Google Maps, Sense of Place and the Algorithms of Our Heart

At their big developer conference this week Google introduced a slew of new features for Google Maps, but one caught my eye more than any other. Google suggested that the future of maps would be personalized. On their blog they asked, “What if we told you that during your lifetime, Google could create millions of custom maps…each one just for you?” They expand on the idea:

“In the past, such a notion would have been unbelievable: a map was just a map, and you got the same one for New York City, whether you were searching for the Empire State Building or the coffee shop down the street. What if, instead, you had a map that’s unique to you, always adapting to the task you want to perform right this minute?”

Image via Google

This led Emily Badger at Atlantic Cities to wonder if Google’s new maps might take the “filer bubble” experience into the physical world, “We may never know what we are not seeing.” While, I share Badger’s concern, I also think that we are always already rewriting the maps we use to navigate the swiftly changing world around us. The question we should ask is do we trust the maps made by Google’s algorithm more or less than we trust those made by our hearts and minds.

In the fall of 2006 Rebecca Solnit  published an essay called “Maps for the Year Ahead” in Orion Magazine. The piece offers a number of striking observations about space, place, and land in the wake of tragedy. Looking at events like the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco and hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, Solnit draws a connection between urban sprawl and the power of natural disasters to make us feel disoriented and, in a very real sense, ungrounded.

This reminded me of a friend of mine who led rafting trips. He once told me that each year, and after big rain storms, river guides have to re-learn the river because the river bed changes so dramatically. Solnit’s discussion of displacement and mapping made me wonder how often we have to re-learn our landscape and how quickly it can change. Continue reading

Rewriting the Story of Journalism

[Adapted from my remarks at “Filling the News Gap in Cambridge and Beyond:  Citizen Journalism and Grassroots Media” sponsored by Cambridge Community TV.] 

reporters notebook

In moments of profound change and transition we tend to reach back to old clichés and familiar metaphors to help make sense of the tumultuous world around us. Debates about the future of journalism are no different.

I’ve heard this moment described as trying to leap between two moving trains, as one slows down and the other one speeds away. This is journalism as a leap of faith.

I’ve heard this moment described as trying to move out of one house and into another, as the old house falls apart and the new one still isn’t finished being built. This is journalism as a fix-it upper.

And I’ve heard it described as the dying of an industry and the rebirth of a network. This is journalism as a Phoenix, rising from the ashes.

Each of these metaphors capture a piece of the incredible change we are witnessing in our media, but none quite does it for me. All of these descriptions portray the changes in journalism as something happening to us, a force outside our control – moving trains, collapsing houses, engulfing fire. We are left with no agency and no responsibility to create the future of media in these scenarios. Continue reading

“Rap Quotes,” Placemaking and the Geography of Hip Hop

Animal, one of the great new online art, news and culture sites covering New York City, has a tremendous video up on their site profiling Jay Shells’ most recent public art project – “Rap Quotes.”

Shells has created a series of official-looking street signs quoting rap lyrics that mention parts of the city – intersections, buildings, parks and other landmarks. He then posts the quotes at those locations, grounding the lyrics in the place that inspired them and creating a hip-hop geography of the city. Continue reading

Strengthening the Civic Core of Journalism and Technology

Three new funding opportunities for journalists and media makers shine a spotlight on the role of media in community engagement and civic health. This comes at a critical moment when, across the journalism landscape we are finally seeing deep reciprocal collaborations between journalists and technologists. Journalism schools are combining forces with computer science programs, the Knight Mozilla fellows just placed their third round of developers in newsrooms and every week there seems to be another hack-a-thon for journalists.

turningoutwardJournalists and technologists working together is a good thing for journalism, but also for local communities. It is notable that this era of collaboration is coming as trends are pushing both professions deeper into the public. Borrowing a phrase from Rich Harwood, they are “turning outward,” a process that emphasizes “making the community and the people the reference point for getting things done.”

In journalism this is embodied by the rise of community engagement efforts within newsrooms. It is part of a growing recognition that journalism will rise and fall with its community. Whether it is a paywalled newspaper that depends on subscriptions or a public broadcaster who depends on memberships, building community around the news on and offline is one of the critical challenges facing journalists today.

At the same time in technology we’ve seen incredible and inventive projects that focus on how technology can be brought to bear on community issues. This civic innovation takes many forms, from public health hack-a-thons to crisis mapping. Pair this with a rise in Gov 2.0 and transparency efforts and we see people working inside and outside government to better connect technology to civic life. Continue reading

Three Media Issues We Can’t Ignore in 2013

I’m not one to make predictions about the future of our media. I’m much more interested in prescriptions. Rather than talking about what we think might happen, let’s discuss what we agree needs to happen and how we might get there. The media isn’t just something that happens to us — it is something we can and must be part of creating and reshaping ourselves. Here are three critical issues we must tackle in the coming year. Continue reading

Is Your Local News a Supermarket or a Farmers Market?

In a recent post, John Robinson, the former editor of the News and Record in North Carolina, compared newspapers to grocery stores. He writes:

Newspapers once proudly said they were like a supermarket — they offered aisles upon aisles of choices. […] Rather than a grocery store, the paper should be more like one of those specialty shops with fewer choices but only the finest items that you’re not going to find elsewhere.

I’ve long been interested in the parallels between the rise of the local food movement and the debates about the future of local news. There are important lessons to be learned for how advocates for local food have built new infrastructure and economies around local products.

Robinson’s comparison got me thinking – what is the right analogy for news? If the metaphors we use help shape our understanding of what is possible, then how might models and metaphors from food production and distribution help us understand what’s working, or not working, in the news?

Below are some initial thoughts: Continue reading

Hearts and Fists: A Parent on Loving, Fighting and Gun Control

Bill Maher is wrong. It’s as simple as that.

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In a Facebook post hours after the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, the often provocative talk show host wrote, “Sorry but prayers and giving your kids hugs fix nothing: only having the balls to stand up to our insane selfish gun culture will.”

And Maher wasn’t alone. In the hours that followed the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary I saw that sentiment echoed across the web. “Stop being sentimental and starting fighting,” people seemed to be saying.

I’m a parent of young children, one of which is almost in elementary school himself. My first response when I heard about the shooting was to hold my family close and tight. In that moment I never wanted to let go.

Continue reading

Networks Versus Institutions: Lessons from Occupy Sandy and the Red Cross

In the title of her post at Slate Katherine Goldstein asks “Is Occupy Wall Street Outperforming the Red Cross in Hurricane Relief?” It’s a provocative question, but the article doesn’t really go very far in answering it. While it provides a glimpse of the tremendous effort and coordination behind Occupy Sandy, it doesn’t really provide any evidence with which to compare Occupy’s effort to the Red Cross’s work.

I’m not on the ground in New York so I’m in no position to assess the tactics or impact of either group, and as Andrew Katz argued on Twitter, it may be “Unfair to pit Red Cross against Occupy in a ‘who’s helping more’ debate. Similar priorities, diff abilities.” However, I’ve watched as many of my friends have headed out to help with Occupy Sandy and connected to other self-organized grassroots relief efforts around the city. What Goldstein’s post raises, and what I have witnessed online, is how fundamentally the way we respond to disasters is changing. Continue reading

What Journalists Can Learn from Apple’s Map Mishap

I was at a digital journalism conference when Apple released iOS6 and set off a firestorm of criticism over their custom built mapping application, so perhaps it was inevitable that I would connect these things. In fact, I have written before about how journalists can be the “information cartographers” of the digital age, mapping the ecosystem of news and helping us find our way. However, as I have been reading up on how Apple built its maps I think there are some important lessons for journalists who are thinking about data and community in important new ways. Continue reading

Has Your Local News Been Outsourced? 10 Tools to Identify and Support Truly Local Journalism

Who produces the local news you read, see and hear? Has it been outsourced to people in another state, or maybe even another country? How can you tell?

On this week’s episode of This American Life, Ira Glass and the team explore what happens when U.S. media corporations outsource local journalism to workers around the world. Most troubling, perhaps, is the way these companies are trying to hide what they are doing. Can someone sitting at a computer in the Philippines really cover the South Side of Chicago, and do Chicago residents have a right to know who is writing these stories?

Similarly Free Press has tracked and revealed how more than 100 local TV stations have outsourced their local journalism to their competitors, so that in some cities only one newsroom is producing the news for three stations. And just last week Steve Myers at Poynter reflected on what makes a paper local in light of cuts backs and consolidation at Advance Publications papers in Alabama and New Orleans.

We are at a moment where these companies are radically changing how the news is made. However, we are also seeing new hyperlocal and nonprofit news organizations emerging, public radio and TV are investing in local journalism and some newspapers are remaining fiercely local and committed to public service journalism.

The question is, how do you tell the difference between something that’s produced locally and something that’s been outsourced? Here are 10 resources that will help you identify and support truly local journalism. Continue reading

Putting People at the Center of Journalism

I saw a tweet last night that went something like: “People must love biased news because CNN is doing so poorly while the other networks are doing great.” This was inspired by new reports of CNN’s second quarter ratings, which New York Times reports, “plunged by 40 percent from a year ago,” for its prime-time shows. We can all debate about definitions of doing well and doing poorly, but in general I think a lot of people agree with this sentiment that bias drives views.

I don’t.

CNN isn’t plummeting in the rankings because people love “biased news.” However, what MSNBC and FOX News understand, that I think CNN doesn’t, is that people want to see themselves in the stories they consume. This is as true of novels they choose as it is of the news they decide to watch.

This aspect of the debate over objectivity has received too little attention, but it is fundamental to how stories function. For a long time objectivity was a source of trust – (i.e. “You can trust me because I don’t have a dog in this race”) – but it also had a cost. The cost was journalists’ relationship with their audience and their communities.  Continue reading

Three Resources for Newsrooms Measuring Community Engagement

The recent history of journalism in America is full of tectonic shifts, brought on by changes in technology and society. For too long, many of those changes happened outside of newsrooms, but increasingly we are seeing fundamental cultural shifts in news organizations that are changing how, and to sometimes why, journalism is done.

One of those shifts has been the emphasis on community engagement. The media landscape is shifting and becoming more participatory, and our communities want to do more than just read the news. They want to be co-creators, collaborators, distributors and they want to put the news to work, to improve their lives and communities. At the same time, financial challenges have forced news organizations to build new networks of support with their audience and community.

While newsrooms have invested in various forms of community engagement – from mobilizing local bloggers into coordinated networks, to robust social media strategies and community events – there is still a lot we don’t know about how to assess and measure the impact of community engagement. Continue reading

Civic Health and Public Journalism

The annual Pew State of the News Media report is like a yearly physical exam for journalism in America. This year the prognosis is mixed, at best. Newspapers are still raking in double-digit operating margins, but after years of consolidation they are over-leveraged with debt that is cutting into their profits. There are more hours of news on local TV, but much of it consists of rebroadcasts, meaning there is actually less original reporting. Tablets and mobile devices are driving significant new traffic to news sites, but monetizing that traffic is still difficult.

A Stress Test for Civic Health

Underneath all the numbers is a troubling narrative that has spanned the last few Pew reports and continues through this year’s study. Everyone agrees that we are in a tumultuous time for journalism in America, with both enormous opportunity and profound challenges — the numbers confirm that. But what is harder to quantify is the impact this unevenness and uncertainty is having on local communities. The authors of the Pew report provide some hints.

“The civic implications of the decline in newspapers are … becoming clearer,” the authors write. “[M]ore evidence emerged that newspapers (whether accessed in print or digitally) are the primary source people turn to for news about government and civic affairs. If these operations continue to shrivel or disappear, it is unclear where, or whether, that information would be reported.”

While a growing cadre of reporting projects and journalism sites is contributing in critical ways to expanding news in many communities, most still come nowhere near the size of traditional newsrooms, and many are struggling to transition from startup to sustainability. Some of those startups are being developed by committed journalists who have left newspapers. Pew estimates that 1,000 newsgathering jobs were lost in 2010, which is a small number compared to the years prior, but still significant. Continue reading