Saturday, May 29, 2010

Intern, 3/4

Ok, at this point in the internship, the whole "writing an internship report" thing is getting old. 

     What can I really say to distinguish week three from week two? Drama and conflict perhaps. That usually works as a lead. 
     There was a virtual fist-fight over OpenFile this week. Actually, the fight wasn't really about OpenFile, OpenFile was more of a MacGuffin in the narrative of the fight, but as a group consisting of living humans with real emotions, playing the MacGuffin for a while was drama enough. 
     In my Week One round-up of press coverage of OpenFile's beta launch, I neglected to include an article that appeared  in the NOW newspaper (or maybe just on NOW's website). The article was opinion, and it argued that OpenFile is going to face the challenges that citizen journalism sites like NowPublic regularly face, and will struggle as a result. Except, the author didn't interview anybody from OpenFile, and apparently didn't read any of of the other coverage that did contain interviews very carefully, because he got a lot wrong about how OpenFile proposes journalism with public participation could be done. Craig Silverman pointed out the errors in a comment. Jay Rosen, a guru of online journalism who teaches at NYU, casually tweeted a reference to the fact that the NOW piece committed errors, and thus the virtual fist-fight began. 
     This person presents the first of the crazy tweet punches fairly clearly.
    Even as Rosen's followers weighed in on the issue in this way, the NOW guy refused to give up! He went from error to slander when he accused Rosen of having a direct economic interest in the OpenFile company. Madness. 
     Then, some guy in Atlanta picked up on the tweetfight and analyzed it logically. I thought the coolness of the piece would put the matter to rest, but if you read down to the comments, the NOW author chose to continue his feckless campaign to clear his name. By this point, the whole thing made me laugh. 
     I definitely know how this Joshua Errett guy feels. Which is why I'm trying to not be too hard on him. The Internet is a hard, hard place to project part of your life into. There is no mercy for those who make mistakes. There is no way to control what you broadcast. Everyone is expected either to self-moderate to the point of perfection, or to take refuge in anonymity. I admire those who put their real selves out there into the unforgiving environment, and I feel bad when they are punished as a result. 
     But back to the office. I'm amazed anybody got any work done as this drama unfolded. My productivity would appear to have dropped,  judging by the number of stories I filed this week (only one) but I actually have three stories I'm working on for next week. Hopefully, they will be somewhat ready by Monday or Tuesday.  
     Different things made writing difficult this week. A lot of people took their sweet time getting back to my phone calls, or they never got back at all. I went to a city council committee meeting, which was so much more stupefying to my neurons than any Dalhousie Student Union meeting I've ever been to. The main reason I got less done: the TTC and the incredible long time it takes to get me anywhere when I need to be there. Also, Thursday morning was spent wandering around downtown, looking for a street person to talk to. Friday afternoon was shortened because I agreed to give an interview to a Ryerson Review of Journalism writer who is covering OpenFile and the future OpenFile heralds. 
     In true RRJ style, she has pretty much interviewed every single person remotely related to her topic of study. She wanted to talk to me because I am a freelancer who has five stories up on the site, which is more than most people. She didn't know, when she requested an interview, that my output of stories is due to  me being an intern. She must've thought I was just an OpenFile nut -- which, I'm on my way to becoming.

P.S. Two stories interested me from a philosophical perspective this week. One journalist took on the research of a rumour about immigration raids which no one could confirm or deny. On OpenFile, that's still a worthy story, because the rumour has had wide diffusion among hispanic residents of Toronto's West End. This story was a good proposal for how coverage could evolve and keep filling the file with new information. Nothing has really come out, yet, to confirm or deny the rumour (perhaps because OpenFile doesn't have wide diffusion in the immigrant community) but I have my fingers crossed. In the future, the site's audience will be bigger, and also bigger then the likelihood that lures like this will attract actual fish. 
     Secondly, this story about a house captured a quick audience. It's almost a perfect example of what my fiction instructor would call "the human heart in conflict with itself" -- but the human heart I'm talking about belongs to the reader; it's the human heart of the contemporary Torontonian. Because, what should happen when a quadriplegic wants to raze a heritage house in order to build an accessible one she can move around in? It's a competition between two strong but conflicting desires: to preserve something that may have historical value, or to build something that has value for a family with specific and tragic needs. To make the story more interesting, the city councillor has picked a side, and underhandedly commissioned a third-party report that pulls the rug out from under the feet of the family, who are anxious to build their home. The way this story evolved on OpenFile was classic, and one Twitter user agrees: this is how the new journalism could be done! 
     And it's not citizen journalism, Errett. It's more. 

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Internship report 2/4

Week Two (May 17 to 21)  I had my act together more often, I would say. I borrowed a cell phone: a key reportorial instrument. I was promoted temporarily to a desk. I ate better, and at more body-appropriate intervals.
     Tuesday and Wednesday were my busiest days so far. As a result, and surprisingly at times, they were quite fun.
     On Tuesday, I woke up to see the story I was going to be working on that day on the cover of the GTA section of the Toronto Star.
     “Damn,” I thought. 
     One aspect of OpenFile that is constantly pointed out by the skeptics as a possible weakness of the model is the open pitching process. Story ideas aren’t secret. They are public, advertised as “open files” in a prominent banner on the front page. The openness is designed to collect public input on whether a story is worth assigning to a reporter. But even after they are assigned, the files stay in the top banner, continuing to tempt readers from other news outlets to take the story idea and develop it for their own pages. This was the pitch to OpenFile:
“Years ago, I wrote a blog post about the Joy Oil Station building restoration efforts. Fast-forward several years, and while appearing to be fully restored, they remain unused and inaccessible to the public. What is the official plan for these restored architectural relics at Lake Shore & Windermere? When will they open?”
   The last time the Star covered the Joy station story was in 2007, around the same time the blog post referred to in the pitch was published. Although the Toronto Star knew the story of the relocation and restoration of the Joy Oil building, I didn’t see why they would cover it now, a week after it appeared as a pitch on OpenFile, unless the open pitch prompted them to do a follow-up. When I saw that Star headline, I thought they’d scooped my news out from under me the day I was getting ready to publish it.
     Fortunately for me, they didn’t do much other than re-visit their old story (which far from answered the question posed in the pitch on OpenFile). The restored building façade featured prominently in the Star story art, but their source at the city didn’t know much about the future of the building. I had different sources, and they were able to tell me a little more. When I published later that day, what I was able to write had more information about how the Joy Oil building was included in development plans for the lakeshore area. My story is here
     But I don’t think the fact that I had better sources made mine a better story. I actually think that the open pitch process made the OpenFile version a better story. The background narrative was richer. Somebody (Jerrold Litwinenko, former blogTO editor) was publicly interested in this building. His curiosity germinated in other readers’ minds, while they, too, waited to see what the pitch would produce. Jerrold publicized his curiosity about this building on his personal Twitter feed and in other online and non-online areas of his life, I’m sure. His curiosity was mirrored. A week after his query, both the Toronto Star and OpenFile had answers to his question, and the questions of other people interested in his pitch. It all added up, and on OpenFile, it added up more completely. The Toronto Star article that day did not have a comments section. It did not have links to complete the narrative. It didn’t even have all the information a reporter could have gathered. But OpenFile linked to the Toronto Star, and to Jerrold’s old blog post, and to other relevant pages.
     So, it was a good day. The next day, my assignment was very different. I didn’t expect to break any news, that day. I covered the grand opening of the newest public washroom in Toronto. It was a media circus. Mayor David Miller cut the ribbon. In days leading up to the high-tech washroom inauguration, city PR people had been very tight-lipped about the details, and their strategy worked. The Mayor said later he hadn’t seen so many media people at one of his press conferences since he announced a budget surplus in March.
    Although the amount of press people there did not encourage me (why bother duplicating all this effort?), it was good experience in terms of observing some Toronto reporters in their natural environment. I tried to calculate how much money was being spent on these people’s salaries for the two hours I was standing there. It seemed like a waste of money. One camera crew, one print reporter, one photographer and one radio reporter could have done the job that needed doing: getting the information and putting it out there. I wish that with these types of spoon-fed stories, we could get away with that, and spend our society's journalistic resources on investigative work. But I digress. 
(though, to further this digression, I share a link my editor tweeted yesterday, containing an argument that small scale, collaborative news projects ARE the future of investigative journalism. So maybe it's all connected)
     My coverage of the loo story didn’t originate with a pitch. Because OpenFile is still in beta, the influx of pitches from regular users doesn’t yet sustain the story-producing capacity of the site. So, reporters and editors create story ideas too, like in a traditional newsroom. This story idea came from my editor, Kathy.
    The timing worked in our favour on this one. Kathy had the idea a week before the press conference, while the PR people were being tight lipped. But we were able to write something that drew on earlier stories from several similar interviews Toronto’s street furniture manager gave in early May to a variety of outlets. So, we had a story the day before the grand opening, hinting that the next day (May 19) would probably be the big day.
     And so, on Wednesday, when I went to the press conference, we already had a file started on the site. By the time I got back to the office after the event, all I had to do was plug in some new info, use the old story as a nut graph, add the photos I took, and the file was ready, and updated, way before many of the other print/online stories were.
    The TV stations had been broadcasting live, even before the first flush, but when TV viewers went to the internet to find more info, OpenFile was best prepared to capture those clicks. Kathy pushed this story on Twitter quite a bit, and it ended up getting three times as many page views as the Joy Oil story.
     So, even though I’m doing the same kind of reporting I would do if I were interning for a newspaper or a radio station, I’m learning different ways to use the internet to build and acknowledge the existing community around a single story.
     I’m also learning about Toronto, as a side-effect. Torontonians are starved for good public washrooms. Torontonians are proud of their neighbourhoods. Torontonian transit drivers won’t stop the streetcar unless you pull the yellow lead, even if you’ve made it abundantly clear you want to get off at this corner, through other cues. I have two more weeks to go. (edit: one and a half) 
     So far, so good. 

Monday, May 17, 2010

My internship report, first of four

I've been extremely lucky to find myself amongst the furor of the first week of OpenFile's live website launch. Up until May 11, consisted of a blog with idealistic but vague posts, and links to Facebook and Twitter pages. Things quickly got more interesting when, on my first day in the office, their beta news site went live.
     If you haven't been keeping up with the buzz, you might need to know that OpenFile is the newest guess at what the future of journalism will look like. They are betting that it will look local, with an open and collaborative story development process, and that the stories will be community driven, freelancer-produced and curated by experienced old-media talent.
     So, what sets this start-up apart from all the others who are claiming to have divined the future?
     Well, first of: they pay freelancers really well, and really quickly. As a result, they are building a fan base amongst the unemployed writers, photographers and media people in Toronto (and even some of the employed ones) whom they will need in order to build up the story stable on the site. 
     Secondly, they have some money. And they have enough for three years, apparently.
     But that's not all. Word of OpenFile has spread thanks in part to the brand-value of the people associated with the project. Kathy Vey, the EIC, is a well-known Toronto Star alumnus. Wilf Dinnick was a TV correspondent for all the big North American stations. The only name I knew before applying for the internship, and the most well know in the internet world, in Craig Silverman, whose 2,200 Twitter followers certainly haven't hurt the start-up's efforts to get the word out about themselves. 
     Also, OpenFile have, in a way, combined the buzz concepts of the current online world, and successfully conceptualized how these concepts (open processes, discussion, conversation and crowd-souced information) could fit into a journalistic model. Silverman wrote about how a tipster, a reporter (me) and an editor carried this off in his second blog post after the launch: File Function
     During my first three days there, OpenFile has garnered the coverage they were coveting.  There were upbeat articles about them in some prestigious publications. The Globe and Mail article was the first, and might have prompted many of the others (that's the thing about old media: influence). Every time another article about them broke, the small staff would chatter gayly with each other, levy violent threats in vain at anyone who dared say anything negative, and give each other virtual high-fives in Twitter-land. (edit: it was stimulating event to be around. I wish I had ownership over a new project I was this excited about. Tune back in to my life the the new Dalhousie Gazette gets started in September.)
Here is a round-up of the kudos:

Business News Network (one and two) -- these are good clips to watch if you want to know about how the money aspect works

And more bloggy-type coverage:
Torontoist (which included a very nice photo gallery in which I appear - take it as proof that I'm attending my internship, perhaps)
Mondoville (who've exhibited a bit of snark and a lot more skepticism than the other sites)

Predictably, a lot of the positive response to OpenFile has come from journalists. Some of the more personal responses, emailed directly to the editorial team instead of expressed publicly on Twitter or Facebook, were unexpected.
But despite all the hype, OpenFile has hurdles to overcome. The Halifax Daily News and the New York Times experimented with the hyper-local model, planting reporters in specific neighbourhoods and attempting to benefit from that involvement with the grassroots community. Their experiments failed. Maybe journalists don't have the most active imagination when it comes to local news. Maybe, like my prof said, there is a problem in "defining news by where it happens instead of what it is."
     I see a possible disconnect between the audience they are ultimately aiming for, and the audience they are currently reaping. They need to have a big number of unique visitors in order to satisfy their funders. They won't get those numbers by leeching from the established Toronto blogs and Twitter feeds, or by attracting only disenfranchised journalists. I don't see how the site can create a comprehensive portrait of all the Toronto  neighbourhoods without some targeted street outreach work promoting their site. 
     Another question I have is: what is their argument that the internet is the best medium for neighbourhood news? Don't people who connect to the internet generally have more education, more money, more options, and thus more of an interest in the things outside their own neighbourhood? And perhaps, is neighbourhood news not best garnered from the neighbourhood itself: the local flyers, the notice boards, the conversations at the grocery store?
     But maybe I'm destined to miss the appeal of hyper-local internet news, because I've never really felt connected to any neighbourhood. It has been 14 years since I have lived in any one house for longer than a year. I use the internet to feel connected to things I can't walk to, or call on the phone. Maybe I spend too much time with the hyper-international? So, I'm not the target audience of hyper-local sites.
       OpenFile's overwhelming strength is that they are taking it slow. They have capital funding for three years: it has taken them less than one to get where they are now. They are smart, well-connected, experienced journalists. They have fully thought-out the project they are working on, but they are not rigid. They expect to morph over the next weeks, in order to keep up with what they will need to become. They are open to suggestions. I think the bookies are still undecided on what will happen to this gamble. 

Monday, May 10, 2010

In short