The Cyberbrains

Research and contemplation in new media

Taking CJ to the ‘hood’

What happens when citizen journalism collides with traditional journalism?

Bentley bookcaseLike any collision, you could expect a few injuries – at least damaged egos. But so far neither type of journalism has been fatal to the other. What is of concern, however, is that the bumper of the CJ Prius doesn’t mesh well with that of the Traditional News SUV.

Here at the Missouri School of Journalism, our citizen journalism efforts are narrowly focused on its relationship with traditional journalism. We are the world’s oldest journalism school and have served that profession for a century. My charter from Dean Mills was to find some way to keep trained journalists in the user-contributing future media picture.

Our first research planning meetings were marked by loud arguments over whether it was even possible, whether we would ruin journalism or whether it would make any difference at all. The first consensus was unexpected: Citizen journalism approached by a traditional organization must have a revenue stream.

The blogs, discussion boards and news groups that spawned citizen journalism had little profit motive. We quickly realized that the burden of paying a staff significantly changed a medium.

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April 24, 2008 Posted by | Clyde Bentley | 1 Comment

Iterate, Iterate, Iterate

jpkthumb.jpgSix weeks ago, the first MyMissourian site died an ignominious death at the hands of rogue spammers (which is the Web equivalent of choking on a hot dog.)

Needless to say, as with any total Web site annihilation, there was a fair amount of teeth-gnashing, fingernail biting and general angst from the staff. I think I even saw Jeremy weep one manly tear of grief.

But, with the gracious help of the tech boys in the back room, we downloaded some content to fill the newshole of the print version of MyMissourian, refilled the grave of the Mambo version of MyMissourian and let her Rest In Peace.

Clyde, ever the master of HTML tables, rigged a quick placeholder to fill the URL and we waited a few days for the boys in the back to recode the site into WordPress. Now, six weeks later, it’s like it never happened. We have a new home, with more functionality with barely a beat missed. Indeed, if I weren’t so lazy, I could have written this post a month ago. The fluid changeover was almost imperceptible — so easy, in fact, I had to stop and reflect to realize what had just taken place.

Imagine if we were a print-only publication and our presses or whole building even had burned down? What would we have done, then? The teethgnashing and nailbiting would have been far more dramatic, to say the least. And, with the present financial state of the newspaper industry, it’s doubtful there would be such a swift rebirth, if a rebirth at all.

Sure, replacing a Web site is easier than replacing multi-million dollar presses, but that’s not the point here. Iterating is the point. That’s a word I first heard uttered in a Web setting by the Star Warsian Roelof Botha.

Botha is one of the “big-wigs” at Sequoia Capital and has made money as a venture capitalist on projects like PayPal and YouTube. His name gets bantered around with the likes of Michael Mortiz and Elon Musk. I once worked at a Web site in Santa Monica, mahalo.com, in which Sequoia Capital was a principal investor. Botha came to the office one day to give us a pep talk, not about the vulnerabilities of the Death Star, but about what would happen once mahalo.com went live. Continue reading

April 15, 2008 Posted by | Joe Kokenge | 1 Comment

Something is brewing in journalism

I am up to my digital derriere in a project to write a “definitive” paper on cititizen journalism. The problem with “definitive” is that, well, it’s not very definitive. My mind has raced back and forth over the various aspects of this phenomenon that have either pleasantly surprised me, met my expectations or sideswiped both me and the journalism world.

clyde-tea.jpgLast week I had the good fortune to get the journalist’s traditional source of inspiration: A new and very short deadline. The Donald W. Reynolds Institute at Mizzou asked me to knock out a quick look at citizen journalism for its Web site. Isn’t it amazing how much better you can write with an editor breathing down your throat?

So here it is, right out of the microwave: A nice cuppa CJ:

It’s difficult to imagine two words that have caused more anxiety among news media professionals than “citizen journalism.” There have been endless arguments over what the term means, who it includes and whether it will kill or save the American new industry.

For the past four years, a team at the Missouri School of Journalism has studied citizen journalism from the closest of quarters. Although we were all traditional journalists and all professional skeptics, we followed the “do it to learn” philosophy of the world’s oldest journalism school and launched MyMissourian.com on Oct. 1, 2004. Aimed at the community around the University of Missouri rather than the school itself, MyMissourian features content written by non-journalists but lightly edited by the staff. We then insert a selection of the content in the free-circulation Saturday print edition of the Columbia Missourian.

Four years later, I’m very comfortable with both the citizen journalism concept and the phrase, but I’m still frustrated that my colleagues have such difficulty with it.
Citizen journalism is no more a replacement for traditional journalism than teabags are a replacement for water. Both can stand alone comfortably, but when combined they produce something quite wonderful.

The “citizen” in the term is a continual irritant to news people, who complain that it implies they are excluded from citizenship. Wrong definition of citizen. The better analogy is “citizen soldiers” — the militia and National Guard that serve our country “part time.” As my chief warrant officer father explained, Guard members want to help shoulder the responsibility of defending the nation – they just don’t want make a career of it.

Similarly, citizen journalists don’t want newsroom jobs – they just have something to say. And often they want to say it because those of us on the professional side are too busy with the big stories to see the little items that mean so much to people. It’s unlikely citizen journalists will ever effectively cover Congress, but they sure get their neighbors’ attention with tales of pets, kids and community activities.

Our research continues to show that citizen journalism expands the range of topics available in the mass media as it expands the range of voices. And the team – now known as the Cyberbrains – is confident that the recipe for the future of news is to drop that citizen journalism teabag right into that boiling pot of newsroom water. The resulting brew, as Thomas Lipton said, is more than good. It’s “brisk.”

April 8, 2008 Posted by | Clyde Bentley | 1 Comment

Light my fire

A bunch of fellows with calloused hands, tattooed arms and ability I envy recently taught me an important lesson about the new era of journalism.

Clyde the welderFor the past four years, I’ve talked, research and cajoled my colleagues in an effort to get them over their fear and loathing of citizen journalism. But when I look back at it, my efforts were pointed primarily at the loathing part of the equation. My assumption was that once they overcame their biases about news-like content from untrained non-journalists, the fear would vanish also.

What a mistake. I learned that in spades by donning a heavy leather apron, pulling on a Darth Vader-ish mask and trying to burn up the world.
My son Garrett, who is soon to graduate from engineering school, has a knack for picking the right presents. Even as a little one shopping Dad’s money, he could point to just the right piece of jewelry or clothing to light up Mom’s eyes.

Last Christmas he surprised me beyond words. His gift to me was a four-week class in welding at the Columbia Area Career Center – our local vocational training facility.

Keep in mind that the qualities I’m often known for are a lack of coordination, the dexterity of rhino and a touch of impatience. OK, more than a touch. But I also subscribe to the mantra of doing what you fear most – at least once. I know computers, I know writing and I can even hammer nails. But sparks, flames and glowing metal were out of my league.

But there I sat in a room full of guys with hot-rod T-shirts and gimme caps as a gravel-voiced instructor showed us how to turn on an oxy-acetylene torch without blowing up the building. I’m sure I looked like the proverbial deer in the headlights.

Somewhere near the end of that introductory demonstration, I realized my panic was the same as I had seen on the faces of dozens of students, friends and fellow journalists when I tried to explain the wonders of online citizen journalism.

It’s not the loathing, dummy. It’s the fear.

My failing as an evangelist for citizen journalism is the paucity of reassurance I offered to those who see their jobs, their passion, their worlds at risk by the new twist on the word that defines their lives. I’m a change junkie, so “new and improved” makes me happy.

Unless I’m faced with something as alien as a welding torch.

I eventually took my own advice, checked that there were plenty of fire extinguishers around and just did it. By the end of the four weeks, I could shower the floor with sparks, adjust a torch flame to a needle point and fuse two chunks of steel together into something that was more-or less-recognizable.

Just like me, citizen journalism won’t burn down the world. It may singe a few hairs and it will undoubtedly produce journalism only “more-or less-recognizable,” but the concept, need and utility of news will survive. Just as I learned that using a cutting torch employs some of the same skills I learned with an X-acto Knife, we need to enjoy finding how our traditional journalism skills apply to citizen journalism.

Now if we could just find an excuse to wear one of those helmets …

April 3, 2008 Posted by | Clyde Bentley | Leave a comment

Leading, not following

Jeremy LittauMark Cuban had an interesting post pertaining to the news media and blogging this past week. Cuban’s a sharp guy, he’s an entrepreneur who “gets it” when it comes to striking that balance between technology and content distribution. Plus he remade the Dallas Mavericks, maybe he can take over the LA Times next and make that thing work too.

He correctly diagnoses a big problem with media sites and blogs, in that they don’t seem to have a direction:

“Why. Why ? Why do you do what you do. Is it because:

  • You get paid to do it ?
  • Because you want to promote something or to promote yourself ?
  • Because you want to start a discussion ?
  • Because you want to communicate with customers, fans or ??
  • Because its a way to say whats on your mind ?
  • Because you want to make money from it ?
  • I’m sure there are other reasons to communicate on the web. What software you use, even whether you use video, text and/or pictures, really doesn’t matter.

What matters is why you do what you do.

I see this over and over again, both on content sites and in newsrooms I’ve been in (past and present). They tell a reporter one day they’re blogging, then leave them to figure out what that means. Oh, the technology is set up by the company, but determining the content? On your own, dude.

Clyde has already said before on this blog that journalists are afraid of too much commentary on their blogs, because having strong opinions might bump up too much against their strained notions of objectivity, and he’s right on that point. Many newspaper blogs I’ve read seem to be extensions of a reporter’s own reporting, stuff that doesn’t make it into the story. In doing this, news sites are falling into a trap, churning out blog material that pretty much mirrors what non-legacy media already are producting. Cuban sums it up nicely:

“If you are a blogger, and you work for a major media company, you are born with a silver spoon in your mouth. You are granted a platform with traffic. Thats the good news. The bad news is that you also have ratings. If you can’t hold your traffic or build upon it, you better hope you generate sufficient value in other places, or your days of publishing on the web may be numbered. For those of you who haven’t noticed, paid bloggers do come and go from media websites if they don’t produce. But wait, there is worse news.

The media companies that have traffic foundations and can dual purpose people so that they can publish off line and online come with their own set of problems. They are paddling as fast as they can to retain their offline businesses. Newspapers, to continue to use them as an example, are pushing as hard as they can to sell papers and retain advertisers. For those who think that a newspaper is just like a newsletter, you have never been a paperboy.”

And later …

“That is the endgame I see for newspapers that publish complimentary content on their website. You can call it blogging. You can even call it something else. The point I didnt make clear enough in my previous post, is that it has to be something else. No matter the quality of the writer, its just another stab at an audience in a medium where there are no barriers to entry. Its just one more example of the newspaper business following everyone else onto the web and doing exactly what everyone else is doing, but expecting they will be better because they are “The big paper”. Thats a huge mistake.”

Cuban’s post is worth reading, I just gave you the highlights. But by trying to keep a foot in both camps, a lot of people are starting to wonder if journalists are degrading the product. Just producing news content on a blog won’t cut it; that is being done by everyone else.

When I teach students here about how to blog for their job, I tell them to get out of the concept of reporting the news. And don’t do the “check out today’s issue for a story on such-and-such” posts either. Instead, consider the other things related to your beat (or even NOT related to your beat) that you can talk about:

  • The process of making the news. Apply some transparancy to enhance the story a person reads. What was it like to gather info for this behind the scenes?
  • Color material. What is a source like during an interview? Tell them details that are irrelevant to the story
  • Blog about things off your beat. What has your attention these days? What’s in your CD player? Doing this kind of thing humanizes the reporter (and this CAN’T be worse for credibility than the ivory tower mentality, could it?). It also is exactly the kind of commentary that makes blogs interesting.

The key seems to be to find a way to have your blogging job not cannibalize content the content from your regular job, but also to do it in a way that enhances your reporting, making the NEWS more valuable. In this manner, the blog is there to grab eyeballs and keep them there so they read the news, sort of a gateway drug for news use.

That would be my idea. I am curious what others think about Cuban’s post and how we can reimagine this thing.

March 22, 2008 Posted by | Jeremy Littau | 3 Comments

Standing behind what you print, even if you didn’t write it

Reviewing anything is a daunting task for a newspaper. Believe me – I know firsthand. After using a poor auto review Thinking in the sunfrom a wire service and losing our biggest advertiser at a weekly I helped I start, I don’t think I ran another review again. But newspapers and other media organizations cannot ignore reviews either. It’s fundamental to the community mission of providing objective information. Most importantly, if a news organization has the guts to run a review, it must stand behind it, no matter who complains – and in today’s converged age of journalism – no matter who writes it.

A case in point – The Columbia Missourian rarely writes reviews anymore. That’s why all of us citizen journalism watchers cheered when they began to include reviews from CoMoWhine and Dine, a local blog from five frequent diners who claim “the only thing we’re sugar-coating is the desserts,” in the weekly free circulation paper. The site deserves the publicity because its authors write some pretty good, and I think pretty fair, reviews. It’s the first place I go now before deciding where to eat in town. What I like about the blog, that I think it would be hard for a media organization to duplicate, is the reviewers divergent tastes. They review everything from fine dining to fast food. They differ on whether to hate or love the national chains or whether fast food is barely edible or ultimately satisfying. One of their contributors gave Arby’s 5 for $5.95 a glowing review (just don’t try to eat all 5 sandwiches yourself, Revee cautions). Continue reading

March 16, 2008 Posted by | From The Cyberbrains | 1 Comment

True citizen journalism

We had an interesting email come in the Powers That Be here at Mizzou the other day. It was from Vadim Gorelik, one of the people run the citizen journalism Web site Neaju, promoting the site’s work and some of their activities. A couple lines from an email exchange caught my attention (and emphasis is mine):

As a mentor to future journalists, I am certain you are aware of increasing profiteering and sensationalism that is increasingly dominating American journalism, often at the expense of the value we all hold near and dear to our hearts – journalistic integrity. It is for that reason that we’ve created the first true citizen journalism site on the Internet – http://www.Neaju.com.

The first “true” cit-j site. When our own Clyde Bentley wrote back and pointed out that OhMyNews has been online for, like, the whole millenium so far and that others (including MyMissourian) had been up since 2004 and beyond, the response was even more interesting.

I will take an issue with your reference to OhMyNews as a true citizen journalism site. Although they have been around for a long time, and is probably one of the most successful CJ efforts, they do exercise editorial control over their submissions, which I believe is stepping away from being true to the ideals of citizen journalism.

This is not meant to criticize those doing what they’re doing over at Neaju, but I believe that the sentiments expressed by Vadim get to the heart of a lot of debates we’re having in both the industry and academia about the citizen journalism phenomenon. Is it journalism? Is it news? Are they journalists or citizens doing journalism? What makes Timmy’s art class drawing journalism and not the latest refrigerator-magnet fare?

If anything, Vadim’s response misses the point: the rise of cit-j has led to a really cool discussion within the industry, and that is the question of what true journalism is. Four years ago I would have had a pretty unequivocally narrow definition; today, I am not nearly as easy to pin down. Thus, I’m not sure anyone really has the right to claim what “true” citizen journalism is, because we can’t even agree anymore on what real journalism is. Except in the j-schools of America, of course. But no amount of navel gazing is substitute for an honest-to-goodness public discussion on the issue.

The definition of citizen journalism is so diverse and hard to capture that any definition from a cit-j practitioner that excludes a large class of what currently constitutes cit-j is bordering dangerously close on Web bigotry 2.0 (e.g. the “YouTube is so last year” crowd). And by overemphasizing the notion of control, I believe Vadim mistakes the process of individual self-publishing for that of a large group. If an individual self-publishes, they are wholly responsible for what is printed. If someone submits to a site, the law is still a little fuzzy on who is responsible for what when all hell breaks loose. Control is not a mechanism for shutting down viewpoints, but rather a mechanism to make sure the site that publishes those viewpoints isn’t shut down.

Truthfully, it makes no sense for any cit-j publication to shutLe but de poker game. out those who submit. Contributors are the lifeblood of a cit-j publication just as subscribers are for a traditional publication. If you try to weed people out, all you’ll do is discourage people from submitting.

In addition, a quick perusal of Neaju shows there is some editorial control happening. The very notion of a “Highest Ranked News Stories” or “Top 10 Reporters” automatically elevates some stories and writers to the front page. This is editorial function (helllloooo, gatekeeping!). My guess is it’s based on user ratings and Web stats, but it is gatekeeping nonetheless whether it is done by a computer or done by the mob.

The point, of course, is that we can play semantic games all day about what constitutes “true” citizen journalism, but it really misses the point. The conversation is new, growing, and exciting. And it is diverse. Let the people decide how much control they want by whom they choose to write for; you’d be surprised how many of our submitters appreciate a light editorial touch now and again.

February 18, 2008 Posted by | Jeremy Littau | 19 Comments

It’s the puppies and babies, stupid.

I may have learned more in the past three weeks about the challenges of journalism than I have in the past three years. All by not paying attention to it.

The winter break is wrapping up here in academia. It is a blessed perk that almost makes up for the mediocre pay and bureaucratic rubbish. Professors and their students get nearly a month without classes to reacquaint themselves with family, Granddaughter Evelynmind and humanity.

I decided to give up writing in this blog for the break and to try not to think about the nightmare decisions facing the media in the coming years. For a few short weeks, I would not utter “citizen journalism.”

And by not trying to analyze it, now I get it. The quirk in the information world that brings joy to the hearts of millions of Americans is very little like what most of us in the industry think of “citizen journalism.”

The high points of my break were a Christmas trip to Virginia with my family and the addition of a bright-eyed puppy to our household. Pretty ordinary stuff, really. The fact that I got to bounce my cherubic granddaughter on my knee, talk late into the night with my adult children and have my face licked by a tiny puppy hardly qualified as breaking news.

But they were the sole focus in the ordinary life of Clyde Bentley. I could not wait to share my joy with the small cluster of souls I call my friends.

It wasn’t until after I put several dozen photos from Christmas on Flickr, until after I made the new dog my avatar on Facebook and after I had bubbled in excitement on a hobby blog that I realized what citizen journalism is really about.

It’s not covering news. It’s not making the world a safer place for democracy. And it’s not edging out the professionals who inhabit our newsrooms.

My “journalism” for the past three weeks has been about me, not about “citizen.” I really didn’t care if anyone else delighted as my grandson unwrappedManchmalVariationen von poker spielen. bieten spielautomat die ber?hmteBeruhmte casino. Blackjack,Craps. his presents or that my little dog looks at me with eyes like Greta Garbo. I just wanted to tell my world that one person was overwhelmingly excited – me.

Civic life is complex, often confusing and very serious. The journalists who keep tabs on it for us must be equally serious if our way of life is to continue,

But in the deluge of meeting agendas, crime reports and official verbiage we in journalism lost track of the little girls, Christmas ribbons and puppy dogs. There just wasn’t room in the paper and time in the day.Greta the little whippet

Recently a hospital here in Columbia announced it would not issue birth announcements. That may be the last straw in the dehumanization of the public sphere. We once said everyone was guaranteed to be in the paper at least twice – a birth announcement and an obituary. Many papers started charging for obituaries a few years ago. Now people may not even get to know you were born.

But sharing good news is a pan-humanity joy that no editor, lawyer or bureaucrat can deny. The new technology of Web site, e-mail and blog has not replaced traditional journalism that serves society. It has instead allowed “citizens” to add to the news for the masses with the information that dominates a single person’s life for a short time.

I have no doubt that babies will be announced. And pictures of grandkids will be shared.

And puppies? Who could ever resist.

Clyde Bentley

January 17, 2008 Posted by | Clyde Bentley | 1 Comment

Lessons hard learned — and lost

We don’t need another techo-gadget this Christmas. Just leave Nelson Poynter under online journalism’s tree.Clyde Bentley

Last week many of us read two more online journalism sob stories. Steve Outing told us how his Enthusiast Group nose-dived despite his optimistic reading of media-use trends. And K. Paul Mallasch posted a hat-in-hand grovel for donations to keep the Muncie Free Press alive.

It’s an all-too-familiar plotline: Talented journalist has idea for award-winning publication. Said publication may indeed win a few awards and gain a following, but goes broke for lack of advertising support. It wouldn’t be so bad if that was the plot to a movie. But it’s a long-running series.

Nelson Poynter knew the script by heart in the 1940s when he was building the St. Petersburg Times. While he made a fortune with his business savvy, he recognized that most journalists are terrible business people. He set up the Modern Media Institute in part to give great reporters and editors the other skills they would need to keep out of bankruptcy court.

God bless him. I was a fellow to the Media Management and Entrepreneurial Program at what is now the Poynter Institute in 1989. Billed as a “mini-MBA” for journalists, it took the wind out of roomful of cocksure journalists by showing them there was a whole world of knowledge they had missed in their master’s degree programs. My 10 weeks at Poynter made my career.

I found that one need not be a media whore to make money in journalism. Certain audiences need certain information. And certain merchants want those audiences. The trick is to assemble the equation in a way that both conforms with one’s professional mores and pays the bills.

I don’t really know what happened to Nelson Poynter’s dream of training journalists to keep their own profession solvent. The institute bearing his name wandered of to the feel-good topics of writing style, design and leadership. All very necessary, of course. But dozens of institutions taught them even in Nelson Poynter’s day without denting our reputation as fiscal incompetents.

Despite our best intentions, online journalism will not flourish until we bring Nelson Poynter’s lessons into the 21st century. By nature, we journalists launch our ventures with our vision of a story – then hope someone will pay us for it. Unfortunately, Americans have never been willing to pay directly for news – though they are quite willing to pay indirectly by adding the cost of advertising to the goods they purchase.

The path to success I learned at the Poynter Institute was to first find a group of merchants unable to reach the customers they need. Then find out what type of journalism those customers want. It’s not rocket science, just directionality.

So I’m sorry for your losses, Steve, K. Paul, etc. But I won’t be donating and I will shed few tears. It’s time for a tough love in our profession. And old Nelson was one tough bird.La sua parte positiva e’ che il casino di due di tre o di quattro verra’ pagato 40 unita’ per una unita’ giocata, e un poker creato da quattro Assi verra’ pagato 80 unita per una sola unita’ puntata.

November 27, 2007 Posted by | Clyde Bentley | 1 Comment

Citizen … advertising?

I suppose we’ve been talking about citizen journalism for so long that citizen advertising was inevitable.

The news is a bit late for some of you Applephiles, but I just picked up on it today that Apple’s latest commercial for its iPod Touch is actually a YouTube remake. Apparently a guy named Nick Haley liked his Touch so much he posted an online tribute on YouTube, and Apple took the concept and made it their latest commercial (it’s the one that goes “Music is my boyfriend …” and you’re welcome for me planting that song in your head for the rest of the day). I’ve seen the original and the actual commercial, and while there are some visual differences in terms of media, the concept remains intact and there really is no difference between them if you ask me (other than the inclusion of Dave Grohl, which is many degrees of awesome). I’m assuming most of what Apple did was for the purpose of getting the resolution needed for television.

Anyhow, fake commercials of this kind have been around on YouTube for a while, but this is the first time I have seen a company pick it up and use it for a wider marketing campaign. I’m not claiming it’s the first time, but it’s the first I’ve run into. And perhaps there is a legitimizing influence that happens, similar to what happens when CNN gives citizen journalism reportage via iReport some credibility by running it on the air. And there’s a cultural critique to be had here somewhere when the consumer is now savvy enough to design what has turned out to be a hit commercial.

And as Wired’s “Epicenter” blog pointed out a couple weeks ago, this is yet another example of how Apple gets it. “Rather than send him a cease-and-desist letter, they bought his ad, flew him out to Los Angeles to reshoot it in high def, and will be broadcasting it during the World Series this weekend. THAT’S how you love your customers, people!”

By the way, I did not find this through news media online (as if this post hasn’t been depressing enough, right?). I actually was googling the lyrics because we here at the Littau homestead have been trying to figure out if the lyrics are as innuendo-loaded as they sound (um, yeah they are). And in the Google search I found the NYT story.

November 14, 2007 Posted by | Jeremy Littau | Leave a comment