Sunday, August 9, 2015

Jarvis's new role for journalists: be the organizer

Jarvis: think first of the community
Several years ago I was working in Belarus, a former Soviet republic, where independent newspapers have a hard time surviving. The government denies them access to state-monopoly newsstands, overcharges them for their newsprint, and harasses them at every turn.

We looked at one publisher's website data to see if he might have an opportunity to generate revenue online. Turns out the website's most popular page contained the community's bus schedules. And what's more, his community spent more time on that page -- 5 minutes, 30 seconds per visit -- than any other. This publisher, a journalist, was humbled to see that a simple list was more important to his readers than the journalism.

The Belarus example came to mind as I was reading Jeff Jarvis's new book, in which he talks about a new role for journalists: "Helping a community better organize its knowledge so it can better organize itself." 

For me and other journalists, Jarvis says, the humbling lesson should be that our narratives and articles are not necessarily serving our communities what they want and need (an easily accessible bus schedule). Rather than thinking of ourselves only as storytellers who provide content for users, we should also be helping our users inform each other, Jarvis writes in "Geeks Bearing Gifts: Imagining New Futures for News."

Journalism in a disaster

In his book, Jarvis gives his own example of how news media failed their communities. When Hurricane Sandy hit metropolitan New York City and New Jersey in 2012, Jarvis, as a resident, wanted to know where to buy ice and gasoline and groceries, which roads were impassable, where utility crews were working, and which places to avoid.

What he got instead from the big media were narratives designed to fill a certain space on a website or fill a certain time block. What the public needed, Jarvis wrote, were constantly updated lists that responded to the needs of the community at that time.

The mainstream media could have used tools such as Ushahidi's shared mapping service to allow residents to text information and photos about what they could see and hear and create a shared database of information, Jarvis said. Journalists with their professional skills could have added context by digging deeper, verifying or debunking rumors, and adding information from their expert sources.

Organizing the data

The Texas Tribune is a digital media outlet that I believe has met this need of organizing a community's information so it can better organize itself. It has created databases on public employee salaries, water use, school data, and campaign finance. There is money in it. The data is one of the site's most visited sections, which shows in the pricing based on traffic -- a hefty $13-$15 CPM (p. 20 on this PDF) -- while its other sponsorships are based on a fixed cost.

As a consumer of news media, I find the typical on-the-scene narratives of disasters to be not very useful or interesting. They are predictable: Here is a sad story. But is it representative of the situation? And what is the situation on the ground? Do the authorities even know what's going on? Often they don't. Often there is better, more current information on social media (the earthquake in Chile in 2010 is an example).

Jarvis's book offers more elaboration on his famous dictum of "do what you do best, and link to the rest." In his view, news organizations are squandering their resources doing what everyone else does:

"There is little sense wasting your time writing the 25th-best account of a story when it will appear on the third page of a search request and in only a few tweets; mediocrity and repetition don't pay any more, at least not for long...The link forces us to re-examine the scoop culture of news -- the belief that being first is always worthwhile. Today the half-life of a scoop is measured in the time it takes to click...A true scoop, something that is worth our precious resources, is an investigation that breaks new ground, or an insight from a reporter who knows her beat or community better than anyone else." 
A new relationship

Jarvis's book explores the possibilities of new forms of journalism and new business models. But the key to everything is knowing the community you serve. What are the individual users' interests, where do they live and work, what are their hobbies, travel habits, book and movie preferences, etc.

This kind of granular knowledge is the currency of the web, which is how Facebook and Google have come to monopolize traffic and advertising.

Jarvis says journalists need to get over their fears of metrics (they are not just a tool to pander to the audience but to understand it) and the business side (marketing helps build audience, and sponsors help pay for decent salaries and equipment).

He offers a telling quote from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. A news executive at a conference asked Zuckerberg's advice on how to create and own a community. "You don't make communities," Zuckerberg replied. "Communities already exist. They're already doing what they want to do. The question you should be asking is how you can help them to do what they want to do better."

By adding new relationship skills and new knowledge of their communities to their existing journalism skills, news media can be a force in creating the future of digital communication, Jarvis believes. In doing so, they can help make their communities better and help create a stronger democracy.


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1 comment:

  1. What the public needed, Jarvis wrote, were constantly updated lists that responded to the needs of the community at that time.