|The Convergence Newsletter
From Newsplex at the University of South Carolina
Vol. VI No. 7 (May-June 2009)
Commenting on Convergence
By Robert Pyle, Editor
For many of us, the spring semester is now a memory, and it is on to summer. For some, that means a restful break; for others, it provides an opportunity to dive into projects.
Here at The Convergence Newsletter, summer brings on a new editor. Former Editor Brad Petit has completed his graduate work and has left the newsletter in my care. As Brad - and the editors before him - did, I will do my best to provide you with thought provoking articles from both the academy and the professional media world.
This issue looks at how convergence is serving some local communities.
Leading off is an interview with Mike Orren, founder and president of Pegasus News, a Dallas-Fort Worth online publication founded in 2005. Pegasus offers people the opportunity to localize their news, and, if they desire, to be unfettered citizen journalists, reporting the news as they see it. Orren tells The Convergence Newsletter that to be a successful online news source you need to offer your reader more than just news.
Doug Fisher of the University of South Carolina, and executive editor of TCN, says you can save the money you'd spend on some of those "secrets of social media" training sessions. He explains some simple truths he has learned from creating Hartsville Today, a three-year-old experiment in online community news and social networking.
Finally we bring you Douglas Starr, a former Associated Press journalist and now a media professor at Texas A&M, who stresses the importance a free press plays in today’s society. Starr encourages readers to seek out all forms of media and apply it daily in making informed social decisions. He says a free press serves communities and aids all in becoming better citizens.
If you have friends or colleagues who would like to subscribe to The Convergence Newsletter, please have them send a message to the e-mail address after my name.
We always need your articles and reviews. Next month is one of our two international issues. Coming up in August is our teaching issue, and October is our second international issue. In February we look at newsrooms, and every spring we try to look at convergence and its effects on communities. In between, we have plenty of slots for your work, such as Edgar Huang's upcoming look at his research in video transport systems.
Also, don't forget to send us notices of upcoming conferences and related events. Please remember, we don't exist without you. E-mail me today with your thoughts, comments, suggestions and proposals.
Contact Robert Pyle, editor of The Convergence Newsletter, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
View past newsletters at http://www.jour.sc.edu/news/convergence/.
Visit The Convergence Newsletter blog at http://convergencenl.blogspot.com.
Community Companions: Pegasus News and of Dallas-Fort Worth
Building Community Online
The Future of the U.S. and Newspapers
Conferences, Training, and Calls for Papers
June 22 - 26: Newsplex Summer Seminar, University of South Carolina
August 5 - 8: AEJMC Annual Conference 2009, Boston, MA
November 5 - 6: Convergence and Society: The Changing Media Landscape, University of Nevada, Reno
Community Companions: Pegasus News and Dallas-Fort Worth
Editor’s note: Mike Orren is the founder and president of Pegasus News, a Dallas- Fort Worth online news site that began in 2005. TCN Editor Robert Pyle spoke to Orren by phone about Pegasus and how it serves its multiple communities. Some answers have been edited for space.
TCN - How is your publication serving the Dallas-Fort Worth communities? Is the Pegasus online project more than just a metro news vehicle?
Orren: Yes, this is a metro news vehicle, but we serve in a number of different ways.
One way is we break our site into geographic neighborhoods, allowing our readers instant access to important information about their immediate communities. We offer our online audience a broader context of local news information.
We have found that there are a finite number of people who are going to go out of their way to read a suburban or neighborhood newspaper, but if you put that kind of information in front of people in an intuitive online fashion, such as restaurant news, local concerts, sports and news, you get a lot of engagement and potential for a larger audience.
Another way we serve the community is to offer regular folks who are not trained journalists and just interested in their community a chance to report the news. They offer coverage of news and information that wouldn’t otherwise be reported to a larger audience. A great example of this concerns a suburb south of Dallas where we had a particular reader tell us there was some funny business going on in their school district. I explained that I did not have the resources or staff to devote to that story, but proposed that this concerned citizen report and write the story and we would put it online. As time went on this became a big story and we got a lot of readership in that part of the community. Eventually it was picked up by the local television news operations, as well as in the regional newspapers. The end result was the superintendent was forced out of office and has pending charges. It was a story that did not have a voice in the beginning because the community did not have a newspaper.
TCN: So you are looking for information from citizen journalists?
Orren: That is the icing on the cake. We look for that, and we do want it. But I think it is a huge mistake on the local level to depend on that solely as your primary source of content because there just isn’t enough of it.
People, by and large, do not want to be citizen journalists. They want to tell a story they are passionate about when it suits them and that does not necessarily lend itself towards a schedule where you have new content every day. But I feel you have to stop and have some sort of effort to keep a newspaper fresh, and whenever we get to the truth through journalism, we are thrilled. But I think you would not find anyone on the local level relying entirely on citizen journalists for content.
TCN: Is there a danger in relying on citizen journalists, that they may be harboring their own agenda?
Orren: So do professional journalists. I am a professional journalist, but I am not a believer in the priesthood of journalism. The thing we believe is that no matter whether it is a professional journalist or citizen journalists reporting on our site we insist all ... wear their personal opinions and biases on their sleeve. We think that is much more honest than saying we are objective and then picking and choosing the facts we are going to use in a way that might slant a story. My view is I would rather have the son of the mayor of a suburb covering that suburb’s city council than having no one covering the city council meetings. It is a matter of tradeoff. Do you want the story to be ignored by the big city newspapers because they cannot afford the staff to cover such meetings, or do you want it covered by someone who may have an agenda, but lets all readers know what that agenda might be? I would take the latter. We employ an editor who works with such citizen journalists and other content partners. We check all information that we place in our newspaper, so you see it is not a free-for-all in posting stories. We are transparent in letting our readers know who our writers are, and with open user comments attached to each story there is a great check-and-balance system for people to become involved in any given story, telling all what they perceive the reality is concerning the story at hand.
We had at one time a member of a suburban city council filing our reports for us and providing news coverage of that city council. Some people might say that is incredible, but we were very transparent in the author’s ties to the stories he filed, and we placed a disclaimer saying who this person was and his connection to the stories he was filing. That is my take on the dangers of citizen journalism.
TCN: You said Pegasus is a community portal, how so?
Orren: A community portal is really just a fancy name for a local online site that provides, ideally, all things you want to know about your community and links to get you to that information.
Databases are another important part of our site. One of the things I think is a big difference in what we do over other people around the country is that we place emphasis in providing databases. We think that database information is just as important as narrative. So if you read a story about a city council member, we will offer a link to all sites that are relevant to that person. We are interconnected. We do not offer information in a vacuum. I think that is a big part of being a portal.
TCN: Many major newspapers, like the Boston Globe are facing hard times and some important dailies are even facing bankruptcy and possible foreclosure. What can the traditional daily newspapers learn from your model?
Orren: I used to be an optimist on this matter, but now am somewhat pessimistic. What they can learn from our model, for many of them I think it is two-way. I think we have crossed the tipping point, I am not sure the Boston Globe will close; I think they are playing a game of chicken up there, but it is absolutely true that you are going to have newspapers either closing or cutting back on days of press. I think the things they could learn, and let me be clear I am not speaking from a pedestal, because there are a lot of things daily newspapers do that we cannot touch, and we have a great deal of respect for that and we want to see them make it and do well; but things I think they can pick up from sites like ours is to go back to databases and things like that and really put the user first.
I would add one more thing. I was at a Poynter Institute session not too long ago and I kept hearing newspaper journalists and publishers lamenting on how can we get the old days back and what we have lost. I said, I think what we need to do is quit talking about how we get back what we lost and figure out how we can go on the offense. What can we do now that we couldn’t do ten years ago? I think that attitude is common among new-media startups like us. I think newspapers have not gotten to that point, and the few that have, well I fear it is too late.
Building Community Online
By Doug Fisher, University of South Carolina
I recently got an e-mail inviting me to enroll in a seminar to teach me the “secrets of social networking” for news organizations. Let me save you the money and time: it’s hard work. There’s no real secret, but it takes lots of time and a mindset sharply shifted from that of the traditional news organization and journalist.
A lot has been learned from Hartsville Today , created by the University of South Carolina journalism school more than three years ago in partnership with a twice-weekly newspaper and with a New Voices grant from J-Lab. The site now has about 1,600 registered members in a market area of about 20,000, and far more people in the area visit the site regularly, based on our IP address logs.
We’ve settled our share of online fights, watched proudly when a person’s posting about a local problem grew into a solution, been dismayed when someone left saying the site was “too negative,” and helped the newspaper start learning how to use digital media to interact with and reach its community.
“Social media” now is morphing into the even broader concept of “user experience,” or “UX,” Cindy Royal wrote after the recent South by Southwest interactive conference . It’s an outgrowth of the idea that news is a conversation, and that, as Royal writes, “News is as much about what your friends are doing right now as it is about the latest national or international story.”
So, a few of those money-saving “secrets”:
It takes time and patience: Lots of it. This may be a hurdle for those used to doing today’s story and moving on to tomorrow’s, or for those focused on this quarter’s profits. For instance, YourHub, the Denver-based “citizen-journalism” site that at one time rolled out to numerous E.W. Scripps papers, suffered in some cities because managers thought they could just turn it on and let it run, former editor Travis Henry told the American Copy Editors Society last year.
Hartsville Today, where I am the principle investigator, started with two stringers whose job was not only to seek out items the newspaper couldn’t get to, but also to encourage others to join and participate. We have been fortunate that one in particular, Jana, still heavily contributes stories and photos and helps answer others’ questions. Without a Jana, you’re going to have to create one, as Northwest Voice, one of the first of the “citizen journalism” efforts, found out early on .
In short, patience, promotion, and help – and don’t expect that to change no matter how old or big your community gets.
One size does not fit all: Hartsville Today is built on “community news” posted by members and feedback from others, but that’s just one model. Facebook and MySpace are the most famous social interaction models, blogs can be social media sites if comments are allowed and the author responds, and even the venerable discussion board has a role. Using Ning,  almost anyone can instantly create an online community. Twitter is the social media topic of the month. Rachel Happe, who writes “The Social Organization” site, recently listed 20 social media tools she uses . Yes, she calls it “insanity” and notes that most people will simply use Facebook or a Google account because it is simpler. But that doesn’t mean those are the best solutions for the community you want to form.
Is every community in your city the same? Then why should the cookie-cutter approach work online, where community might be geographic or just as easily a community of interest? This gets back to the manufacturing mentality in most newsrooms – stamping out largely identical newspapers or newscasts day after day.
It’s no longer a command and control world: The mode of most news organizations is the kiss of death in online communities.
The journalist’s first instinct might be to pull down the post that is insensitive, or off-color. Discover that a local politician has created “sock puppets” (pseudonymous accounts that reference each other to create support for a person or idea, for instance), and the journalist is likely to want to expose the miscreant and maybe issue a stern admonition.
But in most online communities, you are not dealing with journalists. Imagine the result if the microphone were snatched away from someone at a public meeting just because a person in authority did not like what they were saying. Do it once and there may be murmurs of dissatisfaction, but keep doing it and the crowd may well end up on the antagonist’s side.
The reaction is likely to be even swifter online where shutting someone down reminds everyone else you can do it to him or her, too. Instead, you might have to start with a back-door warning, and if it continues, let the community know there is a problem, all without naming the person or taking down the posts. Finally, if that doesn’t work, you might resort to the nuclear option.
In some hours, you might be a coach. In others, you might be soothing bruised feelings. In a few, you actually can be an editor. Community building takes skills sometimes in short supply in media organizations. Developing them may not be easy; two years later, the news staff at the Hartsville Messenger was still struggling with how to effectively use Hartsville Today [5 (PDF)].
The Web is malleable: No longer is it put in the assembly line (the press) and make everything adapt to it. Now, it’s listen and adjust. It doesn’t mean you have to pander, but it does mean a lot of people in your community – physical or digital – know as much, if not more, than you do. And, more of them now expect a way to have their say. You can help them have it, or you can probably watch them go somewhere else.
 Cindy Royal (May 13, 2009). “Making media social: news as user experience.” Online Journalism Review. Accessed May 15, 2009, at http://www.ojr.org/ojr/people/croyal/200905/1723/
 “Northwest Voice: Behind the Scenes.” (July 16, 2004) Accessed May 15, 2009, at http://www.cyberjournalist.net/news/001487.php
 Rachel Happe. (March 8, 2009). “The future of the social web.” Accessed May 18, 2009, at http://www.thesocialorganization.com/2009/03/the-future-of-the-social-web.html
 Douglas J. Fisher. (September 2008). “Building community online: A twice-weekly’s experience extending its reach with the Hartsville Today citizen-based news site.” Presented at the 14th annual Newspapers and Community Building Symposium. Available at Grassroots Editor, http://www.mssu.edu/iswne/grpdfs/winter08.pdf
The Future of the U.S. and Newspapers
By Douglas Perret Starr, Texas A&M University
The United States is in jeopardy. Many newspapers have gone out of business and the rest are in deplorable condition.
If the news media shut down, the United States will no longer boast government of the people, by the people, for the people. The government will be in charge because there will be no free criticism of the government, no uncensored report on what the government is doing.
Consider what the country would lose without newspapers or news online. In any country, the press protects and empowers the government, whether it be a dictatorship or a democracy. In a dictatorship, the government is one person, and the people are, at best, puppets. In the United States, as in any democracy, the government is the people, all the people.
Without accurate, objective news reporting, people would be unable to form educated opinions and to take remedial action. It is no accident that the first action taken by incoming dictators is to seize control of the country’s newspapers and dictate the editorial stance and the news that will be published.
The only thing worse than no news at all is government control of news.
In the United States, government by the people depends upon people’s access to information, information provided by the news media, and in-depth primarily by newspapers. Now more than ever, the constitutional guarantee of government by the people relies on newspapers - printed or digital- and other news media. So, for the good of the United States, for the good of all the people, these things must happen:
Newspapers and their World Wide Web pages carry thoroughly detailed news stories, but World Wide Web stories are wordy and do not get to the point immediately. Most readers do not read past the fifth paragraph of any news story, so they miss a lot of detail.
Most radio and television news stories do not provide enough information to arrive at an informed conclusion because they are no more than 60 words long, two or three newspaper sentences, little more detail than a newspaper headline.
Now, more than ever in history, the Bill of Rights guarantees of government by the people depend upon the people and upon newspapers or their World Wide Web pages. So, for the good of the United States, for the good of all the people, these things must happen:
Daily newspapers can provide more local news, even if they reduce publication to the weekend and a few weekdays, cut the number of pages, and shrink to become tabloids. To ensure accurate and objective news, newspapers should keep their copyeditors and news editors and supplement their reduced staff with less expensive but professional freelance reporters, photographers and columnists, and, paid or unpaid journalism student interns.
The result could be increased circulation and, after the economy settles down, increased advertising and maybe even more newspapers.
But whatever is done must be done quickly; the future of the United States depends on it.
Douglas Perret Starr, a former Associated Press newsman who covered government in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Florida, is a professor of agricultural journalism at Texas A&M University. Contact him at email@example.com
>>>>Conferences, Training and Calls for Papers<<<<
Newsplex Summer Seminar: Teaching & Research in Convergent Journalism
University of South Carolina
AEJMC Annual Conference 2009
Convergence and Society: The Changing Media Landscape
University of Nevada, Reno
Call for Papers deadline: June 15
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