Two weeks, many voices

My radio commentary this week is sort of an update on the “Welcome to NewsWorks” post I did when this site debuted, so I’m not going to post that script.

Instead, a fortnight into the public existence of NewsWorks, a little taking stock:

First, thanks to all the folks who’ve sent us an avalanche of tips, comments, suggestions, news releases and invaluable “bug” reports.

We’re reading them all, even if we can’t always reply personally to each.

The site is, as it says next to the logo, still in beta. That means were experimenting and testing things in public, with you as our site inspectors.

And you’ve found a few problems, bless you.

We still have some work to do to make it as obvious and easy as it should be for you to participate in NewsWorks as robustly we intend.   We’re going to make it easier for you to send in photographs and videos and to see what gets done with them. We’re going to make it simpler to try out participatory features such as Sixes and Tens. We’re going to do more to explain the Ben Bucks rewards system and the “karma” commenting system.

Some of this we can do quickly; some of it may have to await v.2 of the site next year.

Reviews roll in

In all, reaction from users has been encouraging. More people than not are praising the content, the design, the good intentions about participation.

And reviews from the media community, well, some of them have us blushing.

Joey Sweeney of Philebrity.com, a man who suffers no fool gladly, was surprisingly kind, calling NewsWorks “one of the smarter media launches” of recent years.

Jan Schaffer, head of the J-Lab media think tank, was even more positive, gushing about NewsWorks on her blog: “I love it!”

Megan Garber also found a lot to like on her Nieman Journalism Lab blog, calling us “everything you love about the Web.”  Now, even I would not go that far, but it gives us a stretch goal.

The always energetic Chris Wink, co-lord of Technically Philly, covered the tangled backdrop of the project on his personal blog. Chris, who’s a valued member of our community advisory board, obviously still wants us to enact a few of the suggestions he made at the advisory board’s last session.  Working on some, Chris, not agreeing on others.

Not all reviews were ecstatic.

Brownstoner.com ran this post from former WHYY’er Ken Finkel. All I can say is, yes, Ken, it’s absolutely true that you came up with the Sixth Square name for an arts blog on the old WHYY.org.  The blog was moribund by the time I got here last year, but I said to myself, “What a great name for a feature. Let’s hang on to it for another purpose.” So I did. Shoot me.

The torrent of feedback in the last fortnight shows you simply can’t please everyone.  While some praise the site’s design as clean and easy to use, others say there’s too much going on.  Too many photos, too messy. One very angry person called it a “train wreck.”

Between warring visions

The comments to my welcoming post of Nov. 15 demonstrate the Goldilocks problem you face whenever you try to do something new that seeks a truce between two formerly warring camps.

A few years ago, wars of words raged between the rising ranks of bloggers and the cranky, shrinking columns of old-style professional journalists.  On one side were hyperbolic claims that the need for trained practitioners of the craft of journalism was gone, supplanted by the ready energy of “citizen journalists,” the wonders of “crowd-sourcing” and a never-exhausted wellspring of UGC, “user generated content.”

On the other side, were warnings that journalism was only a master’s work, a strange alchemy that never should be tried by those playing at home.

Each entrenched position is obviously ridiculous. (And most have abandoned those trenches. But not all, apparently.)  There is something difficult, requiring some skill, some training, and a particular discipline of mind, to what good journalists do.  But it is not, as the cliche goes, rocket science.  And the notion that journalists should be left alone in their ivory tower, their wonders to perform in splendid isolation from the public, is equally absurd.  

Invite story-telling

Journalists should be doing everything they can to immerse themselves in the wired, Web 2.0 world, to find out what questions, what knowledge, what insights, what perspectives, and, yes, sometimes what ignorant biass are humming inside the minds of the public.  And they should be constantly inviting members of the public to tell their stories themselves, providing platforms and opportunities.  Because often the person who experienced an issue at ground level is the best person to tell about it.

Moreover, given the economics-driven shrinkage in the ranks of paid reporters, we should be doing everything we can to recruit, train and nurture an army of “pro-am” journalists to extend the reach of our news operations down to the grassroots.   

It is a sign of respect, not disdain, to tell the “citizen journalist” – a term I hate – that there are some rules, some standards, some tips and some skills to doing the job well, and they might want to learn some of that before they try to cover the news. 

Still, the fact is, most of us who make a living doing journalism learned the craft mostly by doing, making our mistakes painfully (and thus more educationally) in public.  So, let’s grant the new pro-am journalists some leeway to do the same – just as long as the sense is present that learning does indeed need to be done.

That’s what we’re trying with NewsWorks – not the full-bore, UGC-only approach to community journalism that some of the commenters to my original post seemed to expect. The problem with the UGC-only approach is it has failed to sustain itself, in quantity and quality, everywhere it’s been tried.

But nor do we think the approach recommended by the commenter who said, “Just hire more reporters,” will work. The economics simply are not there right now, nor will they be at any time in the near future, to build the kind of awesome professional newsrooms that, say, The Inquirer had in its 1980s heyday.  

Nor does it make sense to ignore the crackling energy of social media and the palpable fervor that many ordinary people have to join in the effort, the cause and the fun of covering their communities at the grassroots level.

A less imperfect union

What we seek is a blend, a union. What NewsWorks would like to foster is a happy marriage of professional skills with citizen energy and insight. Journalism 3.0, if you will.

If that sounds good to you, please join in. Let us know how we can do a better job each day of reaching that goal.

(Look back in this space midweek for a fuller discussion of another key theme of user feedback: Why the great coverage of Northwest Philly, but not my town or neighborhood?)

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