Jaron Lanier, one of the pioneers of virtual reality, once kindly said — I guess — that I often use when thinking about or speaking about online journalism: “Information is alienated experience.” A blog post from one of my students at UNC has done a nice job recording an anecdote from the 2010 Online News Association conference that I think brings into focus the role of comments as form of alienated shared experiences.
Michelle Cerulli, a second-year MA student, told me this story and I encouraged her to blog about it. The short version is this: While attending a session about article comments, she watched a mild-mannered man use Twitter to quietly excoriate one of the speakers. This man didn’t stand up and confront or question the speaker in person. Instead he used this virtual soapbox to disagree with her — in what Michelle described to me as incredibly rude terms — about the role of comments on online news articles.
What was his beef with NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard? She was saying that online comments tended to be more vitriolic than you hear in “the real world.” His words on Twitter said that Shepard was wrong. But his behavior said that she was dead on. And, according to Michelle, he appeared to be oblivious to the irony.
And while this story so far might seem to some a perfect set-up for a conclusion in which I rail against online comments, that’s not where I’m heading. Online comments are important because it is there that our collective id gets revealed. Many of us reveal in anonymous or pseudonymous comments our fears and hopes n ways that most of us would deny if we were ever confronted with them. Online comments show how us — or at least some non-representative sample of us — experience the world in a way that we alienated from ourselves and the polite company around us.
And that unfiltered id — that alienated experience — is a happy hunting ground for a reporter who hopes to more clearly explain to his readers our increasingly complicated and interconnected world. The problem with comments is not that they are mean. The problem is that there are too few people mining them for hidden hopes and fears and too few people willing to patiently ask probing questions of the crowd.
More and more news organizations are hiring “social media producers.” I hope they’re given the challenge of not just distributing the news to the crowd, but also diving into it and finding individuals who are able to articulate why they’re much more scared, angry or jealous than they are willing to admit in a room full of their peers.
The question that keeps coming up in recent discussions about experimentation and fertile failure is this: Who will drive the vision and who will take the risk that journalism needs to get over this hump?
As a preamble, I’m re-running two blog posts (…hmm, I wonder if “the long tail” is going to make the word re-run go the way of the turntable…anyway…) that highlight the challenge and two potential answers:
- Open Letter to The Washington Post: Keep the Frontier Open (Jan. 9)
- Newsroom-Classroom Panel at ONA: A Bridge to Nowhere? (Sep. 13, 2008)
After the jump, I’m looking for where we might be most likely to find the fertile failures and experimentors that journalism needs.
Contrary to what seems to be popular opinion, magazines have a strong future online, I think. But their future depends completely on the leadership and innovation of publishers and editors, as I told the Carolina Association of Future Magazine Editors last night.
The audio of the talk is after the jump.
Last week, Richard Hart of MDC, Inc., kindly came to speak to my Public Affairs Reporting for New Media class. He led us through an illuminating conversation about the nonprofit’s recently released report on the Triangle’s “Disconnected Youth.” (PDF)
At the end, I raised this question: If government is already publishing a lot of raw data online, and if organizations like MDC are already put together in-depth, relatively objective analyses of public policy issues like this, then what does he — as a former journalist and the nonprofit’s communication director — think is the role for journalists? How do we fit in to his overall communication strategy for this report, I wondered.
That was a good question, Hart said. He noted that his primary focus now, after an initial and relatively small media hit, was convening small groups of influential and interested area leaders from various sectors to discuss how to implement some of MDC’s recommendations.
That made me wonder: Should journalists be doing that? Presuming we think that the subject of high school dropouts is an issue that is relevant and important for our audience, how much effort should news organizations be putting in to creating conversation around content that is created elsewhere? Should journalists be conveners?
If I had to pick only one difference between the mindset of print and online journalists, it’s the way they plan. Online journalists are more likely to have to collaborate with a large group, they are often working on longer time horizons on products that has longer shelf-lives. They are dealing with lots of smaller moving pieces and have to try to get management approval using static words and images to represent a project that will have a lot of animation and user-driven customization.
So, if you want to work online doing something other than breaking news you have to learn how to plan. In my experience, any online project — from an election returns database to a deadline explainer on the capture of Saddam Hussein — needs six things:
- A product concept
- A storyboard
- Asset management
- A clear workflow
- A financial budget
- A testing and quality assurance procedure
Things were a little out of rhythm all day today, with a weird snow storm that couldn’t decide whether it did or did not want to close down UNC today.
The bad news is that I didn’t get a chance to have MDC’s Richard Hart host a discussion about the N.C. dropout rate. The good news is that I had a chance to run two good live experiments in online journalism.
Before I let the students in my online reporting and editing classes touch any piece of technology or blurb their first blog post, I think it’s important to spend some time talking with them about the behaviors of the online news audience. The way people consume news and information online is fundamentally different than the way they consume it in other media, and it’s pointless to practice online journalism without understanding those habits.
This is not a lecture about how I wish the online news audience behaved. It is a lecture based on years of watching actual site usage at national news sites, watching focus groups, and reading industry surveys — primarily those done by Pew and collected in the annual State of the News Media reports.
This isn’t a lecture about how to change audience habits. It’s a lecture about riding a wave that is SO much bigger than journalism. Continue reading “Lecture: The Online News Audience”
Next semester, I’m leading a group of students in a service-learning class at UNC-Chapel Hill that be using online reporting and publishing techniques to dig in to the story of North Carolina’s rising high school dropout rate. As part of this experiment, we’re working with news outlets in the state on a collaboration that will live both on their individual sites and on a centralized site at UNC. If you’re interested in participating, please take a look at our draft plan of attack here .
The former executive editor of The Washington Post laid them out recently in a speech at Harvard:
1. All journalists should accurately identify themselves.
2. Conflicts of interest should also be disclosed, if not avoided altogether.
3. News and opinion should be clearly differentiated.
4. Photography and video should not be doctored or misleadingly used, unless it is obvious it has been altered only to entertain or express opinion.
5. Journalism should serve the public interest rather than the personal whim of bloggers or special interests of any kind.
Finally, he says, “Too much concentration on the philosophical questions about journalism in the digital world runs the risk of ignoring the most important question before us. Who will pay for the news?”
Those seem pretty straightforward and not too onerous. I have a quibble with his third and fifth points because I’m not sure these can be accomplished in a way that convinces and builds trust with the audience, even when done by the most well-intentioned journalists. Some people know the difference between opinion and fact, and for them labels are meaningless. Other people don’t know the difference between opinion and fact even when it’s labeled, and for them labels are also meaningless. “The public interest” I think is also a bit elusive and is phrase that has been so widely used by policy advocates on all sides that I’m not sure it has much ability to build or sustain credibility. Instead, I’d replace those two points with one — that journalism should be “evidence-based” and respect the scientific method.