This Thursday and Friday I attended the Block By Block conference in Chicago, a meeting about local and niche online journalism.
For various reasons (mostly personal and financial) I had to miss a number of interesting conferences this year, from Lindau Nobel meeting, through Open Summit in Berkeley, to Science Online London, but this meeting was worth the scramble and a tight-budget travel. Out of 120 participants, the only one I have met before in real life was Jay Rosen. But I knew a number of others from their online work – on Twitter, their blogs, their news-sites and in case of Scott Rosenberg (Twitter) also his excellent book which I keep recommending to everyone who is interested in blogs.
The first thing I did when I arrived was edit my name-tag. I crossed off “PLoS” and in its place wrote in big black letters ScienceInTheTriangle.com – the local, niche news-site we have been developing over the past three years or so. What we are doing with the site and our experiences with developing it were topics of interest for many of the people I met and talked to at the conference.
But more important for me at this conference was what I could learn from the experiences of others. While there was some emphasis on making money and creative new ways of advertising (some of which made me slightly uneasy with some blurring of the ed/ad barrier, post #PepsiGate), much of the discussion was about engagement – working with (and not for or to) a community, motivating people in the community to contribute stories (and not just text, but also images, audio, video, data, etc.) and engage with the other people on the site. I have picked up (almost by osmosis) some ideas that I think I can modify and then test for the future, both at ScienceInTheTriangle.com and in my future work building a science blogging network at Scientific American.
Probably the most useful break-away session for me was the one on Engagement, expertly moderated by David Kohn (Twitter) of Spot.us. About 30 people in the room exchanged their experiences – what they did to engage their local communities, what worked, and most importantly what were their biggest failures (and why, with 20-20 hindsight, were those things failures).
The discussion also used the example of Spot.us-funded reporting from the Pacific Garbage patch by Lindsey Hoshaw which stirred quite a lot of discussion in the media and blogs afterwards – Lindsey collected some of the key links here and here and she came and co-moderated an important session about this kind of journalism at ScienceOnline2010.
It is interesting to ponder why Lindsey’s liveblogging of her voyage was so popular, and so trustworthy. The hyperlocal news-sites are generally more trusted than traditional metro or national media, but I guess it has something to do with the ability of neighbors in the community to verify the information easily – it’s in their neighborhoods, involving their neighbors. They immediately spot errors.
The information coming from a far-away NYC or DC or Iraq, on the other hand, is not as easily verifiable, and the media has been caught in grievous errors so many times before, the trust is quickly eroding.
So why was Lindsey trusted? Jay Rosen suggests that this is because she was “one of us”, our representative eyes and ears in a place (the research vessel) that most of us could not be. She was a people’s reporter, funded by the people and read by the people.
The only moment when she (temporarily) lost our trust was when she published her article in New York Times – a suspect place to begin with, but also quickly shown to have been editorially watered down to the point of containing several factual errors. Even her story demonstrated how the traditional media is not (and probably should not be) trusted.
At the end of the energizing conference (flawlessly organized and executed as a true ‘Unconference’) the popular sentiment is that this should become an annual event. I am adding my vote to this choir as well – this was one of the most useful meetings to me lately as I met many new people and learned a lot about what they do to reboot journalism. In this world of completely rethinking and redesigning media, this was a collection of the most cutting-edge thinkers and doers. If there is one next year, I’ll be back.