Citizen Journalism and the New Media Ecosystem at Work in Shoe City

 

entering brockton

 

A three-day story in my hometown newspaper over the weekend reminded me of how rapidly the new media ecosystem has evolved – and how popular and vibrant some sectors of it are despite all the doom and gloom surrounding Big Media in general and newspapers in particular.

The story concerned retired electrician and Twitter aficionado, Frank Kelly, 54, whose @Brockton24_7 feed went silent because he spilled water on his keyboard and couldn’t afford a repair or replacement.

So, who misses one Twitter user in a universe buzzing with them and their chatter? Well, Kelly’s 2,600-plus followers on Twitter for a start. They missed him so much that they immediately began a crowd-funding drive to repair or replace his gear and get his feed going again.

And what exactly is it that Kelly does that his followers consider so essential? Kelly monitors three different police scanners covering the Greater Brockton area and tweets what he hears. He is an old-fashioned scanner buff. But instead of indulging his passion privately or maybe calling a newspaper now and then with a tip, he uses Twitter to distribute what he hears. He is one of a new breed of volunteer citizen journalists that leap into the breech when Big Media recedes.

To say that his followers appreciate his efforts would be an understatement. According to story in the (Brockton, Mass.) Enterprise, one was fulsome in her praise: “We love the work you do by keeping us informed. You are a true crusader,” said Karen Conneley.

Nice story, even if it didn’t go any further. But it did. Turns out that the crowd-funding campaign was designed by another local citizen journalist, Rob Murano, operator of InBrockton.com, a website devoted to local news and comment and an outlet which, in an earlier time, might have considered what Kelly does competition and let him go dark without a word.

To the contrary, Murano said. “I think he’s providing a vital public service by tweeting breaking news,” he told the Enterprise. “I look at it like online crime fighting.”

The final twist is that all of this would have remained unknown to a wider public had it not been for the Enterprise’s decision to write three stories on the matter. This may not seem remarkable – and especially not over a slow Columbus Day weekend when, even in these print-challenged days, news is scant and space abundant.

In an earlier era, the Enterprise might have looked at both Kelly and Murano as competition for its customers and quashed any story about Kelly’s travails. Instead, the paper picked up the thread and wrote not one, but three stories about it. It even praised Kelly, saying of him “such scanner watchers are an important resource for media organizations. From the sound of that it seemed clear that @enterprisenews was among Kelly’s followers

Consider how Brockton’s news ecosystem has changed in less than a decade. In 2003, neither Murano’s nor Kelly’s citizen journalism operation even would have existed. And had they, you can best believe that the Enterprise wouldn’t have written a word about either of them unless they somehow found their way into the police blotter.

But now, as in a genuine ecosystem, each has a role to play. Murano looks at Kelly, sees the value in what he does and knows he can’t do that himself. The Enterprise looks at them both, sees the value in what they do, and knows it can’t possibly do what either of them do. And thus, there’s peaceful coexistence – and maybe even mutual dependence, in the valley of news in Brockton. The lion lays down with the lamb.

And what’s the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey — speaking of old media types — might once have asked? Kelly’s @Brockton24_7 is back up and running on temporary gear. And he’s well on his way to a new computer, thanks to the Enterprise, Murano, a host of grateful followers and the new media ecosystem.

What News Designers Can Learn From iOS7

ios7 photo

 

The pros and cons of iOS7 have been pretty well picked over since the new operating system debuted on Sept. 18. But after a few weeks of living with it – and loving most of it, I’ll admit – it occurred to me there are few things the news business could learn from the design:

1. Banish skeuomorphism.

Designers employing skeuomorphism make new items look like older analogues – the stitched-leather look of the old iCal, for example, or the wooden bookshelves that constituted the newsstand. Apple’s designers have eliminated these design attributes in favor of a clean, colorful, modern design that doesn’t reference the past.

What’s the application to the news business? Again and again news executives have made the mistake of employing new technology as a mere vessel for their old products – think of the “shovelware” mentality that led them to just dump the contents of newspapers onto their websites instead of designing for the new medium.

Shovelware lives, of course. Just check out some middle-market newspaper websites and you’ll see designs that reference the dead-tree edition at every turn, from hoary 20th-century-style page-one layouts to a complete lack of links, video and other web-native features. In a sense, shovelware is but an older, cruder form of skeuomorphism, and one that, needless to say, newspapers should have long since abandoned if they hope to survive in the web/mobile era.

The same is true of newspaper apps. Many rely on the skeuomorphic device of page-turning for navigation, as if the pixelated screen of a smartphone or tablet were a mere analogue of folded newsprint and ink. The New York Times app, despite its many drawbacks, takes a giant step toward leaving this behind and embracing the web/mobile ethos with navigation that’s based on one long vertical scroll – infinitely easier to use in one-handed mobile situations than a symphony of swipes.

Skeuomorphism is employed by modern designers as a crutch for users making the transition from old tech to new tech. It’s time for newspaper website and app designers to kick out the crutch and get on with the future. Transition time is over.

2. Love that white space

The overall look and feel of iOS7 is lighter and brighter than its predecessor. Thinner fonts and whiter backgrounds predominate. Some app designers, like those who created the Times and AP entries, have employed acres of white space to air out their designs.  (OK, in the case of AP it’s actually black space. And never mind for now the glitches in the Times automation that place huge empty gaps on some pages.)

This makes the designs much easier on the eye than before, which is a particular relief in small-screen mobile situations. Tell me, since we are always yacking about how space is infinite in cyberspace, why do so many news designer cramp their web pages and apps with heads, columns and photos as if they were trying to squeeze their content onto a grain of rice? Get with it, folks, and loosen it up.

3. Design for delight

There’s really no functional reason for the zooming, swooshing and parallax effects that characterize iOS7. They’re only there to delight users – and delightful they are (assuming you are not among that unhappy bunch that gets carsick from looking at them). So why is it that so many news designers produce plodding, eat-your-peas web pages and apps that only produce delight when the user shuts them down? As a friend of mine likes to say, “Life is not a penance.” And reading the news shouldn’t be either.

 

A Meditation on the Journalism of the Future

bendable phone

 

In a scene from the 2002 science-fiction thriller “Minority Report,” a subway passenger reads constantly updated news on a small, thin, flexible sheet he could shove in his pocket. When cop John Anderton, played by Tom Cruise, strolls in another scene, human holograms serve him ads based on his preferences and location.

It turns out that the moviemakers foresaw trends in journalism years before they emerged. While iPad isn’t quite flexible, it grows closer with every iteration. The proliferation of Wi-Fi hotspots combined with digital-first news publishing make frequent mobile updates a way of life.  And the geolocation abilities of smartphones and tablets will make it easy to serve proximity-based advertising within a year or two, experts say.

And the filmmakers couldn’t have known that current hardware trends would help make their vision reality: The number of adults in the U.S. who own a smartphone has doubled from 30 to 60 percent in the last three years; more than one-third of adults in the U.S. own a tablet; laptop and desktop sales are cratering.

The trend is clear: Mobile rules the journalism of the future.

On the production end, savvy reporters are already using the same tools to gather news as their readers employ to consume it, using smartphones to tape broadcast interviews and create podcasts, create and edit videos, shoot and edit photo packages, write stories and posts and file them all on the fly. In the next 10 years this trend will accelerate at legacy news organizations as managers continue to squeeze their staffs in response to advertising declines.

Meanwhile, adoption of a mobile-first ethos will be key to the success of all news organizations, and to the very survival of legacy organizations, some of which are still struggling to be digital first – the journalistic equivalent of fighting the last war.

Being mobile first means reorganizing reporters and desks to focus on mobile customers and the mobile experience. It means streamlining workflows so updates, posts and stories go up instantly; it means adoption of responsive design and possibly discrete mobile design; and it means focusing ad departments on where the money rather than on where it’s been.

And news organizations soon will have a new technology to cope with: wearable computers such a Google Glass, smartphone watches such as the Samsung Galaxy Gear, the rumored iWatch and more sophisticated versions of the Nike Fuelband and its analogs.

The nearly always-on nature of these devices (as opposed to those that are frequently pocketed) and their tiny size pose new challenges to news organizations. Lightning fast updates are even more important for a nearly always-on device. Because of their size and/or design, reading text on them will be even more tedious than on smartphones, so successful organizations will need to focus even more on visual journalism, tight editing and thoughtful design.

Finally, Google Glass in particular brings a final conceit of “Minority Report” within reach. The device’s nearly always-on nature makes the idea of proximity-based advertising almost as powerful as it is onscreen when John Anderton is being shown ads as he walks. And the speaking holograms that serve the ads? Well, it’s a lot easier and cheaper to create one on an LCD screen than it is in three-dimensional space.

In other words, it can’t be far off.