Thursday, March 18, 2010

Content and Community: My talk on Peer News at the Newsmorphosis conference

This is a draft of the speech I gave at the Newsmorphosis conference in Honolulu on Thursday, March 18. My actual remarks varied from this outline. You can see my talk on ustream.

Updated to clarify my statement about "comments."

  • This is my first public appearance since I moved to Honolulu
  • I’ve got to say the newspaper scene here feels like deja vu all over again
  • A year ago, it was Denver becoming a one paper town and I was the editor there who saw his paper silenced, with hundreds losing their jobs
  • When I got here in January, it was apparent that the newspaper status quo in Honolulu couldn’t go on for long
  • What happened, how the tables turned, is another example of why we can’t take anything for granted in this media era
  • I understand how difficult, even distressing, these changes can be
  • But having lived through a similar experience and come out on the other side, I’m also here to tell you that even in a time of uncertainty there are reasons to be I am today, working here in Honolulu.
  • The title Jay Fidell gave this speech is “What role will Peer News play in these transformations”
  • It seems to me, based on what's happened with local TV news outlets and now at Honolulu's newspapers, that the media environment is doing a pretty good job of transforming itself without any help from Peer News
  • Think of Jay’s title for this talk as an unsupported lede...or a headline that doesn’t fit the story
  • I’m not actually going to talk about the role of Peer News in the transformation we’ve been talking about at this conference today...Frankly, I don’t know what the role of Peer News will be in these transformations...that will be for others to decide down the road
  • I do know that we’re going to approach some things differently. We’ll learn from that and I hope you’ll follow our service and my blog and learn with us
  • What’s different for me at Peer News from what I’ve done in the past is that we’re not trying to invent an online newspaper, we're not trying to move things we've been doing in print online
  • We started by asking three fundamental questions
  • 1. What is the role of the press in a democracy
  • 2. How best would you fulfill that role using all the tools available today
  • 3. How do you do that in a sustainable way
  • I hope my talk today will help make more clear our answers to those questions.
  • I think we’re in a period where news organizations need to shift their focus from their own needs to the needs and desires of citizens...
  • I’ve been out talking to people to hear what’s on their minds...Let me give you a sense of what I’m hearing...
  • Show video clips of man/woman on the street interviews
  • I think you can hear a sense of concern...they’re worried that news is filtered, that they’re not getting the whole story and that things are getting worse
  • At peer news we want readers to feel things are getting better.
  • That they’re being heard
  • That they have people working on their behalf.
  • We’re starting from scratch, so that allows us certain freedoms.
  • We have no history...that means we don’t have to shift from an old model to a new model.
  • Our mission statement is an example of I’m talking about
  • The mission of peer news is to create the new civic square
  • It’s hard to imagine any traditional news organization opting for that mission statement
  • Fundamentally, we believe that our news service should empower citizens and encourage greater civic participation
  • We’re creating a place where people can learn and understand, debate and discover
  • Our goal is to be the place where citizens come to learn, understand, debate and discover solutions to the most important issues in our community
  • Peer news will be a place where citizens’ contributions matter...yes, potentially as much as the contributions of the journalists who provide the reporting and information that will serve as the basis for discussion
  • So I'm going to answer the question many of you have been asking me for weeks: What are you doing
  • Peer News is focusing on two things: Content and community. That’s the bottom line. Those are the two words that you’re going to hear from us again and again. Content and Community.
  • Here’s how we’re going to be different on the content side
  • We’re taking a more holistic approach to news...We’ll take issues that we know people care about or are important to the community and provide in-depth reporting that can serve as a resource for readers. That resource will be a living history, something that evolves as understanding of the issue develops..That’s different from the traditional approach of reporting isolated stories reflecting a single point in time....And it’s different from an archive, a collection of the stories a news organization has written, like the archives on important topics you might find on many news sites
  • Matt Thompson of NPR described a similar way of thinking in a blog post recently
  • He wrote: "Right now, the most common way the news industry attempts to impart systemic knowledge is by wedging it into our episodic reports... This is completely bass-ackwards. Journalists spend a ton of time trying to acquire the systemic knowledge we need to report an issue, yet we dribble it out in stingy bits between lots and lots of worthless, episodic updates."
  • If you want to understand an issue like the proposed rail project for Honolulu on Peer News, you’ll be able to read a deep and ever-growing briefing on the issue, with maps, source documents, etc. Articles won’t need all the boilerplate background that is typical of many newspaper stories...we’ll use links from articles to connect people back to a page that will seem more like wikipedia than a newspaper, although wikipedia with a news edge
  • Our articles typically will be driven by questions rather than events...that’s why we talk about an investigative reporting mindset driving our approach..... we’ll be trying to answer the questions readers might ask in order to come to an informed opinion about an issue like rail
  • And when I talk about important issues, I think it’s key to stress that we’ll identify what we think those are and hold onto them tightly...we don’t want to focus on a hot topic one day and seem to forget about it the next
  • So that’s a bit about the content part of the equation
  • Let me focus now on the other half of the equation: community
  • As I mentioned before. We’re out to create the new civic square. You can’t do that without having people engaged.
  • One of the ways we’ll get people involved is by connecting with them and connecting them with each other
  • Here are 3 specific things we’re going to do
  • No. 1. Our job title for our reporting staff isn’t “reporter”
  • It’s “reporter and host”
  • This is different from what other people are doing...but we think it’s going to be a key to our success....
  • If you think of reporters as the servants of their readers...people who are working for their’d be a lot closer to what we’re thinking, instead of reporters as chroniclers or reporters as stenographers...
  • We know there are going to be people in the community who know more than our reporters on any given subject...the challenge is to involve them and create a place for them to participate in the new civic square...
  • The second thing that will make us different is how we’ll handle what most news sites call comments.
  • How many of you, and be honest with me, how many of you read comments because you think you’re going to learn something from them? Give me a show of hands. How many of you are embarrassed by the comments on your own Web site and think they reflect badly on your community or news organization?
  • Maybe now you’ll understand why we’re not going to have "comments". (I put quotes around the word comments after Jay Rosen pointed out that it sounded like I was saying it was going to be a one-way conversation. My point was that we were going to have debate, discussions, conversations - not comments. We think we can create a more satisfying and civil environment through this approach, rather than using "comments" after an article.)
  • We all know how comments on news sites can descend into racism, hate, the ugly side of they can reflect badly on news organizations and often only reflect a narrow slice of their truth, the comments sections of most news sites often act as a keep out sign to decent people...why would anybody want to participate given the tone and nature of the speech found there?
  • The problem...or at least a big part of the problem...anonymity...
  • In a civic have to show your face can’t avoid responsibility for your words..
  • We plan to recreate that experience ..
  • No. 3, Peer News is going to call things like it sees them.
  • We think it’s important to find a way to, as one new friend put it, speak hard truths to each other and still get along
  • This means that at Peer News we’ll be taking stands... Readers may not agree with us sometimes, or even most of the time...but we believe that by taking a clear position on many issues, it will help others shape their own...
  • So that should give you a sense of how content and community will work together on Peer News
  • But let me go ahead and address a few questions I know you might still be asking
  • One big one is what the news service itself will look like
  • The site isn’t going to be some 3D affair, something nobody has ever’s not Avatar...
  • It’s designed to serve the needs of its readers, to make it seamless for them to participate every day, to keep them coming back for’ll be about the content and the conversation, not about whiz bang
  • The site exists to fulfill the needs of the community..
  • We hope the site will connect people here in a way they haven’t been connected before
  • Another question that I often hear is so what’s the business model
  • Peer News will be a member organization, but not members only
  • We’ll be embracing transparency and social media...there will be plenty of presence and impact for everybody, whether they’re members or not
  • But the business model is based on creating content and experiences that people will value...and are willing to pay for
  • That’s where we start...
  • So what can you expect from peer news? A different way of thinking about content and a different way of thinking about community
  • And a new way of thinking about how they’re connected
  • I’ve come a long way to start this journey...My wife and I moved here from Colorado because we believe in this much as I’ve come to love the magic of this place in the weeks that I’ve been here, it’s not what brought me here...I’m here because I’m passionate about the possibility of finding a new approach to journalism...I believe in what we’re doing at Peer News, in what I’ve told you about today...I hope after listening to this talk that you’re starting to feel the same excitement, too


  1. John - I was at this conference today and really appreciate what you and your colleagues are creating. I hope you achieve a way for the community to gain more 'systemic knowledge' on a host of important issues. Although Hawaii is pretty small and very isolated, there are some really deep reservoirs of knowledge and insight on a wide range of issues. The local media hasn't been able to effectively tap these reservoirs, so hopefully you will.

    I suspect Peer News will be able to achieve the level of civility you want by not allowing anonymous comments. But I wonder how many people will signal their views on the more controversial topics, especially when they don't have a professional interest to defend.

    I look forward to your launch- good luck.

    Keith Mattson

  2. Aloha John, what I loved most about your presentation was the video interview segment you did talking to folks on the street. That for me was a voice completely missing from the conversations of the day.

  3. Hi John,

    Peer News sounds like the kind of news source I've been wanting for years. I've got some requests for what I hope to see, and some questions.

    The lack of context has been my main gripe with the news for years. I'm frustrated just getting headlines and sound bites. Matt Thompson described the problem well. Your talk has reactivated the Twitter stream on the hashtag from his panel discussion at SxSW this week with Jay Rosen and others, #futureofcontext ! The media world is watching Peer News already.

    I feel strongly that good info graphics can aid greatly in providing context - the big picture - as well as content details. I saw a hint of that in your mention of maps, and I hope you will make that a major feature at Peer News.

    Like you, I've noticed how uncivilized and off-topic some comment threads are, so i can understand not allowing anonymous comments, but i've also seen some very thoughtful and enlightening exchanges on blogs occasionally, so i'm wondering, how will the community interact in this new commons? How will people ask the reporter/hosts questions?

    Lastly, as a Maui resident, I hope there will be coverage of neighbor island issues too.

    Best of luck in your new adventure!

    Karen Bennett

    (And I agree with Keith's comment about the "deep reservoirs of knowledge and insight" here; you just have to be open and look for them.)

  4. Looking at a range of sites that use traditional comments, their success and contribution varies widely.

    While I agree that some site's comments are embarrassing, I would question the implication of your remark: "How many of you are embarrassed by the comments on your own Web site and think they reflect badly on your community or news organization?" Often, this reflects an issue with failings of the site where the article author's fail to understand the topics reported, perceived bias or the site's desire to sensationalize or unfairly promote their advertisers, sponsors, etc. Look at a site like Fred Wilson's which has excellent comments that are quite valuable, no doubt due to Wilson's intelligence, respect for his audience and his willingness to respond and engage with commenters. (In our own site, we have had great success with commenting as we try to emulate that model.)

    I am not sure if commenting is broken as much as reporting is broken. I do think it's great that you plan to be a member site. We found that being a member site incents us to provide higher quality reporting and care for our members, leading to deeper, richer discussions.

  5. Fact is, most people fear public speaking more than death.

    The anonymous comment forums of the Internet have been a step forward for democracy for this reason. People that otherwise would not have provided their opinion are now doing so.

    Out in the field, I am confronted more often than not with people who don't wish to be quoted on even the most mundane and uncontroversial of topics. They may have said some valuable things, but they don't want people to know what they think, fearing others may criticize them or other reasons unknown to me.

    On election night, I've certainly struggled to find people in my community who would talk about a candidate. For instance, they cite fears of reprisal from their boss. I've also had people make valid comments about St. Patrick's Day parades and then refuse to provide their name.

    If a member of the public was to stand up in any community forum and say "I have the solution to the health care crisis," or "I know how to solve the commuter rail issues," or "This is what I feel we should cut to fill the state's budget hole," many people in the audience would either disagree with them and find them stupid or find them to be crazy. I've seen this at many government meetings. Anonymous commenters, coincidentally, are found to be crazy.

    In terms of racist comments, well, those, to me, are the most valuable of all, because they show us just how prevalent racism is in our society. What was once hidden from us is now in front of our face and we can't escape it. Though publishing these comments may allow some people with those views to reassert them, the vast majority of us notice their hateful nature.

    The comments providing feedback on the news organization are also valuable. In fact, I find any and all feedback to be the secret to life. It is the only way to improve and the more the merrier. Each has to be taken and analyzed in its own right. The quality of a news organization will win over any negative press (is there such a thing?) issued by the anonymous.

    That being said, I do feel that society should be given a better way to fire back and tell these people what they think of their opinion. They should be allowed to rate those comments and the people making them. They should be rewarded not only for rating those commenters, but also for choosing to publish comments WITH their names. A racist comment should be removed and labeled as racist.

    By allowing individuals in the forum to be rated, they gain power. Power sells. It attracts. It makes the forum more successful. In this way, the forum becomes a game in which people compete to provide the most informed opinion as agreed upon by society.

    I wonder how many people sought to be an eBay Power Seller just so they could show everyone their sweet, new title.

    The Savannah paper allows comments to be rated, I believe.

    In the end, moving away from anonymous comments is a step in the opposite direction. It takes us back to the city council meeting, which relatively no one goes to. They don't see the value of public engagement. Let them come in through an anonymous comment, and perhaps they will see the importance of attaching their name to be involved in their society with their minds. To being democratic.

    I don't have the answers. Perhaps nobody does. But there's my two cents.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. This sounds like a very tiny niche, even tinier than is, due to your fear and loathing of comments. You could have people sign up and only post with real-life names or known, consistent blogger, which is what I do on on my blog.

    I predict this will be a fringe leftist publication because you will pick the articles you think are politically correct, not what readers want, and you will deprive yourself of feedback. It also sounds like you can't bear to have a record stand, right or wrong, but will keep rewriting history like Orwell. It's possible to have rubrics and not "episodic reporting" without removing the ability of the reader to follow how stories develop based on various factors.

  8. john this sounds fascinating. The lack of coverage of government has been a bonanza for politicians. The fear of exposure is the primary check on dubious actions by goverment. the current sad state of affairs with resources in the media has greaqtly reduced the fear of exposure.Focousing resources on government actions (zoning, transportation,budget priotities)while allowing citizens to contribute their expertise shouod restore the checks and balances a thriving democracy needs.

  9. I like your thoughts about different way of thinking about content..Its very interesting for me to read this post about comments.I must say that you have good perspectives.

    dean graziosi

  10. John, thanks for summing up your speech for us on East Coast. It is very inspiring to think about the possibilities of reporter as host.

    With much aloha,


  11. Aloha John!
    You don't know me (yet), but I'm a media professional on Maui and have set up a model for Citizen Journalism that involves training, coaching, and follow-up with volunteers...and It worked! While I was at Akaku (Maui's public access station) serving as it's Education Director, I designed and put the model into action during both 2008 elections (primary and national). I would love to share my mana'o and experiences with you.

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