Friday, October 12, 2007

Networked Journalism Summit: Myheimat and Groundreport

I was fortunate to participate in the Networked Journalism Summit in New York City this year. The premise of the conference, as iterated by organizer Jeff Jarvis, was "more action than talk" to outline next steps to make even more use of "pro-am" journalists (read: bloggers, people who contribute to sites like The Northwest Voice).

The conference was only one day, so truthfully it's pretty hard to get everyone to commit to next steps in such a short period of time (especially the jet-lagged ones). I did collect a zillion business cards though and had some very interesting discussions, and I do believe that some very concrete next steps will emerge. The first step for that next step is for everyone involved in this area to more openly share information with each other, which I started to do with some people who are in this space and pledge to do more of in the future. It's not all about personal PR, folks!

There are two people who really stood out to me, though. I suggest watching what they do next, because I think they're both onto something powerful.

First, there's Martin Huber from a German outfit named Myheimat.de (loosely translated to "My Town" but I'm sure I'm slaughtering that as I don't speak German). You can read his writeup here. The short version is that he's built a system in Germany that automatically creates print publications based on user-contributed content.

Since 2003, his company gogolmedien has gotten 5,000 German contributors to write stories for 18 locally-focused publications that are distributed as what they call "freesheets" in their cities. There are 1,800 such small cities with less than 10,000 residents in Germany, and their objective is ultimately to get it's citizens to cover their own communities.

The concept of regular people writing stories is not new, as we've been doing it in Bakersfield since 2004, along with larger operations like Denver's YourHub.com and Morris Digital.

But what is new is something I've always hoped someone would do. Myheimat print publications are created automatically based on users' content ratings. The highest rated content automatically flows into prefab templates which an editor can view in a PDF, then edit in Adobe InDesign to make just right. If an editor is really busy, he or she can just choose to automatically print the PDF without review. Is this heretical to traditional editors? Well, yes, but ... to potentially cover an entire country like Germany with printed user-contributed content in a way that's profitable, you almost have to do something like that. And in my opinion, we lower the bar on quality a little with user contributed content anyway, so it just makes sense to do the same with printed material. I'm sure there are some legal concerns to work out, but as I've learned in my career, where there is a will there is a way. They've done it in Germany.

Second, I found myself captivated by Rachel Sterne, who has a relatively new site called Groundreport.com. The concept of the site is also not new -- she has 1,000 citizen contributors around the world reporting on international issues (a focus that came out of her experience reporting on the United Nations Security Council and events taking place in Darfur) -- but her ideas and passion for democratizing media are refreshing in a "new" field that is sadly becoming more rote and cookie-cutter by the day.

What's great about Rachel is her knack at matching needs with possibilities. When Rachel was reporting on the U.N. she was also working for file-sharing service Limewire. She felt that she had so much access to information and people at the U.N., and she could see that there were global events that people in the U.N. should pay more attention to. Unfortunately nobody was adequately covering these beats, which was partly the fault of the editors and of the subjects they covered. She realized that the tools that allow regular people to report on important events existed. So she got some funding and hobbled Groundreport together.

Groundreport seeks to democratize news in several ways. From the Netj writeup:
1. GroundReport allows everyone to participate by posting articles, videos or livestreaming content.
2. The community decides what is on the front page through voting - there is no editorial control.
3. GroundReport shares revenue with all contributors based on traffic to their stories.


So again, we see this concept of loosening -- or in this case removing -- editorial control (citizen editing?) and giving profits back to the contributors/editors. Taking myself out of my newspaper shoes, I love this idea of giving total control over to the citizens in certain situations. It doesn't have to happen in every case, but there is a place for it in everything we do. Letting people vote stories to appear higher and lower on a page is just another way for people to share their voice and take ownership of news.

The other thing I loved about Rachel is that she didn't just stop with what was in her technology platform. At Limewire she saw how easy it is to stream video if you have a Webcam, so she worked out an arrangement with a site called Mogulus that does just that -- for free! A prominent "Watch TV" tab at the top of Groundreport brings up streaming video of whatever Rachel has recorded most recently from her laptop. She said she hopes to eventually let any of Groundreport's contributors publicize their own channels and aggregate these together on the TV tab.

In case you're wondering, Mogulus is in beta right now and you have to be approved to use it, but they plan to open it up to anyone in the future when their tools are just right. If you're interested in doing something like Rachael has done, just ask her -- or ask me and I'll pass your info on to her. Once you have a channel you simply embed it on your page, and the Mogulus tools do the rest.

Rachel says her next step will be to let anyone in any city create their own "publication", although they'll be entirely online. If you ask me, the combination of Rachel Sterne's ideas around instant geographically-focused citizen news sites and Martin Huber's instant print products would be the ultimate in citizen media. That's what's great about these kinds of conferences. You see how people in different parts of the world are solving the same problems, sometimes the same way and sometimes in different ways. If we can all just share a little more and try to control a little less (not just in terms of what we let the "citizens" do, but how we limit each other for fear of competition), I think we'll be better off. People in small communities certainly will.

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