Phillip Smith

Knight-Mozilla wants to know: How can newsrooms become better listeners and enablers?

Today's starting points:

The Internet has helped newsrooms to reach more people than ever before. Regional boundaries are fading away: people in northern Africa can read the New York Times, and people in New York can watch Al Jazeera in English. These are fantastic times. 

However, increases in ability to broadcast news far and wide has not been matched with similar advances in listening. As newsrooms reduce in size, and as information sources grow and "go direct," the ability to listen both grows in importance and becomes harder to do.

How do we enable news users to help newsrooms and reporters with their work? And how can the ability to hear the signal over the noise be improved? There's a whole open Web of raw material to build on ... let's get to work:

Listening to news users & enabling news users

  • Beyond comments Online discussion threads have been part of the Internet experience since the late 1990s. Blogs have pushed the state of comments toward experiences like the Guardian's Comment is free ever since their rise in popularity more than ten years ago. However, the form of user commentary has stayed fairly static, often relegated to sit far below the fold at the end of the story or post. The last few years have seen some innovation, as providers like Intense Debate, Disqus, and others started to see that site-isolated, and socially-isolated, comments could be radically improved. So, the question is: is it time for another radical improvement to user commentary? Is it possible to go beyond end-of-story comment threads? Are there other ways to enable news users to interact with news content?

  • Evolving the debate It is widely understand that online debate is a double-edged sword: it can result in some of the most lively interactions, often bringing new people and ideas into view. It can also become divisive, unruly, or off-topic and lead people to tune it out. There have been some interesting experiments in online debates over the years: some using video, like BloggingHeads.TV/, while others like experimented with mass democracy online. As more newsrooms incorporate debates into their online offering, and with the technical advances that HTML5 and browser improvements provide, How can the debate format be pushed even further? What new forms of debate does today's technology make possible?

  • Finding signal in the noise Reporters are often being asked to do more with less these days, but the amount of information that they are expected to process is growing exponentially. From following conversations on social networks to staying on top of the comments on their own stories -- it's a big job. People like Jonathan Stray are exploring how to find patterns in huge datasets, others like Adam Marcus are looking at how to use systems like Twitter to identify and verify reports, and the folks at Expert Labs are trying to create better headphones with efforts like ThinkUp. Can these same ideas be applied to the challenges facing reporters? Can important reports from users -- situation updates, identification of errors, questions or tips, etc. -- be extracted from the various conversations they are following and brought to their attention at the right time, and how?

  • Leaks & anonymous sources In the age of Wikileaks, where often-anonymous individuals are providing huge troves of raw material, some newsrooms are exploring how to provide similar "anonymous drop boxes" on their own, thus circumventing the role of the middle man in this type of transaction. However, the role that Wikileaks plays has historically been one of a leveler, making the same raw data available to everyone, not just a single news organization. As the understanding of the role of leaking evolves, what new ideas, tools, or technologies could be developed that would address the limitations of the currently available options? How can both sources & journalists be directly empowered?

There are many more ideas in this category, but I'm going to keep it to the four ideas above for the moment. How would you prioritize these four? What ideas have I left out that you would add to the "Listening to news users & enabling news users" category? What's a challenge that you would want to solve?

Feel free to comment here, or on the MoJo community mailing list (or via whatever medium suits your fancy).

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Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.


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