From Troll Whispering to Community Building: Practical Lessons in Engagement from ProPublica, WNYC and WFMU

Last month, as part of the Innovating Local News summit hosted by the NJ News Commons and the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University, I moderated a panel with Amanda Zamora of ProPublica, Jim Schachter of WNYC and Ken Freedman of WFMU, looking at how their organizations have sought to build community around the news.

The focus of the panel was on moving newsrooms beyond narrow definitions of both “community” and “engagement.” While social media is a core part of many outreach efforts, this panel focused on how we can move beyond Facebook and Twitter to engage people in deeper ways on and offline.

Here are some takeaways from the panel – with lots of links to tools and examples.

Why Invest in Community Engagement?

Community building is complex and resource intensive, so before newsrooms develop a project they should by clear about why they are engaging their community and what their goals are. The panelists described three overarching ways that community engagement can strengthen media and news organizations:

  • Build capacity: Your community can help you do things you can’t do yourself. Amanda Zamora pointed to projects like ProPublica’s Free the Files project which helped journalists scour more than 17,000 campaign finance PDFs for critical data. Jim Schachter talked about the WNYC Cicada Project which taught people to build soil temperature sensors and track the spread of the 17-year cicada across the North East. At WFMU the audience can annotate live-playlists adding their own images, facts and links to each song, building a vast knowledge base around the music they play.
  • Build value: By inviting people into your work, you also make your work more central to people’s lives. When people have invested in a story or project, it helps build “sweat equity” in the organization. WFMU actively asks their community to help them fundraise with embeddable fundraising widgets. WNYC is currently running a sleep project that is providing people a platform to track their sleep and advice on getting more rest. Finally, Zamora of ProPublica talked about the way people see their stories, values, contributions reflected in ProPublica’s reporting and how that helps build affinity.

In many cases, the goal of these engagement efforts was not to cultivate more donors or raise money, but in the end, building capacity, trust and value are all critical to developing sustainable newsrooms. No matter what your business model is, you need to cultivate a deep connection to your community if you are going to survive. Continue reading

Verification Handbook Mixes Tools, Tips and Culture for Fact-Checking

Last week Twitter and CNN announced a major partnership with the data analysis startup Dataminr to shift the way journalists use Twitter as an early alert system for breaking news. Dataminr worked with CNN to fine-tune the algorithms they use, to help close the gap “between the eyewitness wanting to be heard and the journalist who wants to listen,” according Twitter’s head of news, Vivian Schiller, in a blog post. That gap is not just one of distance or time, but also one of trust.

Dataminr says its algorithms can not only identify emerging patterns and trends, but also help journalists focus in on the most relevant and reliable information. As an example of this, The Verge’s Ben Popper points out that “Dataminr told its financial clients that the AP tweet about an explosion at the White House was false five minutes before the AP itself corrected the facts.”

This is clearly a promising tool for newsrooms, but in breaking news, it is not just the tools, it is how you use them. It is not enough to have a great verification tool if the culture inside and outside the newsroom doesn’t value accuracy above all. To that end, last week also saw the release of an important new guide to verifying digital content. The Verification Handbook is free online, and was produced by the European Journalism Centre with contributions from an all-star cast of journalists. Continue reading

Introducing Verification Junkie

I am a verification junkie.

For the last three years I have been exploring and experimenting with how we can verify social media during breaking news. Today I’m launching a new site, Verification Junkie, as a growing directory of apps, tools, sites and strategies for verifying, fact checking and assessing the validity of social media and user-generated content.

Verification Junkie SlideAs breaking news moves from news bulletins to news feeds, and social media becomes an invaluable tool for citizens and journalists alike, it also presents unique challenges. In his piece, Twitter, Credibility and The Watertown Manhunt, Hong Qu argues that “Tools and processes for assessing source credibility need to catch up with ever evolving social media technology and culture.”

As Qu points out, there are two key forces we need to contend with as we think about social media and user-generated content verification: technology and culture. The new Verification Junkie site is aimed at the first half of that equation, the technology. On the site I will profile and link to useful, interesting and emerging tools and apps that citizens, journalists or newsrooms can use in their day-to-day work. The emphasis here is on the useful, concrete tools people are building to help assess the validity and accuracy of social media content – text, video and photos.

Verification Junkie is a work in progress and you can submit tips and ideas for the site via Twitter @jcstearns. Continue reading

A Crash Course in Verification and Misinformation in the Wake of the Boston Bombing

Over the last two weeks I set out to read every article written about errors, misinformation, verification and accuracy in the wake of the Boston bombing media coverage.  What follows are a few thoughts and almost 40 links, organized thematically, to some of the best articles on these themes.

conflictingreportsThis is the first of a few posts as I analyze and extract key take-aways and concrete lessons from the collection of articles. As a starting point, for those who want to study media coverage of the Boston bombing as a case study of breaking news verification and errors, below is a round-up of some of the best articles. There are (many) others, and some good ones I have no doubt missed (add them to the comments section).

I don’t agree with all of these viewpoints, but together they present a well-rounded debate about these issues.

Guidelines and How To Posts:

Some of the best posts were the most concrete, editors, journalists and citizens discussing their best practices and guidelines for responsible reporting and careful verification. There is a lot of good advice contained in these posts. (For more concrete advice see my ongoing round-up of tools and resources for verifying social media content) Continue reading

Twitter is not a Typewriter: Ted Koppel’s Commencement Address at UMass Amherst

This weekend Ted Koppel, longtime host of Nightline, gave the commencement address to UMass Amherst, where I did my graduate work. His full remarks are copied below, but here are my thoughts on a few key passages on the state of journalism, politics and social media.

He opened his remarks with a familiar critique of social media: the requisite nod to the Arab Spring followed by a dismissal of Twitter and Facebook as too fast, too shallow, and full of too much noise.

If sclerotic dictators can be overthrown by messages of 140 characters or fewer, surely I should have been able to Tweet something adequate your way. But I won’t. It will surprise few if any of you to learn that I don’t Tweet and that I have, thus far, resisted all efforts to “friend” or be “friended.”

Billions upon billions of Tweets and text messages, most so lacking in substance that it is difficult to imagine any impact if they were all vaporized tomorrow. The new media clearly enable information to be transmitted more widely and efficiently than ever before.

Koppel links the speed of social media (and news media) today to a larger erosion in our ability to engage in constructive dialogue. This is born out, for him, most clearly in our political discourse. Continue reading

Fire, Community, and Media

On Saturday night eleven fires were set in my old neighborhood of Northampton, Massachusetts. Eight homes were burned and three cars destroyed. Two people died. I am away for the holidays and have been following these terrible events from afar, touching base with friends when possible.

As the story unfolds I find myself triangulating my grief and empathy for those affected in street names that are so familiar, streets that I walked a thousand times. Many of the houses that burned were daily landmarks where I watched the seasons play out in people’s gardens.

Not being in the area, I’ve been getting all my news about the fires online. Like many of my friends I found out about all of this through Facebook and Twitter, not through any established local news source. Continue reading