public media
At the SXSW festivities this year, I moderated a panel on Innovation for NPR's Digital Day on March 8th. Panel included John Keefe - Senior editor at WNYC, Nico Leone - General Manager at KCUR, and Shazna Nessa - Deputy managing editor at Associated Press. I am grateful to the amazing panelists, who at my consistent urging shared stories of taking risk and bringing about change at their respective organizations. As you can imagine, change is not always easy at these sorts of places, and I'm enamored with the stories that smart people who can bring about change always seem to have.

The new ideas and experiences these three made real are quite different from one another, yet there are patterns to be found here; for example, in leveraging small victories, having big dreams and believing in your people.

At the VRM West Coast Workshop on May 15, I briefly presented The Six Key Traits of the proposed VRM ListenLog project. Each trait distinguishes the technology from a straightforward, local log file. Each differentiator is critical in highlighting what makes the ListenLog concept so powerful.

Listen to the bad audio while you click through the two slides. What could be a more informative way to spend six minutes?

My NPRbackstory experiment got some press this week when Josh Benton from Harvard's Neiman Journalism Lab published an in-depth piece on the utility. Josh and I had discussed the project last fall, right before I started working for NPR (the utility was cooked up as a homegrown effort to play with the API and is not officially endorsed by NPR). More recently, he saw an interesting backstory piece pop up on the Kentucky Derby and plumbed his own archives. I'm particularly excited by his focus on how the tool extracts value from existing news archives.

The piece ended up getting attention from Techmeme, Waxy.org, Christian Science Monitor, Journalism.co.uk, Poynter Online, and others.

And of course I'm grateful for all the positive mentions on twitter... and for my employer not pulling my API key when they found out what I had done ;-)

Update (June 7, 2009): Great coverage of NPR's forward thinking digital strategy highlighting NPRbackstory from Mashable and CBS News (Monday Note).

I recently had an enormous amount of fun working with Jesse Thorn from The Sound of Young America radio program putting together a panel for this year's Public Media Conference. Truth be told, he did all the hard work. I mostly adjusted microphones and fetched sandwiches. I can, however, take credit for helping come up with the original idea...

Most entrenched broadcasters are so good at doing what they do, they would never consider alternatives. Unfortunately, their methods attract a lackluster online audience because the traditional short-head approach aims to mostly please most everyone. To make things worse, they manage to tote along the baggage of bloated cost structures, plodding time-to-market, and a complete detachment from audience involvement.

This might have gone unnoticed if it weren't for several highly creative individuals who have figured out how to do things differently. They are using low cost tools, rapid-fire release schedules, free internet distribution, and an army of enthusiastic followers. Their creative products look nothing like what hits the mainstream - and this is often what makes them so compelling.

Listen in while Jesse talks with 43folders.com writer and podcaster Merlin Mann, Homestar Runner creators Mike and Matt Chapman (aka The Bros. Chaps), and Jeff Olsen, creative director for adultswim.com about the Internet, creativity, and, well, stuff.

Download this TSOYA episode (mp3)

I have written about the VRM ListenLog before, so I won't recount the basics.

One of the panels I sat on for the 2009 Public Media Conference was the mobile tech day panel along with folks from APM, PRX, NPR, and the Berkman Center. Here's the audio overview of my brief ListenLog presentation:

Check out the Public Radio Tuner project I talk about in the audio.

Internet solutions appear wherever finding, connecting, and sharing information with others is expensive or difficult. This is especially noticeable when individuals with similar interests but insufficient proximity are finally able to connect. Unsurprisingly, there are now sites bringing together global interest in speaking Klingon, knitting food, and collecting cookie fortunes.

But what about deploying internet technologies for people who are near one another? Certainly this technology isn’t just about bringing together far-flung hobbyists – there should be unresolved information needs that exist at a local level, as suggested by the buzz around hyperlocal news.

In determining these information needs, we must resist the temptation to focus on what media organizations proscribe or what is currently vanishing from existing news outlets. Instead, we should look at routine communication barriers that can be dismantled by internet-based solutions. This is surprisingly difficult to do, since we often don't see the barriers we face or recognize them as unnecessary. In order to determine where technology might be best deployed to address local needs, we must find situations where individual members of local communities are actively trying to find, connect, and share information with one another. Then we can look more closely at the difficulties, delays, and expenses that might be eliminated or reduced through more tailored use of online technology.

Looked at in this way, it becomes clear that finding and connecting with others nearby to exchange our stuff (craigslist.org), meet around shared interests (meetup.com), and initiate relationships (match.com) have all been remarkably successful. But what about sharing local news? Success with local news has been less pervasive and straightforward. Arguably, this is because existing solutions have not yet fully uncovered the true needs and barriers to sharing local news.

Another method for determining what these needs and barriers might be is to monitor online tools that excel at supporting a breadth of communications. Within these tools, we might find clusters of people who share geographic proximity and are actively communicating. Identifying patterns in communications or locations here will reveal which local needs may be benefiting most from the reduced friction of online communication.

Interestingly, most social networking tools provide little of this local communication. Both Linkedin and Facebook, for example, seem to excel at connecting out of touch and geographically disparate individuals. Things have started to shift, however, with the introduction of the short messaging system, Twitter. With Twitter, people are starting to connect with one another simply because they are nearby. Twitter seems different in this regard, and understanding how Twitter is different might just be the key to understanding where frictionless local communication holds the most promise.

Twitter saw its first big explosion in usage during the 2007 SXSW festival in Austin, TX. This was in large part due to the attendee’s unresolved need to connect with others at the conference. Ironic as this may seem, as you move around an event such as a conference, you become a mostly passive recipient of information, cut off from explicitly sharing the experience with others. Communication needs at large events like this range from broadcast heckles to simple queries around where your friends are, what events are attendance-worthy, and who to get to know. In my own experience, this proximity-effect of Twitter carries over into day-to-day situations as well - it becomes valuable to follow someone simply because they live near you. But why?

I believe one answer lies in the immediacy of the information that is shared. Specifically, it is surprisingly difficult to share information about what's going on right now amongst people near one other. As with SXSW, local twitter messages (tweets) are most valuable when they contain information about what is happening right now – often something that might affect me because of our relative proximity. For example, I might monitor the tweets from those I follow locally to know where they are or where they’re going so that I can (presumably) join them. It’s valuable to find out about something as it happens. I can always visit a traditional news source if I need to seek out a specific piece of information or learn of important happenings after the fact, but who’s going to let me know of something important going on right now? It's this active nature of twitter, filtered by real people, providing immediately sourced, proximal information that makes it so valuable. Nothing seems to match twitter for a real-time assessment of what I need to know about that’s going on near me.

Perhaps Twitter points to only one unresolved need – the need for immediate, proximal information, but I believe this need will blossom into a more significant source of local news and take different forms as it more seamlessly encourages useful sharing.

WBUR Hyperlocal Discussion Following a recent post and discussion on hyperlocal news, WBUR was kind enough to let me initiate an open discussion on the topic during their monthly meetup at the station.

Around 15 people participated in this discussion, including Lisa Williams from Placeblogger, Ben Terris from Boston.com's Your Town, Adam Weiss of Boston Behind the Scenes, Persephone Miel from Internews Network, and Doc Searls from Harvard's Berkman Center. You can hear the conversation here:

The conversation covers a wide range of topics, including:

  • Trends and directions of hyperlocal news. Where the emerging opportunities might be.
  • What the user demand might be around hyperlocal news - where the current gaps are in addressing user needs.
  • The rising importance of immediacy and speed of hyperlocal solution deployment
  • The problem of scale and searchability around hyperlocal sites
  • How hyperlocal sites and the online-offline proximity connection might address the human need for social cohesion

WBUR Tweetup

On the evening of Thursday, February 5th, WBUR in Boston will be hosing their sixth (seventh?) monthly informal gathering at the station. WBUR regularly convenes the Boston social media community for the purpose of facilitating discussion around social technology and its growing role and impact on local community, news, and public media. All are invited to attend this free and open event. Details here.

At this event, WBUR has agreed to let me lead a discussion on hyperlocal news - in part due to the good discussion that's stemmed from this hyperlocal blog post and my interest in doing a follow-up on hyperlocal's future potential. Won't you join us?

Keep an eye on this blog for a follow-up from the event.

everyblock.com crime map

The term "Hyperlocal" generally refers to community-oriented news content typically not found in mainstream media outlets and covering a geographic region too small for a print or broadcast market to address profitably. The information is often produced or aggregated by online, non-traditional (amateur) sources.

Hyperlocal news is conceptually attractive because of its perceived potential to rescue struggling traditional media organizations. Most attempts at hyperlocal news websites have not proven to be entirely successful. Hyperlocal appears attractive to traditional media organizations for the following reasons:

  1. There is a perceived demand for news at the neighborhood/community level. The costs of print production and distribution have historically made providing this unprofitable, but the lower cost of web distribution could be used to serve this need.
  2. In an online world, regional media outlets are no longer the gatekeeper of news content and therefore must rely on their geographic relevance to provide unique value. Hyperlocal news leverages geographic relevance.
  3. The rise of citizen journalism and Web 2.0 seems to suggest that users could provide the majority of local content, thereby reducing or eliminating staffing costs.
  4. Local online advertising seems like a promising and not yet fully tapped revenue source.

History & Approaches
Hyperlocal seems to have emerged as a popular concept in 2005, even while regional news websites and blogs were already becoming common1. In 2006-2007, the first significantly funded hyperlocal sites and platforms were launched. There were high-profile failures, most notably Backfence.com (2007) and LoudounExtra.com (from Washington Post in 2008). Many early efforts took the form of online newspaper websites, employing local reporters (or sometimes bloggers), and attempting to source user-generated content by inviting individual submissions or incorporating user discussion functionality. There was much speculation on why this approach often failed. Regardless of the specifics, their universal unprofitability suggests that producing a local newspaper-like presence simply doesn’t create enough demand (online readership) to justify the costs (local staff). Of note are a few surviving examples like the Chicago Tribune’s Triblocal project that create and distribute hyperlocal print editions from their online content, and many hyperlocal blogs which operate on less auspicious budgets.

Around the same time, a slightly more promising wave of information-heavy regional news sites (such as pegasusnews.com) emerged. These sites were inspired by the success of regional review sites such as yelp.com and Yahoo! Local and in response to the high costs of local content production. These new efforts focused on incorporating dynamic regional data, such as crime stats, permit applications, real estate listings, and business directories in lieu of an emphasis on hand-crafted local reporting.

A third and perhaps most promising wave of local news sites emphasized the aggregation of third-party content. These include platforms such as outside.in, topix.com, and everyblock.com – all of which are framework approaches - aggregating content, mostly through RSS feeds, for many geographic locations (in some cases thousands) in order to build enough accumulated traffic to make a local business model work. Some slightly different takes on this model have individuals in specific locations acting as editors and republishing aggregated content (universalhub.com) or aggregator sites focusing on particular types of content (Placeblogger.com).

Lessons Learned
You can’t serve online users the same way as newspapers or broadcasters serve regional audiences. The news and information demands are wildly different. It is not enough to reduce printing and distribution costs or put content into "bite-sized" pieces. The user-consumer is trying to solve radically different problems from a unique perspective around their online information needs.

Giving participatory tools to users does not make them publishers. Users do not produce material that looks anything like mass media content. Users have an expectation of being involved, and their efforts (such as sharing) can be helpful or even necessary in some contexts. However, assumptions about traditional publishers shifting effort "to the crowd" are misguided. Users are also notoriously fickle in their socially-driven motivations. Our understanding around what motivates people to participate online and in what context is limited.

Manually producing local content is expensive. This isn’t a surprise. What shocked people is that there is not enough consumer demand online to justify this cost.

Aggregation is cheap, and if done effectively can create enough demand to be profitable – particularly across many locations. As more sources make their content available through RSS feeds and APIs, this is only going to get better.


1To be clear, the hyperlocal hype from traditional media organizations took fire in 2005, but local sites like Craigslist and H20Town were long-standing successes by this point, thereby playing their part in fueling the excitement.

The world of podcasting is markedly different from that of broadcast radio. Below is a top ten list that highlights what works well in this medium and how podcasting can be different than straight-ahead broadcast. To this end, I have avoided listing downloadable versions of broadcast radio shows, although this eliminates a third or more of the most popular podcasts. The following descriptions focus on what makes each approach noteworthy. If you want to learn more about the podcast itself, I encourage you to give it a listen.

1. The Moth Podcast

Recorded spoken performances such as stand-up comedy and conference presentations have long been a popular podcast format. The Moth Podcast is arguably the granddaddy of them all. A popular and long-running podcast, these short storytelling segments are recorded in front of a live audience without notes.

2. The Sound of Young America

While most episodes of this show are in fact broadcast, the majority of the fan base seems to listen exclusively to the podcast. TSOYA uses the popular podcast format of single-host / single-guest talk show. This podcast attracts a strong following in part due to its focus on popular and entertaining guests who are otherwise below the cultural radar. The show further focuses by frequently selecting guests who are comedians, media professionals, or musicians.

3. iTunes Weekly Rewind [iTunes Link]

This Apple-produced music review is a unique take on music podcasting, highlighting songs discovered over the course of the week on TV, online, and in the movies. This is a markedly different approach from focusing on new releases, who's on tour, what's popular, or the traditional, curated music show. This is also an Apple Enhanced Podcast, providing users the ability to move back and forth through visually-enhanced song chapters.

4. EconTalk

A hybrid instructional / talk show format, EconTalk is a surprisingly popular podcast that presents often complex economic concepts for non-expert audiences. Most guests are academic experts. The magic here seems to lie in the host of the program directing and clarifying the guests as they attempt to explain and explore complex ideas and opinions. Instructional / explanatory podcasts seem to be rising in popularity, although this specific format for presenting complex ideas is somewhat atypical.

5. Diggnation

This weekly podcast reviews top stories from digg.com and incorporates several characteristics found in many podcasts. For example, the hosts are conversational but often off-topic with plenty of snarky, insider commentary, and they discuss timely events surrounding an existing, popular website or web community.

6. Mugglecast

Popular and unique, this podcast highlights several growing trends. Hosts are remotely connected via phone conferencing or skype through which the podcast is recorded – often live. The conversation is unscripted and uses many rotating participants, most of whom seem to be under 20 and have likely never met in person. All participants are part of a popular online Harry Potter community. In fact, the participants, listeners, and podcast content are an extension of what is already happening in and around existing vibrant online interaction.

7. You Look Nice Today

The "BS amongst friends" format is perhaps the most popular approach to creating a podcast. There are hundreds if not thousands of podcasts that are purely conversational, using 2-4 hosts who are often friends. Some are themed, many contain explicit content, some deploy more traditional radio show techniques using guests, call-ins, regular bits, drop-ins, etc. YLNT is noteworthy in that it breaks from typical radio morning show tactics (e.g. political leanings, wacky antics, etc.), and is professionally edited down before release.

8. Grammar Girl

It's true - there's a podcast on grammar that's wildly popular. It's short, practical, and handy for bloggers. Unlike much out there, the host seems to be perfectly normal. This is one of the first instructional podcasts to land the big numbers, in part thanks to Oprah.

9. Planet Money

This is an NPR program on the economy, money and global markets, but it qualifies for this list because it's not broadcast as a public radio show, per se. Some of what is produced makes it to air, but the NPR podcast is just that. A podcast. Well, it's also a blog. And videos. And links. OK, it's pretty undefinable, but it's entertaining and instructional and timely and edited to whatever length it is. I suspect "programs" will look a lot more like this in the future.

10. Podrunner

Here's an odd one. A podcast where each episode is defined and titled by its tempo (BPM), tailored specifically for your workout. Sound weird? Well, it's the #1 music podcast in iTunes right now. Behold the power of the untapped niche.

Tagged:

It turns out that no one agrees on which way the swing states may go in this election (gasp!). Here is a clever widget from The Takeaway, outlining 13 news sources and their predictions of how the electoral votes will add up in November.

Each column is a state. Each row is news source. Click on a cell to get the breakdown. NPR, just for the record, is currently predicting a McCain win.


link

In the early part of the 20th century, radio programs reached national audiences through newly-constructed radio networks. For the first time, mass media news had a human voice – and later with television networks, a face. This drove networks to develop trust as a human asset, and news anchors cultivated personalities that you welcomed into your home and returned to again and again. Over the ensuing decades, we stopped relying primarily on our friends and neighbors to learn about what was going on in the world and instead looked to a few critical human voices that were trusted without question.

This trust began to unravel in the late part of the 20th century. News media fragmented into biased channels, public opinion of reporting eroded around clashes with the federal government, and shifting advertising revenue and downsized newsrooms led to highly visible gaps and gaffs in a previously trustworthy and consistent news reporting environment.

Meanwhile, the Internet is helping consumers become increasingly savvy about media, and new expectations around participation and transparency in information delivery is emerging. In this new environment, a singular voice of the news ceases to make sense – except perhaps when John Stuart mocks the system as a whole. Online tools are enabling collaborative and person-to-person communications as potentially more reliable and trustworthy mechanisms for getting news. Individuals now capture the news on their cell phones, deliver the news on their blogs, and share the news through social networks.

Perhaps news is no longer presented as a single story, cobbled together by a single agency and delivered through the mass media by a single voice. What was once a single story now becomes interpreted and conveyed by a range of voices through different formats, channels, and modes. As humans, we still build trust through human interaction and engage with stories that are delivered with emotion and conviction. Some stories are made more meaningful by our connection to the individuals telling the stories, and others because a fresh authentic human voice speaks to us. I believe we yearn for this raw communication as a method for getting our news and making sense of the information within – something that historically has not been present in mass media.

If the future of news communication is more humanistic and distributed, delivered by an array of authentic storytellers, where does that leave the traditional journalistic reporter? Their importance doesn't suddenly evaporate. What is their place amongst this array of voices? Are we now all journalists or do we expect the ones with the credentials to develop their own authentic voices? Both situations are currently happening in this new environment, as some bloggers are vaulted into mainstream public attention, and some existing journalists now craft their own blogs.

However, I think there's a third less explored role for journalists. A need that arises from an array of unknown, emotion-fueled storytellers who do not necessarily engender trust. The very nature of these raw voices will cast doubt on the validity of the underlying information. Journalists must help the information in their stories be valid, and the stories be trusted. I believe the secret lies in weaving together these new voices into a more cohesive whole. The time-tested role of editor re-emerges to perform this critical function. Perhaps the contemporary journalist wields new media editing tools like the traditional journalist wields a typewriter. The news is not delivered through a single human voice, but by collecting together the voices of others. The editor's red pen ensures the facts are preserved, underlying truths are revealed, and opinions are exposed. In this way, we get original voices, rich with information and authenticity. We are not led astray by their subtle biases or gaps in reporting. A new voice of the journalist emerges, crafting the news out of independent tellings, spinning the traditional piece on its head. Here, truth can be served in a compelling new way, and a variety of voices reveal new insights only possible through the stories of regular people.

Update 6/29/09: Thanks for all the coverage!

NPRbackstory is an experimental web mashup that I created to dig through the NPR archives and unearth the Public Radio backstory on currently trending topics. This "application" is currently running in Beta as a Twitter account. To use the application, you need to follow NPRbackstory in Twitter. I welcome any feedback on this idea in the comments section below.

I should note that I built this as a personal project to play with the public version of the NPR API. At the time I was not an NPR employee (I am now), so this experiment doesn't reflect the strategy of NPR or even have their official support. I'm grateful for the coverage that Harvard's Neiman Journalism Lab and others have given this project and to NPR for not pulling my API key ;-)

Follow the NPRbackstory Twitter account

My favorite public radio segments provide thought provoking backstories on current news items. It might be a Terry Gross interview from a few years back of a famous person that just passed away, or a cultural sketch of an unfamiliar country that had a coup d'état this morning.

One of great things about the backstory approach is that it provides context and lends meaning to a current event. The backstory brings the listener up to date on a trendy news item without wallowing in the sensationalist details often found in mainstream news coverage.

In an attempt to bring this great idea to the web, here is a simple web application that generates an RSS feed of NPR online content. Rather than just a feed of NPR news, the NPRbackstory application tries to intelligently match fast-rising, trendy search terms to existing content on NPR.org. This goes beyond news coverage to include media from NPR blogs, interviews, NPR music, program content, podcasts, and station pieces (all thanks to the NPR API).

Below is the latest few items from the NPRbackstory Twitter feed. The keyword in parentheses is the fast-rising search term. The headline is the story, blog post, audio segment, or media from npr.org.


I'm encouraged by initial results from NPRbackstory. Here are some interesting "backstories" from the first few hours:

(ryan seacrest) Apparently, Ryan was recently bitten by a shark, resulting in a surge of web searches on his name. The backstory? A "Morning Edition" audio piece and write-up from September 2007 on Ryan entitled, "Hosting a TV show, how hard can it be?"

(jerry lee) Jerry Lee Lewis just detained for allegedly trying to take a gun on a plane. NPRbackstory returns his downloadable NPR Music "Song of the Day" from 2006.

(medical information) This web trend spiked because of a medical record leak of up to 200,000 people in Georgia. The backstory turns out to be a bit eerie: A "Morning Edition" segment on the trade-offs of online medical records from April of 2008.

The NPRbackstory "Application" was created by Keith Hopper using the NPR API, Dapper, Twitterfeed, Feedburner, and Yahoo! Pipes. If anyone is interested in the details, let me know and I can post them here. And why not follow @khopper on Twitter to see what else I might be up to?

Keith HopperLast month I had the opportunity to play expert on a conference discussion panel along with the likes of Henry Jenkins (well, at least virtually).

Providing comic relief, I jammed a 1/2 hour presentation into 6 minutes. The thrust of my presentation was to ask that people first consider building online traffic and enagement before trying to implement monetization (is it OK to base a presentation on a pet peeve?). Oh, I snuck in some edge comments later that were a little less snarky. It was fun, and a big thanks to the Center for Social Media for giving me the opportunity to speak. Below is a writeup they did up on my contribution.

  • Download the audio of the entire panel discussion
  • Check out the complelte conference rundown

Keith Hopper, Product Manager at Public Interactive, advised media makers to focus on getting more online users and building user interaction—such as product downloads, references in blogs and social networks, and participation in online discussions. "User interaction is the new currency," he said, noting that Google and Yahoo give away most of their content for free in order to build users. "This buys you significant leverage with partners and underwriters," he said, adding that currently, "Most public media doesn’t have enough user interaction to monetize."

Here are some thoughts I've put together in preparation for a Beyond Broadcast panel discussion that I'll be participating on entitled "Mapping the Money."

Briefly share some observations and suggestions on funding streams/structures for public media. [The idea here is that traditional public media is trying to find its place on the Internet, and in so doing, needs to find a sustainable funding model.]

I probably approach this from a different perspective than those who are actively allocating funds towards this problem or are trying to generate revenue for broadcasters (I help generate community for public broadcasters through our community engagement platform, Public Action). They are seeking a sustainable monetization scheme first and foremost. While I think there are some untested funding models based on Public Media's existing online presence that have promise, I have a slightly different approach to building sustainability online.

In the online world, community and user participation is, in and of itself an asset to be cultivated and social production and interaction are, in a sense, the new online currency. There's a reason that Google and Yahoo! give away their content and applications for free. They are trying to attract people. 

This is not a new idea for "Web 2.0" companies who often don't initially try to monetize. They concentrate first on building up a base of users. For these new web applications and services, there is real value - sometimes in the millions or even billions of dollars - in merely getting users to interact with your product or media in some way. The objective here is to connect and relate to more people in a positive way, whether this means more downloads, more registered users, more redistribution of content, more comments about your product on Twitter, etc.

One of the reasons for focusing on users is the network effect that results from attracting a critical mass of individuals. If your product benefits from more users, which most do at least on the word-of-mouth sharing level, then more users means a better chance of attracting even MORE users. In essence, there is a cascade effect. With this increased number of participants, you ultimately have more choices in how you might eventually choose to monetize things. You certainly have more leverage in working with other organizations and potential partners.

Additionally, individuals have an increasing amount of control over your products, your visibility, your brand perception, and ultimately even how you make money. Traditionally, you made money only by being a centralized business entity - you invested in a means of production and then controlled the revenue stream. This is changing. Distributed individuals now can dictate not only if you succeed, but even how and why - in fact, the public media monetization scheme of the future may be entirely created and controlled by the public. Ultimately, the organizational entities that we know and love today may play little to no role in how public media is funded. An argument for attracting participation might be if only to position ourselves better and be more literate in this for this future.

It is important that public media institutions try to build their online user base before aggressively monetizing their media and services. The best chance of generating meaningful dollars is through increasing our visibility, reach, interactions and relationships. We must figure out how to relate positively to more people online - something that we're notoriously bad at doing. Success will increasingly be dictated by the number of users on the Internet, their opinions, their participation, their goodwill, their willingness to share – none of which are in our control, and the more we try to control, the worse off we'll be.

The problem with an initial focus on monetization is that issues arise when users are seen as something to be mined for cash. This is where you get into trouble. If monetization is an initial goal, it will create an unwelcome environment for engagement and deter the participation that is needed in the first place.

We need to be extremely cautious about monetizing public media – the competition here might just be free and open production, whether organized in a structured gift economy in places like Wikipedia, or truly distributed across blogs and bittorrent. If, like the New York Times, we try to enclose our assets to make money, we will be effectively losing out to those providers who chose to be open and free.

The following is a draft of a document (updated 6/12) that I'm preparing for the Beyond Broadcast conference On June 17, 2008. I'm posting it here in hopes folks like yourself are willing to provide me with feedback on these ideas - do they hold true in your experience? Thanks to those that helped! Here's the PDF (final update 7/8):
Eight Ways to Help Build Online Participation (PDF).

Throughout 2007 and 2008, Public Interactive worked with public broadcasters to better understand how to effectively engage audiences online. We gathered experience directly from 24 stations and programs such as KQED, Oregon Public Broadcasting, and Car Talk® using our online community engagement tool. Additional stations, programs and networks have also thoughtfully shared their experiences using a variety of tools and platforms.

One important lesson, particularly for those new to online engagement, is that it takes creativity and persistence to engage individuals and get their participation. Stations and shows often seek tips on how to attract contributions. From what we've learned, here are eight ways to help build online participation:

1. Be Genuine
Seek participation around something you understand and care about. Ask for relevant, meaningful input in an area that is true to your values and aligned with your existing communications. If you're format is music, don't ask for input on local zoning laws. If you deliver unbiased news, seeking opinions might be perceived as disingenuous.

2. Be Compelling
Ask yourself why anyone would bother participating. What topics compel your broadcast audience today? How will you use their contributions, or what will you offer in return? Individuals are often motivated to take the role of expert and share their unique insights and experience. You might initiate a project to construct something meaningful together.

3. Reach Out, Invite In
Who will show up to your party if no one sees your invitation? Leverage email lists, reach out to relevant organizations, and integrate highly visible promotions into your website. Invite specific contributions from subject-matter experts and bloggers, cultivate traffic partners who see the benefits of aligning with broadcasters, and post appropriately in social networks and discussion groups.

4. Make it Easy
Clearly state what you're looking for from individuals and how they should contribute. Guidelines, rules and expectations should be conspicuous. Provide a variety of ways to engage and contribute. Require users to sign up only where registration delivers obvious benefits.

5. Get Involved
Demonstrate that participation is important by doing it yourself. Use your real names. Involve producers, editors, and directors. Make it clear that the lights are on and someone’s home by responding to users (without being reactionary), and by enforcing your own rules.

6. Release Control
Online, the role of passive audience gives way to that of partner, co-creator, and contributor. It is misguided to think of "us" creating something for "them." Use your hand only to guide, stimulate, and monitor. As participation grows, give up more control. Individuals should have a sense of ownership over the community, where together you set direction and create value. If you've created an environment where everyone benefits, it becomes that much easier to promote.

7. Focus
A common mistake is to create twenty disparate ways to engage instead of one great one. Focus allows both you and your participants to concentrate your time and energy.

8. Experiment
In the world of online interactivity, there is an expectation of change, iteration, and improvement based on feedback and results. Plan for many tests, and assume ongoing effort will be necessary. Measure and monitor your progress. Communicate what you are learning and changing. Learn from others' successes.

Presented on Emerging Trends in Social Media and its Potential Impact on News Production and Distribution at WGBH today.

PRI's The World is up to some cool projects, including reporter Alex Gallafent's planned multimedia trip to the Amazon next month. Keep an eye on his blog.

Full disclosure: They use my community engagement software.

Seeing as I get "the mention" about once a year, and usually by accident, I figured I’d strut out the fact that I got two (2) unsolicited plugs this week on not totally obscure media outlets.

The first was from none other than the Cluetrain man himself, Doc Searls. During a Newsgang podcast from Steve Gillmore with Steven Hill, and the Interim CEO of NPR, Dennis Haarsager, Doc mentioned our work together on Project VRM at the Berkman Center. The future of public broadcasting discussion that ensues is an interesting insider view and a worthwhile listen.

The next one was great fun and truly a historic moment in our little sphere of nerds-who-work-in-public-broadcasting. Thursday’s Up to Date call-in show on KCUR (Kansas City) was sagely dedicated to the future of Public Broadcasting and its interesting and evolving relationship with the web and social technology.

Rob Patterson, Andy Carvin, and Todd Mundt then spent the next hour trying their damnest to not talk constantly about Twitter (and pretty much failed). In a particularly self-referential moment, Andy mentioned that I was livetwittering a bunch of twittering broadcasters as they broadcast twitter's impact on broadcasting. I’m not sure that last sentence was grammatically correct or even remotely what Andy said, but whatever. Listen to it yourself.

How might media organizations better engage their audiences online?

Over the past year, I teamed up with several public broadcasters to try and answer this question. We collected lessons while rolling out online participation software at NPR’s Car Talk, KQED, Oregon Public Broadcasting, PRI’s The World and a dozen others. We are learning that the future of media engagement goes beyond invitations for listener comments. The leading examples involve much higher expectations from the "audience"; specifically, their partnership in delivering on more collaborative projects.


Has news innovation stalled? The last decade has seen significant shifts in how news is created and delivered: grassroots publishing and online news aggregators have resulted in shifting advertising dollars and widespread panic in traditional mass media outlets. However, fresh approaches both in traditional media and in new media exploration has felt scarce as of late. Most of the recent thinking around news delivery involves slapping the latest social technology idea or delivery device onto a news outlet and calling it innovation. Or worse, a retreat into potential profitability through a focus on niche or hyperlocal audiences. Of course, some exceptions exist, but there is too much opportunity tied up in new technology and the shifting demands of the public to slow down the exploration of new ideas.

Syndicate content