Dan Barkin – News & Observer

Posted on 11. Oct, 2007 by in Uncategorized

Your work in networked/collabrative journalism

Last January, The News & Observer created a community publishing site called share.triangle.com. We already had a pretty good newspaper web site at newsobserver.com. We wanted to create a site that would give the community a place to have a conversation, to share information and opinion. Share, as it is called around the newsroom, is actually part of Triangle.com, a web site that we have owned for a number of years.

We deliberately did not want to make Share part of newsobserver.com because we wanted to try to create a sense of community ownership, and that’s difficult to do when it it is part of our news site.

In March, my current job was created – deputy managing editor for participation and information. One of my roles is to try to respond to user feedback to improve the site, to make it more user-friendly. Another role is to monitor the signals that the users are giving us. We can launch something, but it’s hard to know what will click and what won’t. You have to watch. One of the things we noticed is that some of the heaviest users of the site have been photographers.

We have some very good amateur photographers in our community, and they are putting up their photos in droves. We try to encourage this in several ways.

First, we strip the most recent photos across the top of the Share home page. Second, we have created a photographers’ forum so they can talk to each other, exchange ideas and tips, etc. Our director of photography interacts with them. His son, in fact, is a frequent poster.

Another way we encourage this is by publishing reader photos every day on page 2B of our City & State section (our local news section).

The forums on Share are gaining traction. Anything with Duke lacrosse as a title will get posts and page views from all over the planet. I’d like to see more traffic. We have a couple of things we are going to be doing soon that I think will help traffic, including a redesign of the forum front door.

One thing that we are ambivalent about is creating forum topics ourselves. We want Share to be a conversation between members of the community. Sometimes we can’t help ourselves and think we have to start the conversation by creating a topic.

Right now, we don’t have the ability to let readers comment at the bottom of news stories, so this is one of the few ways we can get reader comments on the news. My guess is that in a month or so, we will have that functionality on our stories and we will feel less compulsion to create topics in our forums.

Page 2 of City & State

In April, we took a fairly moribund Page 2 of our local section – a place of fairly unchanging content (self-help groups, etc.) — and turned it into a reverse-publishing destination for Share content. Every day except Sunday, we take photos, forum comments, user-submitted school news, user-nominated volunteer stories and publish it on Page 2.

When we launched this, we did it, predictably for newspaper people, in a highly formatted way. Each day would have a certain theme. We are moving away from this. User-generated content does not flow in a predictable way, and we would rather publish the best content than wait for its day.

Projects

It isn’t easy to get reporters and editors to invite citizens into their work. Pro-am journalism has real potential, but it has to be managed well and you have to understand where the landmines are.

We engaged the public in helping us report one of our major projects of the year, what we called Speed Unlimited. http://www.newsobserver.com/news/growth/traffic/speed/

This project was months in development. Essentially, Pat Stith, a Pulitzer Prize winner, had established that speeding laws in North Carolina were meaningless. Most speeding tickets were being routinely pleaded down to improper equipment or other minor violations. Prosecutors would routinely knock 10 or 15 mph off tickets. The objective was to get the offender to pony up court costs – which went into local coffers – and reduce the offenses to levels that would result in no points and no notification of the insurance companies.

This, by itself, was not huge news. But what was news was that many drivers arrested for going 90 and 100 mph were getting off multiple times with hardly a mark on their records. A system that was originally geared towards cutting slack for otherwise model citizens was creating a culture of virtually unlimited speed on Tar Heel highways and deep cynicism about the traffic laws.

Our reporters were about halfway along with this project when I asked if we could involve the public. I wanted to ask them to do the following:

  1. Tell us about their experiences with the traffic court system? What did they get ticketed for and what was the disposition?
  2. Conduct an experiment. Go the speed limit on one of our major highways, such sa I-40 or I-95, and record what happens. How many cars passed you, for example, over a mile or two mile interval.
  3. We also asked people for their general observations about how fast they thought they could drive over the posted speed limit without risking a ticket.

We got around 140 responses through emails and phone messages, and published many of them online and in the paper. We ran reader responses every day of the four-day series, as part of the two-page package every day.

The key to getting this response was simple but not easy. Normally, when we do a project, the public has no idea what we’re working on until we start promoting it a (very few) days before it runs. We use this model primarily for competitive reasons. We are concerned that our competitors might try to beat us to the punch, so we want to operate very close to the vest.

Unfortunately, this model precludes citizen involvement. In order to tap into the public’s well of knowledge on a subject, you have to invite them in, and in a prominent way.

The project’s editor, a fellow deputy managing editor, and the reporters let me create a promo that was essentially a major display element on the front of our City & State section – our local section – several weeks before we were due to publish the series. We told the readers in very specific terms what we were working on, and listed the questions we wanted help on. We gave them three ways to reach us – email, voice mail (a special phone line) or posting responses on share.triangle.com. Each method yielded results, but by far the most results came through email.

That, to me, is the way to go. If you want to enlist the public’s help in a story or a project, you can’t be subtle. You have to promote ask for the help in a big way, and several times. And then, assuming you get useful results, you need to incorporate it prominently, We asked people who helped us to send us jpg thumbnails of themselves, and ran their pictures with their responses.

Incidentally, we did not get scooped by any of our competitors. I was a little worried that a local TV station might do a version on the cheap of what we were doing, and steal our thunder, but it didn’t happen. If you want to do pro-am, you have to take some of that kind of risk, but I think it’s worth it.

Raleigh Police Chief search

The City of Raleigh was searching for a new police chief. The format used by the city manager was to whittle the list of candidates down to a few finalists and then bring the finalists in for a meet-the-public forum. After this forum, the city manager would make his choice. We decided to give him some help.

We enlisted a diverse pool of citizens through an in-paper solicitation to attend the forum and then rate the chief candidates. To give the evaluation process some consistency, we gave the citizens a list of questions to use. We published their responses on a full-page grid that ran in our City & State section the day after the forum. Interestingly, the citizens rated the out-of-town candidate significantly higher than the internal candidate. The city manager went with the out-of-town candidate. A similar process was used by our Durham bureau in covering the search for a police chief in that town.

Water Conservation

We have been afflicted by a severe drought in the Raleigh-Durham area. To tap into the knowledge of our market, we have run a contest asking people to share with us their best water-conservation tips. We have offered a brand new rain barrel to the best tips. We have gotten a fairly strong response to this, both through emails to the editor who is our contest czar, and online on share.triangle.com.

Fun

Yes, citizen participation can be fun. Our Features department has embraced this in running some great contests. The first one was Sunday Idol, patterned of course, after the TV show. (Clay Aiken is from Raleigh, and Fantasia is from Winston-Salem, so North Carolinians have a somewhat elevated sense of idolatry). We asked our readers to nominate the best church singers. We put audio clips of the finalists on share.triangle.com, and lot the public vote for their favorite.

Currently, we are running a contest for the best Paula Deen imitator. You can see the finalists at http://www.newsobserver.com/. It is a hoot.

Features also asked readers to share with us their best stories and pictures about what they have done to make the porches of their dreams. They have posted their photos and text at share.triangle.com, and we will reverse publish the best.

Global Warming Hits Home

We recently did a series on the impacts of climate change on North Carolina. As part of this series, we enlisted local experts at our universities to answer questions from the public. We solicited questions a week before each installment (the series ran in four parts over a series of months.) The citizens asked questions that our reporters didn’t, and added an interesting dimension to our report. We published a rail of Q&A’s with each installment, and what we couldn’t publish for space reasons we put online with the series.

Conclusion:

In the six months since we have started to push towards more citizen participation, I now see editors and reporters on some desks routinely trying to figure out how we can enlist the public in our reporting. We are soliciting regularly in the paper and online, on big stories and small. It used to be that asking readers for help was discouraged, so we were left with the same universe of sources. This has changed in a big way.

In terms of monetization, we are regularly getting 200,000 page views a month on our share.triangle.com site, in addition to what we get at newsobserver.com. These are 200,000 page views that we wouldn’t have gotten. Creating the site involved minimal cost, because we have simply leveraged off the resources that we already have.

We have also added another dimension to our offerings. We call it FactFinders. These are topical pages that provide information resources and databases. We have launched FactFinders on the Wake County schools, hurricanes, global warming and the drought. Soon, we will be rolling out many more Factfinders, including a crime map that will provide daily incident report mapping of all incidents reported to the Raleigh police. Eventually, we will provide this mapping for all jurisdictions in the Triangle. Citizens will be able to export the data to their own Excel spreadsheets and slice and dice the information any way we want. Essentially, we will be putting thousands more eyes on crime trends. Providing information in an interactive format is one good way to engage citizens in the journalism process, and we will be looking for ways to tap into their findings. I would also like to create a pool of citizens with an interest in business to help us dive into SEC documents on local companies. The more eyes we can have poring over these filings, the better.

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