follow up.

You can also subscribe to our Twitter feed here, where you’ll get notified every time the video stream goes live>

Historically, the Fourth Estate — the press — has been in charge of deciding what questions to ask. But this week on our channel, the Fifth Estate — the people — will have a voice and access to power.

That means the people in the East Paradise neighborhood next to UNLV — a remarkably diverse and historically underserved area — will have just as much access to their elected officials and delegates as reporters do.

I was 28 when I first got to cover a convention, and it was the utterly scripted 1984 re-coronation of Ronald Reagan in Dallas. I covered the feds — the FBI, DEA, ATF, IRS, Secret Service — and I remember trying to worm some information out of one of the agents about people being arrested. “Robert Ludlum will have it in print before you do,” he glowered.

Having been double-dog-dared, I worked as hard and as fast as I could, and just two days later, Jerry Needham and I had a double-byline story stripped across page one of the Dallas Times Herald about the supposed plot to attack the convention center via hang gliders.

For today’s reporters, news is just a nanosecond away from worldwide broadcast on the Web. And instead of talking to people, we can have a conversation about the news even as it is happening. That’s a great advantage, because as we know, the Fourth Estate commonly asks pretty clueless questions and could use all the help they can get from the Fifth Estate.

I cannot imagine a more fabulous time to be a journalist!

The students and I have many people to thank for this extraordinary opportunity, most importantly, Ardyth Sohn, Director of the Hank Greenspun School of Journalism and Media Studies, who lured me to Vegas, sight unseen, to teach convergence, new media, digital journalism, multiplatform reporting and Web publishing and design, even though I could barely pronounce the word syllabus and had never written one in my life.

And we couldn’t have done this without a generous grant to support civic journalism from LasVegasNow.com, KLAS-TV Channel 8. That provided students with reporters’ backpacks, MacBooks and cameras to explore and document the neighborhood. The money also supported the student-developed Website, East Paradise, and it paid the four students’ way to Denver.

I am tremendously grateful to Nokia, where some good-hearted folks had the technical chops and the vision to imagine what kinds of remarkable things can be done with the powerful N95 cellphones that only recently became available in the U.S. They loaned the students (and their lucky teacher) phones to experiment with this summer for this project.

Over at the San Francisco startup, Kyte, people went way, way far out of their way to help us load beta software and launch a classy-looking channel for the video and chats. You can make my day by embedding our Kyte.tv channel in your Website or blog and spreading the word.

And thank you to my fellow learners, Reid Geary, Ariel Gove, Sandra Herandez and Denitsa Yotova. You truly are the ATeam!

I hope you will watch, participate and tell us what you think.