Thursday, April 21, 2011

Post-#jcarn thoughts

About 30 people sat in a room for a full day where our brains were squeezed for innovation. @digidave promised us we’d be out of brain juices and as always, he didn’t lie.

The purpose of Hardly Strictly Young (If you’re wondering, it’s a reference to a bluegrass festival) was to look at four recommendations from the Knight Foundation and formulate actions based off of them. A few things to be noted: this wasn’t necessarily about journalism, although we were 30 journalists, the words “journalism” and “newsroom” were rarely spoken. Knight white paper was about improving the information needs of communities. As vague as that sounds, it was possibly vaguer. The report was full of assumptions and for a number of the 16 recommendation implementations we made, we threw half of the words Knight used out the window, working from what we knew. 

These are 30 of the smartest, most innovative journalists I know. Everyone from coders, to project managers to evangelists and some flat-out amazing reporter/bloggers. Despite the constantly rotating selection of food and snacks Reynolds kindly provided us, we were wiped at the end of the day.

I want to stop here and not outline the implementations we came up with. You can hear about those on the stream of presentations.

What is worth commenting on is the tone and trends I noticed throughout the weekend and the thoughts I think are underlying.

Partnerships

A public media survey recently came out that more or less said that local NPR-member stations rarely, if ever, partnered with outside organizations and newsrooms (LINK). It’s changing, for sure, but the process seems slow.

Despite this, I can’t think of a single plan that we came up with that didn’t involve meeting with other newsrooms and anchor institutions — everything from barber shops to churches to the Elks Club. 

In order for any fundamental change to occur in how we present information to communities and work with them to improve our reporting, we need to make better use of the existing resources. This holds particularly true in the case of inner cities and rural areas. After working in semi-rural areas and launching a site in an underserved urban community, I’ve learned nothing but that communities have been ignored, abused and sometimes cast of by the same journalistic institutions that are now scrambling to cover them. 

Let’s not ignore the fact that journalism isn’t the only answer to giving communities the connection and information they need, as well. DavisWiki and others were named in our recommendations, none of which are actual newsroom products.

We have to get over our egos and seriously think about what partnerships can bring us. Newsrooms are starting to work with blogs and small, local sites, but it goes a little beyond that. I had a straight-forward conversation with one of the few non-journalists in the room, Rahn from a foundation in Boston about journalism and foundation/non-profit partnerships and the hurdles we face. In essence, it came down to egos and transparency. Foundations are thinking about hiring journalists, knowing that the reports they release might be biased. Newsrooms are tip-toeing toward foundations, hoping there is a way to partner without appearing biased, even though the public may not care. The only solution Rahn and I could think of was transparency, but that doesn’t even completely answer the problem. Can we trust the public enough to know that there are multiple “truths” to every story?

Get our of your box

The next words you read will not be revolutionary. Or new. But reporters need to go back into the communities they serve. 

Much of what was discussed was about that, but a step beyond. Evaluating communities’ needs whether defined or understood was the purpose of a few implementations, including the CAT signal (possibly the quickest I’ve ever seen an idea from a conference become a site and Twitter handle).

This is where you bring in people like Brian Boyer and Daniel Braubacher. Numbers, analytics and opening pathways to discover community needs is what is missing. The issue with journalism is that we move at the speed of light, with little time to slow down and look at what is passing us by. Market research, evaluation and building systems to make authentic reporting easier simply takes too much time when we’re under deadline. At least, it seems to.

We’re past the age of investigative dream teams, where you have a year to report a single story. Newsrooms are squashed for time and resources. We’ve got to stop trying to do everything, slow down and do a few things well — including actually seeing the communities were serve for who they are.

Finding existing models

You get 30-some of incredibly well-read people in a room and you’ll discover that some things you’re dreaming of already exist.

Simply put: we can’t spend money to re-invent the wheel. Few of us have VC funding to build like Facebook, but a number of things that have come out of start-up culture can be repurposed for journalism. @suzanneyada and @laurenmichell presented Basecamp for communities, a consistent theme “—— for communities/journalism”

It goes back to partnering outside of journalism. If journalists and the tech-community really, truly worked together, what could we come up with? It’s the purpose of hacks/hackers and I wish more newsrooms were looking at it.

City-centric design

This may be my only criticism. Perhaps the issue is that many of the innovators in the room came from mid-to-large cities, but far too often, we’re designing things for cities the likes of Washington D.C. and San Francisco.

I work in a large city, and I spend a good amount of time working in the context of cities. However, if I were Knight, I’d start looking at ideas and technology that serve smaller, underserved communities.  There are far more small publications than there are NYTimes’. This is not to say that we need to build Patches. NPR is in the process of launching Core Publisher, which will do well to serve small stations get on the web quickly and easily.

Conclusion

There were more ideas and themes that came up, but I hooked on these four. I wouldn’t be surprised if you see some of the attendees implementing some of the ideas we came up with.

I want to make sure I say thanks to the Reynolds Institute and Dave for inviting me out. It was a great weekend and I’m pretty sure we’re all BFFs forever now. Long live the #jcarn bus of awesome.

Notes

  1. bui posted this