Tuesday, September 23, 2008

JTM on YouTube: The Friday Morning Panel Discussion

Jump ahead: Here's my portion of the panel discussion Bill Densmore led us in on June 6 at the Minnesota Public Radio studios (same room where they record Saint Paul Sunday Morning! Very cool!)

Below you can see the other segments that have been posted to YouTube. You can also see the hourlong program in its entirety here.

Michelle Ferrier:

Griff Wigley, Northfield, Minnesota:

Julia Opoti:

Lynn Chakoian:

Patrick Phillips:

Melissa Cornick:

Peggy Holman:

Tim Erickson:

Sunday, July 13, 2008

6/5 Morning: Peggy Holman and Open Space Technology

This post is more about organizers structured the JTM gathering, but there may be some lessons/insights for how we run our community websites.

Peggy Holman facilitated our sessions. She refers to her conference-organizing method as Open Space Technology. We're not talking hardware and software; rather, Open Space Technology is a method of getting conference participants to interact, contribute, and create.

Here's how it worked at JTM on Thursday:

After our opening sessions, there were three blocks of time but no speakers set on our program. We'd been asked prior to the gethering to think about sessions we ourselves would like to convene. Our sessions didn't have to take the form of, "I know a lot about X and want to tell everybody about it." We were invited to convene a session along the lines of, "I don't know jack about X, but I sure wish I did, so come talk with me about it." As Peggy said as she got us going, "Questions are invitations for others to join us."

So Thursday morning, Peggy set out a bunch of blank papers and markers and invited us to convene sessions by writing down a title, announcing it at the microphone, and then posting the title (and location—room, corner, general direction, etc.) on the wall in one of the time blocks. Then we could all look at the wall, decide which sessions we thought we could learn from and/or contribute to, and go.

Talk about a marketplace of ideas! (Peggy's webpage refers to a "marketplace of inquiry.")

Peggy didn't try to control the sessions, but she did lay out her four principles for Open Space Technology, which she said apply as much to conferences as to our online work:
  1. Whoever comes is the right people.
  2. Whatever happens is the only thing that could happen.
  3. When it starts is the right time.
  4. When it's over, it's over.
My interpretations:
  1. The people who show up are there because they are motivated to listen, to speak, to learn about what you posted as your title or mission. They're the people you want. Don't sweat trying to recruit everybody else; let them come as they wish.
  2. We can argue about predestination later; for now, let things evolve and happen. Don't sweat control.
  3. Don't be a slave to the clock (Peggy said this!). Folks might come in and out. They might be "late" because they were having a good conversation or just needed a donut or a break. Go with the flow, not the ticking of the clock.
  4. Ditto! If people are still engaged, stay engaged! If the conversation runs out, we've said all we need to say.
Peggy also presented the Law of Two Feet: Open Space meetings like this work when each participant walks with one foot of passion and one foot of responsibility to go where she/he wants to be. Passion here means going where you want to go (and that's where you should go). Responsibility means you don't go to or stay in a session for any other reason than your interest. If you find a session isn't interesting, isn't helping you, isn't something you can contribute to, don't just sit there; go! It's o.k. You have a responsibility to yourself and to your host not to simply take up space in a session.

Now this feels like high-wire stuff: it feels like Open Space Technology could so easily fall flat with certain groups, especially if they are expecting a nice passive lecture rather than a more interactive, participatory experience. But at JTM—holy cow! We had a roomful of people who've started blogs and websites, who want to connect. Zoom! Up went the titles, around the wall schedule we crowded, and off we went to these floating conversations. It looks like chaos, but then that's how self-organization works. Self-organization—that's a key term here!

Now think about how this applies to a community website:
  • You can't force people to participate, and you wouldn't want to.
  • You the website founder/manager can establish ground rules and contribute ideas, but let your community members start their own conversations, too. Ideas, conversation, and action will coalesce where there is true passion and responsibility.
  • You don't have to be the oracle. You don't want to be the oracle. Ask questions to invite others to participate, to lead.
Think a little more, and you can probably come up with other applications of Open Space Technology to community websites. I'm going to keep thinking about self-organization. (We are all fractals... ;-) )

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

6/5 Morning: John Nichols: "Be Online... Be Real"

John Nichols writes for The Nation and is an associate editor for the Madison (Wisconsin!) Capital Times, which gave up printing an afternoon daily this year and shifted to online news as its main product. He knows whereof he speaks with respect to journalism and the Internet, and he's fired up to tell us about it. Here's a lot of what he said:

"What we're doing now online is all about mistakes... massive mistakes." But, says Nichols, the mistake-makers will figure out the solutions we need. No one knows how to do online citizen journalism, so we all have to figure it out by doing, failing, fixing, and doing more.

"The people you are writing for are not consumers." (Gee, where have I heard that before?) It's an insult to call them that. The citizens-as-consumers mindset is killing the mainstream media.

"What you do will save American democracy." (No pressure there.)

Nichols tells us there is no such thing as "Big-J Journalism." A paycheck is a sign of union membership, not profession. He offers the simplest definition of journalist heard this week, the "only definition that matters":

journalist: somebody who gathers information and conveys it to others.

"Journalism ethics is a lie" that actually harms journalism. The corporate media dreamed up the concept in the early 20th century to justify its lies. Only personal ethics exist.

Print newspapers will be dead in 20 years. If we want to create successful replacements with online newspapers, here's what Nichols says we need to do:
  1. Make the digital presence primary. Print editions are cool, too, a nice safety net, but don't worry! People want online news. They'll come to it! With content, too, don't save up the good stuff for the print edition. Online readers deserve the big news, too.
  2. Produce that online news regularly. People want something as reliable and regular as the newspaper on their doorstep. Operate on a schedule: a successful online newspaper is not a hobby blog!
  3. Keep high standards.
  4. Report what's happening now, not what you thought of yesterday. Again, we're not just blogging: we're keeping people in touch with what's happening around town.
  5. Don't measure success by hits. Put down the SiteMeter: the mainstream media have gotten sucked into Nielsen ratings, market share, etc., and they're dying because of that focus. Instead (oh, this is going to be hard), measure success by how you influence the course of the days you live in.
"Be online, but don't be virtual. Be real."

Monday, June 30, 2008

6/5: Briefing on Citizen Journalism

Some semi-random notes from our large-group morning session:

CommunityBlogs.us: Hey! That's the outfit sponsoring the web side of the South Dakota Horizons project! South Dakota's 21 sites in the project are among 150+ such "visioning projects" in the upper Plains. Our speaker says the project is having "mixed success."

One fun characterization of what community websites do: "Random Acts of Journalism."

Visualizing the news is a big deal.
  • Bakersfield.com offers a pothole map where readers can mark potholes. Visual and interactive!
  • Charticles: combine text, photos, and graphics. Print media love 'em; we can turbocharge them online.
  • J-Lab launched a "Fix Your Commute" project in Everett, Washington, that gave commuters a clickable map to give their input on traffic problems.
News games: combine fantasy football with your state legislature, let people bet on and trade bills before your House and Senate.

Food chain metaphor: perhaps citizen journalism is the plankton to the big media whales. I'd really rather not be the green gunk in anyone's baleen, but the metaphor does suggest a healthier metaphor, more of an ecosystemic partnership. The whales don't just eat us; they need us to thrive and be everywhere. An ocean with nothing but whales is a dead ocean.

Parajournalism: The Fort Myers News-Press (another Gannett paper with the same online template as the Sioux Fall Argus Leader) is trying out citizen writers. They called for applications, got 100, accepted 20, did a little training, and now have these volunteers going about getting stories for the online edition. We can see similar efforts at YourHub.com (Colorado) and TribLocal.com (Chicago suburbs). Such efforts are "high-touch" (that term again!), requiring very active mentoring, editing, and support.

Former journalists are getting in the act, too: see the New Haven Independent and MinnPost.com.

Community Journalism Characteristics: Whoever's doing it, here are some characteristics you'll recognize among the citizen journalists:
  • Passion for community and strong sense of place.
  • Paying attention to their community.
  • Feel their community is underserved by other media.
  • Had journalism "done to them" at some point.
  • High ethics.
Citizen journalism and democracy: what a pair! We are good for democracy. The Knight Foundation attributes increased voter turnout to the efforts of The Forum in Deerfield, New Hampshire. One of their big features (which turned into a print edition) was a municipal election feature. The Forum founder Maureen Mann was also asked by her neighbors to run for legislature! (Mann won the special election last January. Wow -- public school teacher and online journalist in public office... could be a dangerous combo!)

Note also the abovementioned Everett commuter map project: 2500 people gave their input. You just can't get input like that at the typical public meeting. No one is saying get rid of public meetings, but online journalism and even government-sponsored outreach efforts offer more channels for gathering information on which citizens and officials can base their decisions.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

6/5: Richard Anderson, VillageSoup.com

Richard Anderson joins us for breakfast by Skype to tell us about his project, VillageSoup.com.

Anderson says newspapers have to expand to become community hosts. To understand what he means, think of the difference between a lecture and a trade show and how differently you would organize each. If you were organizing a lecture, you'd get a big hall with a stage and lots of seats, a podium, a microphone, maybe some special lighting. Everything would be set up to focus attention on the presenters and separate them from the audience. If you were organizing a trade show, you'd arrange for lots of booths in a common hall, chairs more dispersed and arranged for numerous simultaneous small conversations and just plain resting between visits, maybe a few larger spaces set aside for feature presentations. You'd create a much more interactive, fluid space which exhibitors and visitors alike would customize—exhibitors with their various displays, visitors with their different patterns of movement and attention throughout the exhibit hall.

We can see the same distinctions between newspapers and real community websites. Newspapers follow the lecture model:
  • main speakers (the journalism staff)
  • passive listeners and underwriters (readers and sponsors),
  • fixed presentation stage (the printed paper).
Community websites (at least the juicy participatory ones we're trying to create) can follow the trade show model:
  • shifting roles: an exhibitor may take a break from her booth and walk around for an hour to learn from other exhibitors. A visitor may strike up a conversation with a vendor and find himself pitching his own business to the vendor. Likewise on the community website, you may go from a reader to a writer, a learner to a teacher, in a second. An advertiser may also jump into the conversation, or may just sit back and learn from the chatter among other readers about her services. Everyone is a partner, able to participate in a number of ways.
  • instant interaction: Q&A is not a separate time at the end or a limited space on page 3. Interaction is everywhere, all the time!
  • less control of message: the trade show creates a space where a lot of talk takes place that may not fit under the narrow definition of the show's mission but which serves as community glue. There are also a lot more people deciding what to talk about, and they may talk about everything, not just the highlights preferred by the editorial board or Chamber of Commerce.
To make a "virtual community expo" like this work, Anderson says you need to be an expert on your community while remaining a peer and partner. You have to be able to see the big picture, but you still stand in the place where you live.

Worried about that message-control thing? Don't be: remember that trade shows work even with competing products and services on display, even with some vendors talking smack about other vendors in the hall. We can compete and disagree and still thrive.

Anderson echoes Matt Thompson's comment yesterday: Attitude is more important than technology!

Some business nuts-and-bolts: Anderson finds a key to VillageSoup.com's success is letting businesses post whatever and whenever. He has 300 businesses that pay $19.95 a week (that's $1000 a year per biz!) for the privilege of posting items to front page BizOffers® column. Heck of a deal for instant interactive ads that no other medium can offer.

Monday, June 16, 2008

6/4 Evening: Patchwork Nation

So many sessions to choose from—there's no way I could capture it all. We closed the evening by breaking up into a bunch of small sessions. I attended one hosted by Dante Chinni, who talked about Patchwork Nation, the project he directs for the Christian Science Monitor.

Patchwork Nation is cool in numerous ways. The title comes from the map that shows every county in the U.S. defined as one of 11 community types. The main map shows each county as the one type it fits the most. For more detail, you can click on each community type and see just how much each type appears in the DNA of different places. For instance, you might see two counties listed as Evangelical Epicenters, but you might find that one is strong in that category and not in any others, while another county is only slightly higher in the EE category than in two or three other categories, suggesting more diversity in that latter community.

O.K., I could play with the demographics alone all night. For us bloggers, Patchwork Nation is not just a source of cool stats. The citizen-journalism side of the project is the bloggers CSM has recruited from each type of community across the nation. These bloggers give the local perspective on the 2008 Presidential campaign... the real local perspective, not just the perspective as perceived and filtered by the big-media journalist who parachutes in for a day or two, gets a few quotes, then writes her story on the plane back to New York City.

This project feels a little like the GIMBY stuff Ned Hodgman talked about Thursday (that's a separate post -- stay tuned!). CSM is focusing Patchwork Nation on the Presidential campaign, but it could so easily be tapped for following the impact of politics, economics, cultural events, you name it on diverse portions of the country, on local communities whose voices just aren't sampled by the media in any systematic fashion. This project is the kind of journalism that can assemble a lot fo small pictures into a better big picture than we usually get from the media. Very cool.

6/4 Evening: "Legacy Media"

I heard the term "legacy media" for the first time at this conference. Why am I always the last one to hear this stuff? A quick Google search pins the term's origins at least to 1998. This 2004 discussion treats the term as relatively new... but isn't everything we're doing new?

Computer folks refer to old hardware and software as "legacy systems," the old junk that folks still patch into the network, even though the original vendors stopped supporting it (or disappeared from the market) years ago. So legacy media would be the old media, the mainstream newspapers, radio, and television that used to dominate the market and now finds itself sharing mindspace with the new journalism of the Internet.

Legacy carries the loaded suggestion that the media so tagged are dead-end enterprises, on life-support, waiting to die. The term is thus more argumentative than descriptive: calling the Sioux Falls Argus Leader "legacy media" stakes out your advocacy of the argument that the mainstream media will die, or at least mutate into something unrecognizable. Any one of us could turn out to be legacy media. Blogs, wikis... how long until the kids with the next new idea start calling us legacy media to hasten our demise?

Suppose we finally kill off big media... yikes! No more New York Times for me to quote on my blog! Where would we get all the news that we talk about?

Don't worry: someone would go get those stories and make them available. We'd go back to some 19th-century-style correspondence... and we might still find the stories that interest us just as quickly, thanks to Google and the joys of search. We all can be storytellers; we all can contribute a little bit to the collective knowledge and make that little bit available to everyone.

A related note: Remember the Cray supercomputer? Now there's a legacy system I'd like to have in the basement. And they're still in business! Anyway, Arnie mentioned that the Cray supercomputer, once the fastest computer in the world, was replaced by a thousand PCs. You don't build one massive machine; you just wire a whole bunch of regular everyday machines together and get them working together. (The majority of the 500 fastest supercomputers today are computer clusters... and over 3/4 of those 500 supercomputers run Linux... open source software.)

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