Fun interactive visual tools: Why should journalists care?

Last week I wrote a lot about various interactive visual tools that can help people connect differently or more deeply with news and information. This was for a session I led at a Knight Digital Media Center seminar for the leaders of the News21 project.

Yeah, so what? Why should journalists and news organizations care about these tools? How can this help their communities, journalism, and (most critical right now) business opportunities? What’s in it for journos and news brands?

That’s what Meabh Ritchie, a reporter for the U.K. Press Gazette asked me to clarify. She’s writing a story on this, and I’ll link to it when it’s up in February 2009. The short answer is: This stuff is effective and (more importantly) FUN! — for journalists and news audiences.

But here’s the full version of my answer…

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Spot.us and Fear of Change

As the traditional news business model continues to stumble, what people fear losing most is investigative and enterprise reporting — especially on the local level. This type of journalism is notoriously difficult, time-consuming, risky, and costly. It’s not something that amateurs or concerned citizens can readily handle. If we want it to continue, we need new ways to support it.

That’s what David Cohn is trying to do with Spot.us, which launched yesterday. This project, funded by the Knight News Challenge, is attempting to support local investigative journalism through crowdfunding. Poynter’s Ellyn Angellotti described this project her recent centerpiece feature. Here’s Cohn’s short explanation of how Spot.us will work:

Yes, crowdfunding is a very different approach to journalism. And the unfamiliar always seems potentially dangerous. That’s why most mainstream media articles so far about Spot.us, like this one from the New York Times, include some variation of this caution: “Critics say the idea of using crowdfunding to finance journalism raises some troubling questions. For example, if a neighborhood with an agenda pays for an article, how is that different from a tobacco company backing an article about smoking?”

That’s a valid concern, but I think it must be considered in context…

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Being a Citizen Shouldn’t Be So Hard! Part 1: Human Nature

NOTE: This is part 1 of a multipart series. More to come over the next few days. See Part 2.

This series is a work in process. I’m counting on Contentious.com readers and others to help me sharpen this discussion so I can present it more formally for the Knight Commission to consider.

So please comment below or e-mail me to share your thoughts and questions. Thanks!

If you want to strengthen communities, it helps to ask: What defines a community, really? Is it mostly a matter of “where” (geography)?

Last week I got into an interesting discussion with some folks at the Knight Foundation and elsewhere about whether “local” is the only (or most important) defining characteristic of a community. This was sparked by an event held last week by the new Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy — an effort to recommend both public and private measures that would help US communities better meet their information needs.

From the time I first heard of this project, I thought it was an excellent idea. It bothers me deeply that many (perhaps most) Americans routinely “tune out” to issues of law, regulation, and government that not only affect them, but also that they can influence — at least to some extent. (I say this fully aware that I often fall into the “democratically tuned out” category on several fronts.)

The problem then becomes, of course, that when citizens don’t participate, their interests are easy to ignore or trample.

Why do so many Americans abdicate their power as citizens in a democracy? It seems to me that many are too quick to “blame the victim,” pointing to widespread apathy, ignorance, or a prevailing sense of helplessness as common democracy cop-outs.

I think there’s a different answer: The way our democracy attempts to engage citizens actively opposes human nature. That is, it just doesn’t mesh well with how human beings function cognitively or emotionally.

Fighting human nature is almost always a losing battle — especially if you want people to participate and cooperate….

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Local: Just One Set of Ripples on the Lake of News and Information

Clearly Ambiguous, via Flickr (CC license)
Local is just one set of ripples on the lake of news and information.

UPDATE SEPT. 15: I’ve launched a new series fleshing out this discussion. See Being a Citizen Shouldn’t Be So Hard! Part 1: Human Nature

When it comes to information that helps people function better as citizens in a democracy, how important is local, really?

Geographically defined local communities are the focus of the new Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy. Earlier this week, I posted this comment (and this one) on the Commission’s blog questioning the Commission’s assumption that community = local.

Don’t get me wrong: I love that Knight is trying to determine what kinds of information people really need to function as citizens today. I agree that’s a crucial line of inquiry these days. However, I’m concerned that by assuming those needs are inherently tied to “local,” the commission could miss a very important (perhaps the most important) part of what “community” really means to people today.

I was honored to see this very thoughtful response to my comment from Alberto Ibargüen, president and CEO of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. He made several good points, including this excerpt…
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My Tumblr experiment: Exploring options for fast, easy posts

People contribute more when contributing is easy. That’s true for posting to sites or forums as well as donating money.

That said, many sites make it surprisingly hard to post. Not excruciatingly difficult — but just laborious enough to be a barrier to some would-be contributors.

This week I’m experimenting with using different tools to post to Contentious.com. Here’s the first one:

My Tumblr Experiment

I’m doing this because some of my clients use fairly complex content management systems, where each post requires a surprising number of steps.

Most commonly, here’s what site contributors must do…

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The Stereogram Approach to Finding the Meaning of Life

Gary W. Priester (Click image to enlarge.)
Often, the first challenge in life is simply to see the target.

I really used to hate stereograms.

When they became popular in the early 1990s, they often reduced me to serious frustration and headaches. I would stare at them — glare at them, really — trying to will their embedded 3D images to leap out. Everyone else seemed to enjoy these hidden illusions with ease. But my eyes and brain stubbornly refused to do the trick.

Then one day, I realized that I was looking at a dolphin. I just glanced at the cover of a book of stereogram art, and there it was. I was delighted to discover that the image wasn’t “leaping out” at me — rather, I was “seeing into” it. I wasn’t even sure how I’d started to see the hidden picture. All of the sudden, and quietly, it just worked.

Years later, I’ve come to realize that whenever I’ve identified a key mission or purpose I should pursue, it’s emerged (very much like that dolphin) from the background of the world around me. I get a sense that some vision is waiting to be seen, and I prepare my mind to be open to it. Then eventually I see it, and it feels like I always should have seen it.

In contrast, whenever I’ve tried the top-down, primarily rational (rather than intuitive) approach to choosing a course in life, I usually end up not really wanting what I’ve been working for, or liking what I’ve done — which is frustrating and demoralizing on many levels.

I’ve been quiet on this blog lately, mostly because I’ve been spending more time conversing, research, reading, and journaling. To be honest, I’ve been searching for purpose. For a couple of years now — although I’ve been doing a lot of interesting work, meeting a lot of interesting people, and learning a lot of interesting things — privately I’ve been feeling like I’ve been flailing around, seeking direction and purpose.

Finally, I feel like the picture is starting to emerge. Here is the outline so far…
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I’m trying out Seesmic: Twitter meets YouTube

I’m trying out the new video-based social media service Seesmic, based on recommendations by Paul Bradshaw and other colleagues. It seems kind of rough so far, but I’m used to rough.

Here’s what I like and don’t like about it so far…

(UPDATE: Heh… OK, another thing I don’t like.. Apparently embedding a Seesmic video in a WordPress blog like this one isn’t as easy as it should be. Obviously, it’s not playing. Bummer. For now, here’s a link to my video post.)

Also, I haven’t yet investigated how mobile-friendly Seesmic is. Would be nice if you could combine some of the live/mobile functionality of Qik here.

Follow me on Seesmic: I’m agahran there. Send me a video! Tell me what you think of Seesmic so far. I’ve also enabled the Seesmic widget for this blog ,so you can see my latest video posts in the sidebar. I’ve also activated video comments for this blog.