Introduction and Narrative: When Gannett announced its transformation from traditional newsrooms to information centers (see Jennifer Carroll writeup) The News-Press in Fort Myers, FLA. was one of the first and most successful papers to adopt the changes. The paper regularly engages in experiments to engage and partner with citizens using traditional media resources in pro-am projects.
Its first brush in citizen journalism came in 2004 during Hurricane Charely. Today setting up a forum during a hurricane might seem second nature, but at the time it was an eye opening moment. As people shared information “we realized how much knowledge there was in our community,” says Mackenzie Warren.
Next, Fort Myers took an active approach to citizen journalism, enlisting the public in a investigation into sewer expansion, where hundreds of residents mobilized and scoured through documents. Throughout this investigation the paper relied on experts within its community like accountants, lawyers, engineers, “professions that we don’t have an expertise in,” says Warren. “We found in the community those people exist and they are willing to sift through blue prints and time cards, that’s what distinguished the project.”
The third and current experiment is called “Team Watch Dog.” Relying on retired experts in the community, Fort Myers has built a team of 20 volunteers, who work side by side with the newsroom on dozens of projects.
Main Goal of Fort Myers: To fulfill the same goals that the paper has had since 1884 when it started. “Our fundamental purpose in the community hasn’t changed at all, it’s a new means to the same end,” says Marymont. The hope is that by relying on the wealth of information within the community the paper is able to do deeper and better journalism.
Notable Achievements: Fort Myers has created a network of citizen experts, including a retired FBI agent, a defense intelligence agency analyst, an education worker and more. “We have formed an alliance that our community is coming to recognize,” says Marymont. “It’s the breadth of what we are doing that is notable.” This has also had a positive effect on the papers credibility in the community.
A Surprising Realization: The immediate volume of readers’ willingness to participate. The utilities investigation racked in 6,500 pieces of user-generated content over the lifetime of the project, with a huge flow in the first week.
The paper was inundated by the number of people that wanted to lend a helping hand to monitor their government. The same occurred with the Team Watchdog project, which was originally going to be called News-Press Nine, limited to nine volunteers. But hundreds applied.
Biggest Practical Lesson/Mistake: In their experiment of crowdsourcing in the Cape Coral utilities investigation, Fort Myers originally thought the experiment would take place in forums that they would monitor and eventually use to get quotes from contributors. “That is all fine on paper until you have 6,500 people,” says Warren.
The paper was swamped and was never able to catch up. “We left a lot of leads on the table,” says Warren. “If you strike oil, you better have a pump that can collect it all before it spills out.”
Money: Fort Myers runs on a traditional business model. On the web this means getting as many pageviews and unique visitors as possible. The site did experience an increase in traffic during the Cape Code investigation, including new regular readers. “We make new believers each time,” says Warren.
Future Goals: Fort Myers wants to rework the infrastructure that it uses to perform experiments in network journalism. Having a few under their belt, they are taking a look back to see what tools were clumsy or not right for the job. “In some cases we were using a sledgehammer to bang in a nail, in others a house hammer for a railroad steak,” says Warren. With the Team Watchdog project underway, Fort Myers is looking at new technical solutions, so they won’t be held back from not having the right tools.
What do you hope to get from people attending this conference?
“We are not short on ideas, we are short on the means to do them. What we want to get out of this is new inspiration and new directions we can push ourselves and persuade our audience to get involved and get motivated. New ways to promote what we are doing, so we can expand our audience and make new believers and readers,” says Warren. “My top hope is to actually come away with progress toward technical tools that are better for supporting networked journalism, we’re ready for the next big experiment in Fort Myers and we hope this conference can help us gain clarity on what that will be.”