Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The day has come: We're live at Civil Beat

I've been writing here for some time about my experience starting a new local news service in Honolulu.

Well, today is the day that we're opening our doors at Civil Beat (yes, it's a new name - used to be Peer News) to give people some time to look around and talk before our May 4 launch.

I hope you'll drop by.

Monday, April 19, 2010

More on Peer News and comments: An interview with Jay Rosen

Given that there's clearly some confusion over our position on comments at Peer News, I thought I'd share this excerpt from a Skype interview I did with Jay Rosen in March after the speech where I spoke publicly for the first time about Peer News.

I hope this helps clarify our position on comments.

[3/18/10 5:19:08 PM] Jay Rosen: so it's more the anonymous you want to eliminate than that you want to be one way?

[3/18/10 5:20:16 PM] John Temple: We definitely don't want to be one way. If I gave that impression in my talk, I'm sorry. I can see how people might have read the no comments that way. But it was meant as a way to say that instead of comments, we're going to have conversation.

[3/18/10 5:20:42 PM] Jay Rosen: you have a significant misimpression to correct, then

[3/18/10 5:20:44 PM] John Temple: we do believe that in a civic square anonymity contributes greatly to the lack of civility...

[3/18/10 5:20:58 PM] Jay Rosen: the message was "no comments"

[3/18/10 5:21:12 PM] Jay Rosen: which I didn't believe

[3/18/10 5:21:16 PM] Jay Rosen: and did not repeat

[3/18/10 5:21:55 PM] John Temple: i'll work at it...i thought I was pretty clear about the importance of community and conversation...i believe i said that the contributions of readers potentially were as important as the contributions of journalists. I appreciate that you picked up on this and sought to clarify. Thank you!

[3/18/10 5:22:24 PM] Jay Rosen: TechCrunch mangled it

[3/18/10 5:22:50 PM] John Temple: We've talked with her and asked her to clarify. I thought she did a great job other than that.

Wall Street Journal column incorrect about Peer News in column on comments on news Web sites

A column by Gordon Crovitz in Monday's Wall Street Journal mischaracterizes our approach to comments at Peer News, the start-up news service in Honolulu I'm working on with eBay founder Pierre Omidyar.

As soon as I saw his column Sunday, I contacted Crovitz to ask him for a clarification. I've exchanged thoughts with him before and appreciate the work he does in his column. He was gracious and said he would pass my comments along to his editors for a possible clarification or letter to the editor.

Here's what I wrote him Sunday.

Hi Gordon,

Thanks for mentioning Peer News in your latest column, but I wish you had contacted me before you wrote that paragraph. It doesn't accurately reflect our position. I would ask that you publish a clarification. Members of our subscription-based service will be able to post their thoughts on a regular basis. But they won't be presented in the way "comments" are traditionally on news sites. We have a whole strategy for how to handle this. Our intent is actually to encourage civil dialogue and debate, not stop people from talking.

You wrote:

Peer News, a new site launching in Hawaii and funded by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, will not permit comments at all. Editor John Temple said anonymity had so reduced responsibility that comments sections have been dominated by "racism, hate, ugliness" and "reflect badly on news organizations that have them."

Here's the top of my blog post from March 18, with the note that I had that day or the next clarified my statement about comments.

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."

Then here's what I wrote in the text to clarify:

Maybe now you’ll understand why we’re not going to have "comments". (I put quotes around the word comments after Jay Rosenpointed 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.)

I put quotes around comments, because I was trying to differentiate how we're going to approach conversation and dialogue with the widespread approach on news sites of allowing people to post anything under a story. We will not have comments on article pages. We will tell members that if they want to discuss the topic of an article, they should go to a hosted discussion on what we're calling a beat update page, where the reporter-hosts and editors will interact with our members. We will also have ratings for the comments that members post on the beat updates pages.

I hope this helps. I'd be happy to discuss. But I would very much appreciate your help in clarifying this.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The first week at Peer News

I shared my story of the first day of our start-up news service in Honolulu last week. But then the week got away from me and I didn't have a chance to serve up any impressions from the rest of the week.
First, you know how people sometimes complain that newsrooms today are too much like insurance offices. Well, I think this close-up shot by Peer News President and staff photographer Randy Ching gives a hint of how pleasantly informal life is in our offices. T-shirts, jeans and slippers are just fine.

While the scene is informal, the atmosphere is serious. On Tuesday, Randy and Pierre opened the kimono on the company's business plan to a degree I'd never experienced at a media company. I've been around a lot of conversations with staff regarding the business of journalism, but this was unlike anything I'd ever seen. We're building a team where individuals understand what's at stake and will have the information to evaluate how we're doing.

Here's a portrait of the team Randy (the guy standing with the wine glass on his T-shirt) took Friday.

Standing from left: Pierre Omidyar, Treena Shapiro, Mike Levine, Chad Blair, Mark Quezada, Randy Ching, Ryan Kanno and me.
Seated: Katherine Nichols, Noelle Chun, Katherine Poythress and Sara Lin.

After two days of structured training, we started daily story brainstorming sessions followed by what we call beat meetings. At these meetings, we met individually with each reporter-host to go over his or her area of responsibility and talk about it in greater depth. We also began talking about specific "topic pages," the building block of our news service. The first pages they started building are what we're calling structural topic pages, things you'd need to know before you can frame any related issues. So, for example, how government is structured and how it works. Where the money comes from and where it goes. Or who owns the land in Hawaii and who regulates it. That might sound a bit like the stuff of civics class, and it is, but we want to do the work for our members so they don't have to go digging through piles of data to find what they're looking for. What we're doing isn't just data collection, although there's some of that. It's connecting the dots for people so they can focus on an issue at hand but quickly grasp context if they need it.

This sounds a lot easier than it is. I had done some work with our first intern, Daniel Ikaika Ito, to learn what it would take to build these pages. So I knew it wouldn't be easy. And it wasn't. It's difficult for accomplished people who are used to going out and jumping on stories to have to step back and do this kind of basic reporting and writing. The amount of material available quickly becomes overwhelming, and our point is not to overwhelm our members. The best thing I heard was when one reporter-host said that this was what a journalist should do when starting any new job. It ensures that they're familiar with the foundation of what they're covering. This coming week we'll start identifying issues for which we'll build topic pages as well. Those, in our lingo, will be issue topic pages.

By the end of the week we were ready for a "pau hana" (after work drink). Which we did right in our office. We had joked about the staff having to do skits on the first day. Never happened. Although we did have some fun playing a few games - we broke into groups to quickly learn what was the most interesting thing we had in common (my team won dark chocolate - I still haven't received mine, though, Randy) because we'd all lived with grandparents for part of our childhood. By Friday, we had loosened up enough that we were ready to tell stories. Randy caught Mike Levine telling the story of his most memorable hike on Kauai. Amazing.

At a start-up, it's hard not to feel like you're not in a race with time. We want our service to go live as soon as possible. That means we have a lot to do. It's intense. And new. Which can raise the anxiety level. But it's also fun. Or at least we want it to be.

I'll let you know more down the road. But last week was a big step in our march to screens near you...