Category Archives: Tools & Techniques

Citizen Journalism Toolkit Coming? Plus wi-fi tip

tn_toolkit.jpg What would such a toolkit contain?

My friend and occasional collaborator, Tim Bishop, spotted a reference to a forthcoming journalism toolkit that sounds, at least, like a project that he and I had proposed about a year ago in the first Knight 21st Century News Challenge. We didn’t get the grant, however, and left the idea undone.

So now I’m anxious and excited to see what comes out of this effort by the Tactical Technology Collective in the United Kingdom. The TTC appears to have an international focus and its current toolkits are for such things as “NGO in a box” to use the European term for what Americans call non-profits. The group describes several current and planned toolkits including one for citizen journalism that it offered for free, open source use.  

Tim passed on the link without comment but I’m willing to wager a month’s blog income that he grinned when he saw the British group’s terminology, “NGO-in-a-box.” We had called our unfunded and unfinished idea “Journalism in a Box” which we thought was awfully clever. So obviously these Brits must be both clever and better organized than were we.

I’ll try to get on TTC’s dissemination list and help spread the kit when it debuts. I’m anxious for whatever technical help it may provide and willing to use and, if possible, toss any improvements back into the “box” for others to use.

* * *

My distant collaborator, Deep Cuz, who had been a traveling salesman until he moved back into over-the-counter sales, recently passed on this tip about how to use a site called to find wireless hotspots on the road:

“The best site I know of to do that is the Wireless Geographic Logging Engine (WiGLE). At that site, you can use a free, map-based search that lets you drill down into cities, sort of like GoogleMaps does. If you sign up for an account, you can use their more-powerful search engine. The search engine lets you specify an address near where you’re headed, a state, a ZIP code, latitude and longitude, and a variety of other information to help you find the type of hotspot you’re looking for. Head to WiGLE and check it out!”

The powers that be . . . or used to be?

 Burmese protesters, left, get shot, Danes, right, get tear-gassed. Big difference.

A few weeks ago world attention was briefly fixed on Burma, or Myanmar as it called by the military brutes who shot uncounted numbers of protestors demanding a glimmer of freedom. Last week, young Danes tried to occupy a building in Copenhagen that they wanted to turn into a youth center. Police who used tear gas and other means to disperse a protest that seems to have run the gamut from peaceful march to burning pranks. 

In a moment I’ll pass on some tips about technology the Danes are using to get attention. But first let’s remember that the powers of protest only exists where there is the rule of law. Otherwise the authorities shoot you, as they did the Burmese, and they turn off the pictures, and fickle world attention moves elsewhere. We in the West, whose freedoms were won by people long since dead, have a special responsibility now to figure out how to use these new media and web technologies to turn the powers that be into the powers that used to be.

With that in mind Poytner Institute commentator and Danish broadcast journalist Ernst Poulsen notes how the young protestors in Copenhagen used Google Maps and cell phone text message logs to document police actions. Poulsen writes: 

“This combination of simple “moblogging” (mobile blogging) tools and map-tools allows participants to tell their side of the story unfiltered.”

Poulsen goes on to suggest that journalists covering such protests also need mobile technology and wireless Internet access to be able to cover such events. Absolutely! In fact I had an experience recently, in my day job as an ill-tempered reporter for a middling metropolitan daily, where I wished I’d had my own wireless service (perhaps EDVO) because I had to leave the event to file stories and was unable to blog from the scene. This would be a new expense but without an independent means to upload information the reporter might just as well have pulled a Jayson Blair and “covered” the story from home.

Indeed, whether you’re a protestor looking for attention or a journalist looking to cover an event, exciting new tools exist to better connect the roving reporter to his or her production bureaucrary, which is how I have come to think of the newsroom. Here’s a mass media conundrum.  We need to do more field reporting to retain or regain credibility with our audiences, to give them the action and the verite that will keep them subscribing or clicking or doing whatever it is they do to pay our bills. But every time I leave the newsroom I am cut off from the decision-makers. Were I to witness Jesus Christ leading a host of angels across the San Francisco Bay Bridge I would have a devil of a time contacting an editor, as they seem to spend most of their time lubricating the production machinery rather than nurturing ideas, and even if I did find one editor to listen, it sometimes takes a gaggle of them to get anything done, so the poor editor who takes the reporter’s call from the field — and isn’t usually a call — still faces the task of rounding up the critical mass of editors needed to push the sausage through the grinder. 

Is there a technological fix for this disconnect? Of course. Another  Poynter Institute commentary noted how Twitter, a social networking tool, was being used by newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel, which used this tool to post updates to a pair of space shuttle launches over the summer. (My friend, former San Francisco Chronicle reporter Dan Fost wrote an article about Twitter with enough of the how-to so as to help you make sense of it if you are not familiar with the technology.)

One last thought for protestors and newsies alike. Think of technologies in combination to create capabilities that never before existed. For instance one weekend I happened to chance upon a group of guys who were flying remotely-controlled model airplanes. Apparently it is now within the reach of the ordinary person to put a small model plane or helicopter into the air and to control it from the ground. (See this Wikipedia article for more on that.) The models I saw were small, and the guys who were flying them said they could carry a few pounds into the air. My initial concern was that a remote plane, loaded with a few pounds of say, plastic explosive, could use these toys to wreak havoc. Of course in the media setting, it should be a cinch to put a video camera or still camera into the body of one of these model planes and have aerial surveillance of a protest scene. Alreadt hobbyists are experimenting with what is called Kite Aerial Photography.

The point is we have more and better communications tools than any human beings in history. Shame on us, especially those of us who call ourselves journalists, if we don’t learn how to use them.

City Tools, quick followup: better review to follow

tn_cauthorn.jpg Bob Cauthorn understands that the complexity of the toolkit is a barrier to adoption; plans explanations and simplifications.

In a blog entry last week I took a quick look last week at CityTools, a new journalism authoring system, and ended up asking more questions than I answered. That entry elicited a call from Bob Cauthorn who said he had taken the questions in the (constructive) spirit in which they were intended. He also offered to invite me in to kick the tires and write a more informed review which I hope to do in the weeks ahead, after Cauthorn returns from a business trip. I’m looking forward to that as I continue to believe that CityTools has a a great deal of potential but as is the challenge with any complex system, it may require a good deal of upfront training or at least feature-familiarization even to understand what is possible, That’s a good place for me to add value. I’ll share when I have more to report.  

CityTools: phenomenal promise . . . but of what?

tn_cauthorn.jpg  “To peel back newspapers to their essential core , , , creating marketplaces”

Bob Cauthorn is a guy with a history in newspapering, opinionated and abrasive (here’s a taste) — and I say this having worked with Bob and indeed having sparred with Bob, only to come away impressed by his passion, intelligence and committment to what was once called interactive journalism but is now social media or citizen journalism depending on the context.

Online Journalism Review recenty interviewed Cauthorn about his newly launched  CityTools, which OJR editor Robert Niles described as “a social media framework for publishing news articles, lists and classified advertisements,” adding that “Cauthorn demo’d . . .  a platform that serves both newspapers as well as independent and individual publishers.”

I smiled as I heard Bob’s voice behind words like these:

“After I left The [San Francisco] Chronicle, I went backpacking along the Pacific Crest Trail and did a lot of thinking about the state of journalism and online newspapers . . .  I decided, on a very cold night in the Sierras, to peel back newspapers to their essential core. You know? And part of that essential core has been creating marketplaces.”

Exactly how? Well, it takes OJR’s Niles more than three paragraphs to distill the site’s promised activities, including simultaneous support for multiple languages. “Speak English, Spanish… and Swedish?,” Niles writes, “CityTools will let you read, create, order and distribute content in all three, at once.”

I visited the CityTools site to get a sense of how it presented and, sadly, I came away confused. I am not sure who is supposed to do what. From a long menu on the left I clicked on the entry for how-to and landed on another page with far too many choices starting with, “The detailed 15-minute HowTo.”

I’m sorry, but in our Attention Economy time is in short supply. New habits and even new tools must be intuitive and viral. We have to know what it’s going to do for us before we pick it up. That puts a premium on simplicty and punishes complexity. CityTools, which is awfully powerful but powerfully intimidating, is on the wrong side of that trend.

And despite Bob’s professed and no doubt sincere desire to create a marketplace of ideas, I am fascinated that neither he nor Niles used the words “money” or “cash” or “revenues” in their discussion. What kind of market can exist without them?

I say this as a sympathetic, if critical observer, because I sense an incredible power in CityTools. I registered with the system and was impressed by the smoothness of the process. I felt like I’d put my hand on a purring race car. Trouble is, now I don’t know how to drive it.

So let me pose a few suggestions or questions that might be helpful in focusing the sales message for what I sense could be an important tool – a breakthrough tool perhaps. Here goes:

 — Less vision and more substance about who should buy CityTools and get what payback how soon.

– Are there case studies of the tool in use?

– Is this a system that can be adopted by the freelancer or a startup or is this a big-outfit system?  And if both, how does an organization deal with those vastly different customer needs?

– Is this a proprietary or open source toolkit? I am guessing proprietary. If so that is a strike against CityTools. Open systems can innovate and improve faster and at less cost; open systems can proliferate faster by giving buyers options; even if the core toolkit must be held close, there should be some open source element to encourage experimentation and adoption; 

— Finally, why would the news consumer adopt this? What is the viral uptake method to show the next person why they should use this, and to train them or to hold their hand as they acquire whatever skill or habit is necessary to realize the benefit?

Questions, questions, questions, but I hope taken in the spirit asked — fascination and interest, and a belief that Bob may have come up with a powerful something here . . .  if he takes another deep breath and explains how this will help media producers make money, get famous or attain power, which are the prime motivations for doing anything in media.

Calculators — for journalism?

tn_philip-merrill.jpg Philip Merrill School of Journalism at University of Maryland

The University of Maryland’s J-Lab sent out its latest project update including a reminder about the Knight Citizen News Network, a great and evolving online catalog of tips, tricks and tools for creating and managing local news sites.

Included was a calculator that allows anyone to assess “the likelihood that a 9th grader will complete high school on time.” The calculator is searchable by school district. I used it to determine how the  2005 on-time graduation rate of my district, San Leandro Unified (76.2 %) compared to that of California (63.3%) and the nation (71.3%).

Shocking in a high-tech state in a knowledge economy one in three of young adults start their working lives without this minimal credential. In any event the calculator, called the Finish Line, was was funded by a New Voices grant, one of several idea-seeding programs run by the J-Lab. This notion of adding a data service to reported work is taking hold as an expectation of what journalists should deliver. If the objective of journalism is to help people understand and thereby control the world, then stories, even those gussied up with pictures and sounds, are not the only tools available. We have databases, animation, conversation and community input as the new methods for creating not merely the awareness but the sense of civic engagement that makes change possible.

(As an aside, when I visitied U of M on a junket I met J-Lab director Jan Schaffer — and found the her offices in humbler off-campus quarters rather than the stately brick building above.)

J-schools should teach media literacy . . . plus

tn_head-case.jpg Graphic from the Information Literacy Project at Beloit College in Wisconson. Details below.

Poynter Institute commentator Steve Klein hits the nail on the head when he writes:

“Journalism programs should be in the business of media literacy, not just training journalists. That should be a campus-wide goal that engages majors from every department.”

Klein, a journalism professor at George Mason University,  suggested this effort would help college students become better citizens and better enable them to think for themselves (“There’s a concept for you!” he quips).

All well and good but let me add some additional, hard-nosed reasons why this campus-wide media literacy effort makes institutional sense. Journalism programs cannot keep training majors for evaporating mass media jobs. Meanwhile with the proliferation of media — desktop publishing, video and audio, web publishing — many people will dabble in media for professional, political or artististic reasons.

In a network world, media literacy equates to business and professional literacy. Here I mean more than the sensible consumption of news as suggested above. On the flip side it will be vital for anyone with a mission — building a company, a movement, a scientific or cultural consensus, or any cooperative human endeavor — to learn how to tell stories. Is that not one lesson of the Bible that, with no intention at all of being profane, applies equally to Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book?

How do we define journalism? Surely it is more than the work done by the employees of major media organizations, though one would hope their work would offer the best examples. Let’s brand journalism more broadly as the discipline that sticks to the facts.  Journalists believe that it is possible and desirable to fairly distill the essence of any situation; and they try to  present stories in such a way as to help people make up their own minds. 

It makes sense to teach every student a bit of media literacy. And a bit of journalism. They’re likely to need both to succeed.


(I found the above graphic by searching for an image under the word “literacy.” Was that by design? That would be my guess because the Information Literacy Project is a wealth of presentations, course outlines and other aides to help teachers think about how to foster skepticism, awareness and rational thinking — again, what a concept!)

Merger in on-demand publishing world

It’s consolidation time in online self-publishing as AuthorHouse, one of the largest online self-publishing firms takes out iUniverse, based in Lincoln, Neb., for an undisclosed sum reports Paid Content, which goes on to say:

“The two are competing against competitors as and Amazon moved into self-publishing in April 2005 by acquiring BookSurge, and last month its CreateSpace unit launched an online books-on-demand service.”

Online self-publishing is a relatively new trend and already the players are centralizing, as the relentless price-comparison possible given the Internet accelerates the normal winnowing of players. But there are others. I blogged about my sister’s (positive) experience with Lightning Source.

Find other tips in this San Francisco Chronicle article by my former colleague Dan Fost.