The Emerging Future of Crowdsourced Journalismr

Jeff_HoweWe are in the midst of a gigantic experiment in journalism – seeing if crowssourcing can work effectively alongside traditonal reporting.  In a post on hte Online Journalism Review, Robert Niles defined crowdsourced journalism in the following way:

Crowdsourcing, in journalism, is the use of a large group of readers to report a news story. It differs from traditional reporting in that the information collected is gathered not manually, by a reporter or team of reporters, but through some automated agent, such as a website.

In his recent book, Crowdsourcing:  Why the Power of the Crowd Is Driving the Future of Business, Jeff Howe (right) recounts some examples from the history of crowdsourced journalism, including:

Assignment Zero – Assignment Zero was a short term experiment – the brainchild of Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University, working in collaboration with WIRED magazine. The idea behind the project was to use the combined skills of a crowd to write a comprehensive report on the growth of crowdsourcing.  While the project failed to meet its original goal of 80 usable articles, it did achieve some modest success and highlighted some of the organizational factors that were important in managing a crowssourced reporting operation. – This political blog posted documents from the investigation into the firing of US attorneys during the Bush administration.  By crowdsourcing the document review to interested citizens, the blog was able to quickly parse through the mass of data to expose potential malfeasance.


Jeff Howe – Crowdsourcing

gas buddy websiteMore recently, we’ve seen numerous examples of Twitter, the micro-blogging service, being used by traditional journalists to get raw materials from a developing story reported by citizens as it unfolds.  The Iranian election protests showed that crowd reporting could effectively counter even strict government constraints on the regular media.  One applications of crowdsourced reporting includes situation where online reports by individuals contribute to a bigger picture view of a story that would be impossible for one reporter or even a small team of reporters to piece together.  Examples cited by Niles include:

  • Earthquake reports across a wide region
  • Reports of gas prices – e.g. during the recent gasoline price bubble
  • Accident Watch – This allowed citizens to report theme park accidents from around the country when such data was not forthcoming from federal or state agencies

citizen journalistJust as newspapers and other media organizations have added bloggers to extend their traditional reporting, it seems likely that crowdsourced journalism will rise as news has to be reported with ever shrinking professional staffs.  The lessons learned from the first experiments in this area show that the most successful partnerships combine the data gathering power of widely dispersed individuals organized into a project based community, supervised by professionals with the appropriate editorial skills and journalistic savvy.

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Electric Storytelling

electric literature - reading thats bad for youThe new magazine, Electric Literature may represent the future for literary fiction in the age of new media.  The publication is a bi-monthly anthology of short fiction.  The first issue features stories by such literary notables as Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Cunningham and National Book Award finalist Jim Shepard.

The magazine’s structure is very basic; each issue has just five short stories, anchored by big-name authors.  The goal according to founders Andy Hunter and Scott Lindenbaum is to “facilitate a renaissance of the short story.”  As Mr. Hunter remarked in a recent interview with Ron Charles at the Washington Post:

If there’s any kind of hesitation, it’s from people who don’t really believe that a literary publication is viable. We started this publication to prove them wrong. There’s a human need for storytelling that hasn’t gone away just because print is having problems. We want to bring short fiction to an age that’s more mobile and doesn’t have the time to settle into a long text.

Electric Literature has a novel business model.  The magazine subscription price is based delivery format – $5 for the online version and $10 for the print version.  The magazine is also available now on the iPhone.  The publication’s circulation target is 20,000.

But what sets Electric Literature apart is what it pays its authors – $1,000, a fee certain to attract top writing talent.  The mostly electronic delivery and POD print model helps hold down production costs.  The publication is also tapping in to social media as part of its promotional strategy – using trailers on YouTube and Vimeo for the featured authors and stories.


Jim Shepard’s video – “Your Fate Hurtles Down at You”

Not everyone is convinced that Electric Literature’s model is the way to go.  For example, R.M Ellis of Ward Six writes:

. . . maybe I’m old, but I’m pretty typical of many readers of literary fiction, and I still haven’t shifted over to reading fiction on line, or on a screen of any kind.

But even Mr. Ellis later admits that “maybe I should start reading on-line fiction. It’s the future…”  Electric Literature will face stiff competition from more established literary magazines, including its free online rival, Narrative.  But it’s innovative business model combined with the passion of its founders for first rate storytelling could help rewrite the future of literary fiction.

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Julie and Julia – The Blook Goes to Hollywood

365 days. 536 recipes. One girl and a crappy outer borough kitchen.
Julie Powell (The Julie / Julia Project – August 25, 2002)

Julie and Julia movie posterBlog to book success stories have been around for awhile.  Now Julie & Julia has entered new territory – making a profitable  transition from blog to book to movie.  The first month’s box office receipts topped $70 million.  Sales of Julie & Julia (the book – Amazon rank 90) were brisk and Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Amazon rank 4) have sold more this past month than they did in entire years past.

julie_powellFor the aspiring writer, are there attributes that augur well for a blog in terms of turning it into a book and perhaps a movie?  What was it that made Julie & Julia a hit?  Here are some thoughts:

  • Celebrity – The blog involves a celebrity – in this case Julia Child.  What made the whole thing interesting was that she would have the conversation with Julia Child (who was not supportive of the blog) as well as her readers.
  • Drama – Julie Powell made herself the story; setting out her challenge in a very pubic way.  And she had a definite deadline; there was no ambiguity about whether she would succeed or flop.
  • That could be me! – Julie Powell took on the fears of EveryCook – preparing difficult recipes and sharing all her travails with her audience.  Each day, her readers could empathize with her discouragements and celebrate her triumphs, but be glad they weren’t going through it themselves.  In some respects, it was like reality TV.

All the right elements for any good story. The blogging medium might be new, but the formula for success is age old.  Bon appetit!


Julie & Julia movie trailer

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How Authors are Hacking the Twitter Spew

neal stephensonThe term Spew refers to the torrent of information spilling out over the Web.  It was an image first conjured up by author Neal Stephen.  Today the term could serve equally well as a description for the tsunami of tweets pouring forth from Twitter-ers across the globe.  Individuals and organizations have discovered many interesting uses for Twitter:

  • A research tool to plug into the raw elements of news stories while they are unfolding –  e.g. the Tehran protests
  • Live blogging at conferences
  • Distributing news stories – e.g. CDC using Twitter to get the news out swine flu
  • Mobilizing customers – e.g. the bakery in San Francisco that updates local customers on when its sumptuous peach pies are coming out of the oven


Top Twitter Tools Exposed & Explained at Lightning Speed

Not to be left out of the Twitter-mania, authors have also started using the tool to support their book development and marketing efforts.

  • Seek assistance with research for your book
  • Build a following that you can direct to your longer blog posts
  • Respond to comments about your book
  • Announce events such as readings, appearances and book signings
  • Delivering sample book content
  • Share news stories (and pictures) related to your book

twitter-toolsA plethora of Twitter apps are now available to make all these task easier.  The most comprehensive list I have found so far is at Mashable.  Want to follow some authors, agents or the publishing industry?  Try this starter list from Maria Schneider’s blog.  And if you want to track and quantify all your tweet followers and activities, there is a list of excellent Twitter analytics tools available at Social Media Today


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Story Seeds & Micro-lives

bonsai tree in containerEvery life is a complex story.  Our particular story is shaped by milestone experiences and important relationships whose consequences  unfold over time and ultimately define us like the living sculpture that emerges from the careful prunings of a young bonsai tree   Several sites have built large followings by allowing individuals to share their stories and secrets in a micro-format; in this case a postcard.  Like the dwarf bonsai tree, the art that results is due in part to the constraint imposed by the container.

For authors looking for character sketches or a good idea to build a story around, these sites can be invaluable.  Two of the most notable sites in this regard are PostSecret and Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story.

PostSecret – This is a site where individuals share their ecrets in pubic.  They submit their secrets on a post card and mail it – yes snail mail – to the Post Secret PO box.  The site’s founder, Frank Warren, then pubishes a new batch of secrets every Sunday evening.  Some of the ssecrets are humorous, others naughty, while many touch on very dark areas of the sender’s life experience.  Most individuals have presented their secrets in a compelling and artful fashion.


Postsecret Confessions

Michel Writes Your Life Story – This site is a variant of the postcard theme used by Post Secret.  Individuals tell their story to Michael Kimball, the site’s owner, who then renders a micro-biographysized to fit on the back of a postcard.  According to an interview with Madelaine Brand on NPR, Kimball began doing this in response to a friend’s challenge to turn his writing into performance art.  Kimball demonstrates a knack for extracting the meaningful core of each individual’s story. 

Madeleine Brand life story on postcard

There are many useful toolsto help authors develop character profiles with depth and powerful story ideas .  Drawing on this public psychography may be a productive means to jump start  the imagination.  The sites above reinforce the old adage that truth is often more interesting than fiction.

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After the Page

sumerian-clay-tabletSince the development of written language, mankind has experimented with different reading “devices” and formats.

  • Inscription on the walls of dwelling spaces or public buildings
  • Engravings on clay tablets
  • Scrolls
  • Bound books with pages

Over the last two thousand years or so the bound book reading experience has become so ubiquitous it is difficult to imagine any other way to read.  The structure that surrounds our reading experience has slipped beneath the level of our consciousness.  The only thing that surprises us is when a book comes with an odd trim size, similar to the micro jolt we get when someone hands us an odd sized business card.   

early bound bookEvery readng device has its opportunities and tyrannies.  The page in the bound book of today provides a simple unit of reading; the total number of pages lets us know in advance how much information a book contains or how much effort will be needed to read it.  Page numbers and headers provide useful reference points.  But the price of paper and ink limits the information that can be conveyed.  This has always been the problem with all previous reading devices:  the cost of the physical medium used to convey the information scaled with the amount of information.

But electronic reading devices offer an escape from that hard rule.  E-reading or reading with the aid of software offers us new opportunities (and doubtless many tyrannies as well). 

  • Extension – Linking to related material
  • Search – Finding without the need for page numbers or indexes
  • Filtering – Hiding irrelevant or uninteresting parts of the book; especially useful for second readings
  • Layering – Accessing additional information (e.g. pictures and / or background material) via layers that can be turned on or off under reader control
  • Annotation – Adding / editing your personal annotations (actually part of layering)
  • Sharing – Connecting to your favorite reading groups and sharing your comments and quotes from the book
  • Apps – Simple applications that make the reading more enjoyable – e.g. embedded dictionaries, automatic translation to another language and summarization of key information.  For fiction this might include summaries of the story to the point where you last left off to refresh your memory between reading sessions.  Innovative developers will find ways to extend the capabilities of our reading devices similar to what has been done for the iPhone.
  • Multiple modalities – Switch between reading and listening
  • Metrics – Tracking personal stats on everything you’ve read

Like it or not, over time our books will become more like computers and we will expect them to the things that computers do.  Our long standing reading model will change as the physical nature of our primary reading device changes.  The big limitation may become, not physical cost, but reader attention.

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My Numbers, Myself – Personal Reading Metrics

personal-metricsPersonal metrics – information that we collect about ourselves – have a natural appeal.  We want to be better – if we can measure something about ourselves and optimize it, we will.  Today that process is becoming easier with the help of sensors to collect personal data and web sites that help us make sense of it.  Individuals are keeping track of all kinds of personal data – including caloric intake, how much we’ve exercised (e.g. Nike + iPod video below), the state of our finances.  This is what Gary Wolf in a recent Wired article referred to as “self knowledge through numbers.”


Nike+iPod in action

So why not personal reading metrics?  We capture general statistics about reading levelsof the population.  And with a little bit of mathematical dexterity it is possible to calculate our per capita consumption of books.  But this doesn’t tell us anything interesting about our individual reading habits.  e-Book readers offer a platform that could help us collect and track information about what and how we read.

For starters we could track:

  • Total books read over a given time period; also categorized into genre or type
  • Books never completed (similarly categorized)
  • Average number of pages and words per session
  • Average length of each reading session (which could yield average reading speed) and time between reading sessions
  • Amount of reading by time of day

Data could be uploaded to websites with the appropriate algorithms and graphing capability to take care of the analysis and trending for us.  By providing just a little of additional personal data, we could even benchmark ourselves against other readers with similar demographics.  Anonymized aggregates of such data could provide publishers with valuable information about their titles and readership.

Such metrics might be viewed as self indulgent.  But, given the natural inclination to improve our stats,  they could spur us to read more.

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Reinventing the Community Newspaper – An Interview with Paul Baron of logoThe failure of newspapers in the United States has become a commonplace occurrence over the last few years.  Newspapers are in the middle of a perfect storm– declining readership, higher prices for paper and newsprint, and intense competition for ad dollars.  It is not yet clear how the gap left by these newspaper closings will be filled, but many experiments with new publishing models are underway.  One such experiment is the, an online newspaper franchise founded in 2003 by Paul Baron. 

Paul BaronPaul Baron is a successful serial entrepreneur who enjoys taking on tough challenges.  He relished the opportunity to create what’s next for the future of journalism.  Before starting the, he had already demonstrated his business acumen through telemarketing, mass-communication advancements, and even a popular New York restaurant.  Today he is focused on filling what he sees as the growing gap in community news throughout the country.   The company, headquartered in Georgia,  now operates more than 500 internet-based news sites across the United States.  I recently had the opportunity to ask Paul about his business and how he sees the emerging future of online journalism.

FPP:  How did you first get involved in online journalism and what was your motivation to start the

PB:  The community in which I live, a suburb of Metro Atlanta, was being underserved by the regional newspaper. They were losing money, cutting costs, and the first areas cut to save money were the advertising, reporting, and distribution of the news and information relevant to the smaller local communities around the city.

FPP:  Can you briefly describe the evolution and growth of the since its inception?

PB:  A local entrepreneur, who is now my technical operations manager, founded an online news site to serve the community of Cumming, GA. He created, which due to my prior observation and the realities of the dwindling coverage from the print media, became a hit with the community. While attracting a large percentage of the local population and many local advertisers seeking to attract a community audience to their products or services, I realized this model of hyper-local online news could be expanded to serve any community in the US … or anywhere.

FPP:  How does the basic business model work?

PB:  I formed to establish added value to the site that started this model. I also wanted to create the systems, training, and support that would make it attractive, affordable, and easy to manage as a ‘turn-key’ business for anyone from the experienced journalist wanting to stay in touch with the issues of importance to the community in which he or she lives, to the stay-at-home mom or dad with some basic creative writing skills or otherwise connected to the community through organizations like the PTA, government, chamber of commerce, Rotary, etc. We also leverage the national presence of our 520+ sites today, with national advertisers that would never be likely to advertise with a local paper, but being able to deliver a total national audience with local focus is a key differentiator to the business model. A franchisee can acquire a single community site for only $4,995.00 – including complete setup, training, and support to get started. Ongoing support is included as well, for a small monthly fee that includes placement of all ads, coupons, images & video, and the software technology to deliver the content from local reporting or advertorials.

FPP:  What is the coverage area of a typical HometownTimes online newspaper?

PB:  A small community of 10,000 – 100,000 is the typical coverage area; although multiple adjacent communities can be “bundled” to offer a better business opportunity to the local franchisee and value to local advertisers.

FPP:  How does each paper establish its advertising base? Is the advertising all local or do you also supply ads through ad networks?

PB:  The responsibility of the local owner/franchisee or reporters is to acquire local ads. Many local establishments may be franchises (e.g. Subway, Jiffy Lube, Mr. Handyman, etc.) or national brand companies (like airlines, cable companies, Starbucks, Home Depot, etc.); and, as a company, secures national ad agreements and shares that revenue with our franchisees at the local level. We encourage our local owners to market their sites to the local community through traditional means (direct mail, posters in stores, billboards, ads in local print publications, etc.), networking organizations, becoming involved in the community, and by building original content onto their sites to attract both readers and advertisers.

FPP:  How is content produced for each online paper in the family? Is there a basic formula to help determine the mix or is it up to each franchisee?

PB:  Our franchisees are provided our Content Management software and training to use this very easy to learn, intuitive application. They write their own stories, solicit content from their advertisers, or others in the community. Our training includes identification of sources. We also have our own proprietary software that can capture information, events, and post this to the sites – that service carries a very small fee, but is very useful in getting such items as obituaries, concert events, and more.

FPP:  What is the profile of a typical franchise owner? Are there specific traits or background that you have found that make an owner more likely to be successful?

PB:  The successful local publisher/franchisee can be a stay-at-home mom/pop, an executive retiring who wants to be connected to the community through networking, a college graduate out of journalism or business school, or an experienced reporter or ad salesperson seeking to work from home. It can also be a more experienced general businessperson seeking to manage a team of reporters and salespersons, and who can take over a larger territory to manage the smaller community sites within that territory or metro market.

FPP:  Many large daily newspapers have closed their doors in recent years. Do you see the same thing happening to smaller local/community print publications?

PB:  Yes, if they don’t take advantage of technology to reach the audience they serve through, minimally, a responsive online version that complements and adds value for readers and advertisers.

FPP:  What is competitive advantage against established community papers?

PB:  National presence with local footprints and focus. And our technology and features that have proven to gain traction with readers and deliver value to advertisers. We’re using social networking, not in the traditional sense, but to quickly report news or information that might benefit those who have expressed interest in specific events or activities. For example, we can use Twitter or Facebook to alert a community of subscribers who have requested notifications of weather warnings, traffic jams, or the results of Friday night’s high school football game. Mobile text messaging is used to drive customers to stores offering a special discount to our readers.

FPP:  How would you like to see evolve in the next few years?

PB:  We want to provide a path to employment or financial independent ownership to thousands of people across the US. We see 3,000 community sites with franchisees delivering high-value local news, information, and events to their local audience and driving customer traffic to help their fellow local small businesses succeed and thrive. Also, we want to promote communication and interaction and growth to our country’s small towns. And, of course, we would like to see financial rewards go to our employees, shareholders, advertisers, partners, and franchisees.

FPP:  What do you see as the long term future of news journalism in America in the coming years?

PB:  It will only thrive with the technology that continues to leverage real time reporting and interaction with audiences. Those companies and solutions that take advantage and deliver a quality product will thrive. looks forward to a bright future for journalism, journalists, readers, and America’s small businesses and communities – we are grateful for the opportunity to be a part of this emerging business model to serve communities at the local level to improve the quality of those residents and businesses.

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Matching Book Trailer Venues with Audience Expectations

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Sheila Clover-EnglishBook Vid Lit

by Sheila Clover-English

Sheila Clover English, the CEO of Circle of Seven Productions, is a pioneer in book video production, marketing and distribution for authors and publishers.

A couple of weeks ago I attended a film festival where several book trailers were played on a movie theater screen. Sitting in the dark, popcorn in hand, surrounded by others in the audience, I realized that the way I felt about the videos on the movie screen was different than how I responded watching them online.   Though the content was identical, my experience of the videos was quite different when delivered on different platforms.

The fact is that different platforms come with different expectations from the audience. Mobile phone platforms feel suited best to short form video of 10, 15 or 30 seconds. Yes, people will accept longer videos, but only if the videos are chosen by the viewer through a venue such as YouTube or some similar site on which the viewer knows longer forms reside.

movie on iPhoneMy daughter downloaded the movie Boltto her iPod and she has watched it several times.  But she chose that long form to put on her portable device.  iPods and the iPod Touch are platforms where people can play entire movies, so a longer video is acceptable.

We are experimenting with video on portable devices.  Circle of Seven Productions (COS) offers video on mobile devices such as smart phones and iPhones and any other mobile phone device that allows for video. In addition we have video on the iPod, iPod Touch, PSP and even the Wii.  Again the feel of watching a video on each of those platforms can vary.

Watching the videos play on the large movie theater screen as though they were real movie trailers was thrilling. Even more thrilling was observing the audience around me as they watched them. The videos that appealed most to this audience were those that were acted out. True “book trailers.”  Priest of Blood, Lady of Serpents and One With the Shadowscaused quite a stir among the viewers. This particular crowd was there to watch independent films at a festival. The trailers were part of the festival, so there was a lot of audience chatter after each video played. The quality was incredible and so were the CGI effects. But that was expected on the big screen.

turbulent sea book trailerOnline video play has evolved and viewers have their own expectations, but again venues matter. YouTube videos can play up to 2 minutes without a general audience complaining about the length; as long as it is entertaining. MySpace is a little more tolerant of long form video as well, but Facebook is faster paced and the preference seems to go to shorter video.  Also, venues that are specific to readers want shorter videos unless the book is written by a celebrity author. The bigger the author’s name, the longer their video can be. Christine Feehan’s video for Turbulent Sea, which runs 2 minutes and has tens of thousands of views across the internet is an example of this. According to the analytics provided by YouTube the viewers watched the video all the way to the end.

If the video goes up as an ad it should be created as 10, 15 or 30 second spots according to the platform. For social media that is not specifically a reader site, 90 seconds is ideal. People on social sites want to feel that you are entertaining them, not advertising to them, so you have to be creative and you have to give them a little more for their time and attention.

We have taken a single video and cut it into several lengths for different platforms. One book trailer was cut into a 15 second then a 30 second video for online and television advertising, then a one minute spot for reader sites and a 2 minute spot for social sites. It seems like a lot of extra steps, but being more thoughtful of the delivery of your video and how the receiver/viewer reacts or interacts with the video can mean the difference between a sale or no-sale, entertained or annoyed.

Technology is ever-evolving and the end user continues to evolve in their expectations as well. Video is still hot, but it needs to be delivered to the venue and in the form most appropriate for the intended audience.

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Contemplating the Google-book

sony readerAccording to a report in the NY Times, Google is preparing to enter the e-book market and take on Amazon.   The delivery platform is unclear, but it does not appear that Google is favoring any particular e-book device at this time.  Details are also lacking about whether Google would support open standards or take a proprietary approach.  The e-book pricing hasn’t been finalized, but Google has hinted it would probably be more open than say with the Amazon Kindle. 

So let’s say that Google jumps into the e-book market in a major way.  How might this change the market?  Here are some speculations.

Google links e-books with Book Search.  While Google has said it has no plans to do this, it certainly is a strong possibility.  Books scanned today as PDFs can be scanned into e-book formats just as easily.  Search – view – purchase – download.  Seems logical.

Google becomes the Book Scan of e-books.  With its own reader or in partnership with reader manufacturers, Google tracks not only what e-books readers browse and purchase, but how they read them after purchase (think Google Analytics with a “phone home” capability).  Publishers use the anonym-ized information to better understand what readers really want.

Google redefines the e-book experience.  Again, with its own reader or in partnership with reader manufacturers, Google provides a more connected reading experience where book lovers can share what they’re reading with others online.  

Google embeds advertising in books.  Print books today often have a page or two in the back showcasing similar books of interest.  It wouldn’t be a stretch to include a Book Search type of capability in an e-book.  A connected reader could view the preview and make the purchase / download immediately.

Google becomes a publisher.  Google could provide tools to make it easy for authors to publish and market their works directly as e-books.  Absurd you say.  A short while ago you might have said it was absurd to think Google would be a bookseller. 


Growth in e-book revenues (data from IDPF, AAP)

Books in aggregate represent one of the largest storehouses of information on the planet.  Yet most of the information in books is not accessible to us online.  Google has the resources to tap into and monetize this infotopia.  Whether it willor not remains to be seen.  According to a recent Forrester report, the e-book market is ready to go mainstream and break out of its current niche status.  My only hope is that if Google is igoing to take the plunge, they do so boldly

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