Category Archives: networks

The Stop Online Piracy Act and U.S. Rep Mel Watt

Rep. Watt on Youtube

Rep. Mel Watt during SOPA hearings.

Congress is considering a bill that would place restrictions on the Internet, and Charlotte’s Rep. Mel Watt is one of the co-sponsors. Industry heavyweights like Google have lined up against the bill, which has other heavyweights like the Motion Picture Association of America on the other side.

Watt’s coming under some heat because of his statements during discussions about the bill, which could resurface Dec. 21. He has said, “It’s not worthy for us to be talking about who got bought off by whom.” That statement, of course, sent people to look at his political contributors. Here’s a summary.

From Phoenix Woman at Fire Dog Lake:
“Mel Watt Has Over 130,000 Reasons to Like SOPA.”

Alex Howard, government 2.0 correspondent for O’Reilly Media, reported in real time from the markup hearings on Dec. 15 for the bill. Here are two tweets of his from his @digiphile account, with more than 110,000 followers:

Alex Howard tweet 1

Alex Howard tweet 2

Others responded to Watt’s “I am not a nerd” statement during hearings:
“Dear Congress, It’s No Longer OK To Not Know How The Internet Works.”

Here’s Watt saying, “I am not a nerd,” on Youtube, with reaction.

What the bill does: Lifehacker’s quick version: “All About SOPA: The bill that wants to cripple your Internet, very soon.”

The deep dive on the bill, from Zack Carter at the Huffington Post.

Discussions about the bill could resurface as early as Dec. 21. Here’s where it stands.

Current contributors to Watt’s future campaign efforts include the Communications Workers of America, Microsoft, Cisco, the Motion Picture Association of America, News Corp., Qualcomm, and the Recording Industry Association of America.

Here’s more from on Watt’s campaign finance numbers.

For Gen Y: Social media tips for organizations

xkcd map of social media

A crop of students are moving off to summer internships, paid and unpaid, and many have social media as a chunk of their work. It’s a task that many organizations are happy to outsource or delegate, especially to the digital natives.

But, as you know, doing it right is different from just having a thousand friends on Facebook.

Add to that wave the number of rising seniors or recent graduates who want to leverage social media for their resumes and job searches. The work requires a shift in thinking from using Facebook for personal reasons. Most digital natives have certainly learned the power of Facebook for organizing and the pitfalls of TMI on social networks, but there’s always more to learn.

The first step: Recognize that managing social media for an organization is different from using the tools for personal use.

Plenty of advice exists. Finding the good advice is hard.

Here are some pointers to sources, sprinkled with tips:

From Mandy Jenkins, DC social news editor for the Huffington Post: Social media guidelines to live by. Her full blog: Zombiejournalism.

From Sara Gregory, recently of The Daily Tar Heel: Visual fun slideshow of Twitter tips for journalists, good for anyone.
All posts by Sara Gregory tagged “Twitter.”

Shortening websites addresses for Twitter: Use on a separate tab, and sign up for a account. You can add a plus sign to the end of any shortened url to get specific data about the number of clicks on the link, and you can get other data with a account.

From Noel Cody, recently of Reese News at UNC: Best practices for live tweeting.

How to spot spam followers on Twitter (and there will be spam followers on Twitter). This post is a bit outdated as bots and spam morph constantly, but it’s a starting point.

Important Twitter spam tips: Don’t click on links sent to you via @ or direct message from someone you don’t know (just like Facebook). Look at the stream of their other tweets first to decide if they’re real or if they’re a bot or a spammer repeating the same message to many people. Beware photos of pretty women or even women who look like your mom. They’re often disguises. Always judge Twitter people by taking a good look at their stream of recent tweets, not just one tweet.

Personal or pro? Draw a line between your personal use of social media and your professional use, but feel free to explore where that line should fall. Trust your gut. Make good choices. You get to decide when or whether to use your network of 1,000 friends for the benefit of your organization. Don’t exploit your real friends, but evaluate when they want to know something that you’ve learned through your work. Consider separate accounts, for personal and work. You can inject personality into professional accounts, but be smart.

Listen and read: Use social media for listening, reading and smart searching, not just broadcasting. Use advanced search tools through Twitter search to look for keywords. Pay attention to what others are saying about your organization. Keep in mind that growing companies (and future jobs) are specializing in the analysis of content in social media, so learning how to search smartly will serve you well.

On Facebook, read up on the strategy, timing and best practices from people who know what they’re doing and keep up with changes (which seem to happen all the time). Suggestions: Why Facebook users unliked you, by Scott Hepburn, Walk through Facebook privacy settings, from Jeff Elder and how to use Facebook for an organization from Facebook itself.

Good organizations will give you advice from those who have gone before, room to experiment and a list of their own rules. Read them. CEO John Paton of the Journal Register has a strong list of social media rules.

More broadly:

Making the most of your internship, from Steve Buttry:

Steve Buttry about journalism, Twitter and other social media. You can use the search button to just focus on social media.

UNC’s Andy Bechtel about editing and headlines (a writing style quite similar to tweets), plus UNC student posts on his blog.

Twitter software clients:
Twitter for iPhone (simple, fast, mobile)
TweetDeck, as an app downloaded to your computer or your phone. More complicated than basic Twitter, but good for searching, categorizing and filtering when accounts get large
Cotweet Multiple accounts, multiple users.

Image: From XKCD, used through a Creative Commons license.

How to share news photos: A guide for anyone who finds themselves with a camera amid news events

Mamiya camera

Thousands marched in Montpellier, France, this weekend to protest pension law changes. My daughter was there studying abroad, camera in hand, but a bit stumped about whether her images had commercial value and how she could share her images with possible paying clients. She uses Tumblr and sometimes Facebook to share images with family and friends, but this case was different and she was seeking a broader audience.

We now have the capabilities to share images from around the world, while traditional news organizations have fewer staffers capturing images. Thousands of students are studying abroad, gathering thousands of images, but knowing how to get that work seen and possibly bought is still tricky. Establishing connections and getting good work found remains as hard as it ever was, and perhaps even harder with information overload.

Quick phone images can be shared immediately with the world through services like Twitpic, but controls on use and the ability to caption and tag well are limited. Sharing on Facebook can be fast too, but the terms of service can disturb anyone who wants to maintain control of their images.

Flickr offers the best ability to be seen, to share and to protect ownership.

To start, here are a few steps that will prove valuable for anyone who finds themselves amid news events with camera in hand. I’d love more tips, corrections or alternative advice from others who have found themselves in similar situations.

First, understand that speed is crucial. If it’s a big news events, its primary value comes in the first few hours after an event. Share quickly.

Sign on to Flickr. Go to the You menu. Upload photos and videos. Tag photos liberally, thinking about the keywords that people would use to find photos. Use all languages that are appropriate.

Be brutal in self editing your work, only adding three to five of your photos from an event, mix of vertical and horizontal. Be brutal in length and quality of videos. Upload speeds can be slow; make sure size is large enough for print but not so large it makes upload time unbearable:
Resolution: minimum of 200 pixels/inch, 300 pixels/inch is better
Pixel dimensions: width of at least 1000 pixels, up to about 1600 pixels

If you think you have enough quality photos for a slideshow, you can upload more photos: 10 to 15. Flickr can make an automatic slideshow and give you a link to it that you can share. But keep in mind that each of those photos needs an accurate, unique caption, and that’s likely to take much of your time.

Captions must include who, what, when, where, maybe why, maybe how much. If the photos are taken in public places, groups of five or more people don’t require individual identification. If fewer than five people are in the photo, get names. If it’s a news event and you can’t get names, you can still upload the photo, but it might not get used. Be honest about what you don’t know. Photos taken on private property are a different matter: Did you have permission to be there? Did the people in the photos give permission? Then you’re covered. Otherwise, legal issues could get sticky.

Include your name and e-mail (a real e-mail that you will check for any questions or queries later) in the caption information. It should be an e-mail that you’re OK with being public and that you do check. If it’s an e-mail address that’s almost not functional because it’s too overloaded, use some other method of contact: public, permanent phone number, unique Facebook name, something that will find you.

Doublecheck the licensing of the photo after upload to make sure it’s some rights reserved, with noncommercial use. With that license, people who want to use it commercially should contact you and offer to pay. You could also mark it “All rights reserved.” People can still offer to pay for it, but it won’t get reused by noncommercial sites.

Consider using social media to link to that Flickr account to get the word out.

Ahead of time:
Check the default licensing on your account for noncommercial use or all rights reserved.
Check your contact settings to make sure people can get in touch with you.
Have a Flickr account, either free or pro, spend some time becoming familiar with it, check settings such as the “license through Getty” setting and remember how to sign in to it.

More ideas? Let me know.

Free online journalism classes gain ground

Edupunk image


The head of Creative Commons, Joi Ito, is teaching a free online journalism class through Peer 2 Peer University. The online class syncs with a graduate-level class Ito teaches at Keio University in Japan, with a UStream presentation and IRC chat once a week.

IRC chat? Yes, the class glues together tools like UStream and IRC, and the platform continues to evolve, using a base of Drupal. P2PU’s organizers make it clear they know the tools aren’t perfect, and they’re refining as they go with feedback from participants.

I joined the class at the last minute. The New York Times had written about P2PU, an online community of open study groups, in April, as well as other open learning communities outside of traditional institutions. I stumbled across the article while searching the word “edupunks.”

The concept of coaching outside traditional educational institutions has fascinated me for almost a year, with a focus on how professional journalists can share their knowledge with new creators of online content, be they “citizen journalists,” neighborhood activists or seasoned newspaper people working on building online skills.

In the fall, I submitted a Knight News Challenge proposal for an online class, 260 Open, with face-to-face components. Students would have been required to produce coverage of civic events, and experienced journalists would edit their work closely. The concept was designed to not only spread civic knowledge, media literacy and strong journalism skills but also to increase the amount of news coverage in particular communities.

I proposed that the class use Moodle open-source software, a learning management system that is has been adopted for institutional use in many places, including the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and Central Piedmont Community College.

Then in May, I pitched the concept at the news entrepreneur boot camp through the Knight Digital Media Center at the University of Southern California. One strength of that pitch was that many others at the boot camp are building news organizations with education components to broaden capacity of communities to help cover their own news.

What I needed, however, was a proven business model, with customers who can pay.

Certainly many large media companies are seeking community help covering the news these days, and the need exists to improve skills in broad communities that have lost local news coverage. But finding actual paying customers willing to support classes for the public good is a tough nut to crack. As large companies rush to create content to wrap around new local ads for small businesses, though, perhaps that business model will become clearer.

By contrast, P2PU isn’t focusing on the business model at the moment. Instead, organizers are building a community, refining their tools and experimenting. That’s inspiring.

In fact, Mozilla has teamed up with Hacks/Hackers in a collaboration launched at Knight’s Future of News and Civic Media conference to use P2PU to allow programmers to teach journalists and journalists to teach programmers. Mozilla and P2PU are also launching the School of Webcraft, with a call for course proposals by July 18.

P2PU’s current journalism class has shown me that perhaps we just start, with imperfect tools, even before funding or business models are clear.

In Charlotte, media folks have shown a commitment to peer coaching and support with some journo/bloggers meetups. We just started, with little regard to organizational structure. Dave Cohn of Spot.Us showed up via Skype for one meeting.

P2PU shows that the possibilities exist, spread across the globe. It demonstrates the power of asynchronous communication and online tools for learning, as students in Japan go to class at 9 a.m. on a Monday and I listen and watch at 8 p.m. on a Sunday, at the same time. It’s quite a time shifter, right out of Harry Potter.

What I’d like to see next: Taking the concept of online tools to teach journalism to local communities, with tools that individuals can use for independent courses, simply. Those classes could be augmented with local meetups to strengthen ties and build strong networks. Local journalists familiar with the civic and social nuances of particular communities would add great value.

Perhaps there’s a business model in there somewhere. But more importantly, the concept provides more tools for journalists to share knowledge and perhaps help sustain themselves as teachers and coaches, while broadening the capacity for communities to write their own stories.

Maybe we can make it so. Thoughts?

Image credit: Image via Flickr from bionicteaching.
Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 license.

The December 2009 snowstorm and #snOMG, a little hashtag that began in Charlotte

#snomg tag from, 1 p.m. on 12/19

#snomg tag usage as shown by at 1 p.m. Dec. 19

Trend map for #snomg usage

#snomg usage at after midnight, Dec. 19.

#snomg usage about 2 p.m. Dec. 18

Usage of #snomg as shown by as of 2 p.m. Dec. 18.

Editor’s note from Jan. 30, 2010: Please see an update of this post that tracks the use of #snOMG to Cincinnati.

As the December 2009 snowstorm traveled up the East Coast, a little hashtag born in Charlotte traveled with it.

In January 2009, Gregor Smith, or @flc on Twitter, came up with #snOMG, which combined “snow” and “OMG” in five characters.

When you have only 140 characters, every character counts.

The tag emerged again during a March storm. Then in December, the tag reappeared as weather reports indicated an approaching snow event. Charlotte meteorologist Brad Panovich, or @wxbrad of WCNC adopted the tag, and The Weather Channel shared it with more than 20,000 followers on Twitter.

So here’s a quick Q&A conducted via email with the tag originator, Gregor Smith of northern Mecklenburg County:

When and how did you come up with the tag #snOMG?

(I came up with it) during the first snow “storm” of the year, which was mid- to late January. I can’t claim sole credit, it was merely a punny hashtag reply to a “snow! Omg!” tweet, so I like to think of myself as one who pushed it into the Charlotte collective. From there it wasn’t long before others took it and ran with it, making it a trending topic, which was decidedly easier back in those heady pre-Oprah days…

You tweeted: ‘YES! AFFIRMATION BABY!’ when The Weather Channel (@twci, with more than 20,000 followers) announced #snOMG as one of the “official” hash tags of the East Coast storm of Dec. 18. Is that how it feels to get wide use of your hash tag?

It was on par with having Jim Cantore (of The Weather Channel) standing at the end of Pineville-Matthews Road (in Charlotte) during the big #snOMG of March this year. As Ben Ullman (@budesigns) said then, we were close to getting #snOMG on national TV.

How much snow did you get in the latest storm? Did you go out and play in it? Did you lose power?
We got a few inches, maybe 2 or 3, and of course I went out to play in it! Being 30-plus is no excuse not to be excited by snow … . No loss of power though.

Do you use hash tags to sort Twitter? Or are they just for fun and humor?
Bit of column A, bit of column B. A lot of times, it’s for shits and giggles, the kind of hashtags some people recently said they hate, but for events it’s good to track tweets that way.

The latest storm actually got pretty intense in Asheville and points north. When an event gets serious but has a humorous hash tag, do you think the tag should be changed or not used?
People are free to use whatever tag they want, be it #snOMG or otherwise. Where I come from (Scotland), we have a pretty self-deprecating sense of humor. If you can’t laugh at serious things, then what can you?

Are you the person with the Twitter name @snOMG? If not, do you know who it is?
No, that’s the botfather. (Link might not be safe for work.)

How long have you been on Twitter?
Since September 8th 2006, seriously! I’m user ID 5,628. They are now pushing user IDs in the 100-million range.

You’ve had some life-changing experiences with Twitter. What’s the best lesson you learned?
Don’t talk about work on Twitter unless that’s part of your job. Some over-zealous employers will “dooce” you for that.

Further links:
#snOMG in March 2009
Dan Conover on hashtags
Standardize basic hashtags for Charlotte.

Standardize basic hashtags for Charlotte

Statistics from what the hashtag wiki for #chs

Statistics from what the hashtag wiki for #chs

“People want to slice information for local cultures; this means that the local cultures need to be able to do the slicing rather than rely on institutions that are more likely to create universal organization schemas. No organization has the diversity necessary to build all of the different glocalized systems that people desire.”
danah boyd, 2005

It started with #tacos and #pbr08.
Charlotte people on Twitter early used hashtags, those words preceded by the # mark, to make jokes and organize drinking parties.
It evolved into #snOMG, a snow event in pre-Oprah 2009.

Now Dan Conover and others in Charleston have shown a way forward, a way to filter the noise of Twitter, from the beginning of the message, enabling better manual search and better search on clients like Tweetie and HootSuite. It’s a folksonomy, or agreed-upon naming convention for tags, which helps people find and share specific information. In this case, keeping it local is key.

Don’t let “folksonomy” scare you. It just means keywords that a community chooses. Charlotte already has #charlotte, used in at least one RSS feed on a commercial website for tweets from Charlotte. It used #cltgas during a shortage in the fall of 2008, borrowing from Atlanta, which invented #atlgas and, most recently, #atlflood.

Charlotte also has #cltcc for the city council, although perhaps it’s sometimes overused by some candidates running for election. It was documented by Brandon Uttley on what the hashtag.

Of course, Twitter itself is working to enhance filtering, creating lists, in which people will be able to group sources together.

Even so, power remains in shared, collaborative keywords, first developed on Twitter during the San Diego fires of 2007 and popularized after a post by Chris Messina.

Conover’s story shows that a filtering method is available now, controllable in a shared way by individuals. He told the tale at Columbia’s Social Media Club on Thursday about a hashtag summit, in which local media representatives and bloggers met at a bar and agreed upon basic hashtags for the Charleston area. And they discussed principles, like uniform length (short) and amount of total tags.

As of Friday night, the basic tag, #chs, has been used in 722 tweets, with 242 contributors, for an average of 103.1 tweets per day, in the past week.

Conover made it sound so simple, but I suspect it was more like herding cats, in a day when many people are seizing branding opportunities in social media. Getting competing media to agree on using standard hashtags isn’t necessarily easy. Conover and others in Charleston deserve credit for a strong example of cooperation.

“During the boom, there was a rush to get everything and everyone online. It was about creating a global village. Yet, packing everyone into the town square is utter chaos. People have different needs, different goals. People manipulate given structures to meet their desires. We are faced with a digital environment that has collective values. Nowhere is this more noticeable than in search. For example, is there a best result to the query “breasts”? It’s all about context, right?”
danah boyd, 2005

Conover said cities like Louisville, Ky., and Vancouver have adopted similar practices since Charleston’s effort. And in Charleston, “even the police use it,” he said at the social media summit. On the panel with Conover, discussing the future of journalism and social media, was Charlotte’s Jeff Elder, who took this video afterward of Conover explaining Charleston’s efforts.

And in Asheville, Jeff Fobes of The Mountain Express announced a change on Oct. 7 from branded #mxnow tags to community centered #avl tags. The Mountain Express is a weekly paper that embraced hashtags early on its website, allowing community members to tweet information and have it appear on the site easily.

To be effective, the hashtags need to be well-known, documented, shared and short. Getting buy-in from others also seems to require a bottom-up, collaborative approach. So, to get things rolling, I’ve added to Uttley’s documentation of the #cltcc tag on what the hashtag, borrowing liberally from Charleston.

Here are Charlotte’s proposed tags, many of which are already in widespread use but weren’t necessarily documented previously:

  • #clt A short general tag for Charlotte. It’s been around awhile and echoes the airport code. Use of it doesn’t mean #charlotte goes away, especially if RSS feeds have been built on the longer tag. But it’s a suggestion for a shorter, standard tag that already gets used fairly often, going forward.
  • #cltvote A tag for tweets about voting and elections in Charlotte.
  • #cltwx Proposed tag for tweets about Charlotte weather. Local TV weather guy @wxbrad is promoting the use of the tag #severeweather, but #cltwx is consistent with others’ use, could provide more geo-specific information and be shorter.
  • #cltbrkg Proposed tag for Charlotte breaking news, copying Charleston’s similar tag.
  • #clttrfk Proposed tag for Charlotte traffic.
  • #clteats Proposed tag for food and drink in Charlotte.
  • #cltdeal Proposed tag for deals in Charlotte.
  • #cltbiz Proposed tag for business news in Charlotte.

Remember, what the hashtag is a wiki, so if you think that list excludes a tag you want to see, you can add it yourself. In addition, you can edit existing entries. Certainly it seems Charlotte needs a documented school board tag, and it would be great to create #cltneeds to help with efforts like Mission Possible. I suspect we need to add tags for Ballantyne, Plaza Midwood, the Eastside, Uptown, etc.

Hashtag conflict.

Hashtag conflict.

Of course, the shorter the tag, the more room you have for your tweet or other tags. At the same time, the shorter the tag, the more likely it will conflict with someone else’s use.

Specifically, #clt appears to be used in India as well. What the hashtag makes a graph of the number of times the tag is used and who’s using it, so the wiki can be used for data analysis and conflict resolution as well as documentation. And sometimes collisions happen: #cbj apparently stands for the Columbus (Ohio) Blue Jackets as well as the Charlotte Business Journal. But that’s why a wiki matters: It can help sort out conflicts.

Few of these tags should be static; our world is constantly changing. We can at least begin. If you want to talk more, I plan to be at BarCamp Charlotte on Oct. 17.

“It’s important to realize that Web2.0 is not a given – it is possible to f*** it up, especially if power and control get in the way.”
danah boyd, 2005

Further reading: danah boyd.

Flooding in Atlanta: One search to bind them all

About 6 a.m. Monday, Steve Burns, a freelance journalist near Atlanta, sent out a note on Twitter:

“WSB: Boil water advisory in Douglas County. #atlfloods”

An hour later, Atlanta blogger Grayson Hurst Daughters tweeted from her @spaceyg account:

“Atlanta commuters: use the hashtag #atlflood for Atlanta flood condition notices.”

She followed up quickly with a note to a local TV outlet:

“@11AliveNews, please consider using the hashtag #atlflood in your Tweets! That way all the notices can be indexed/RSS’d. Tx!”

The tag set the tone for an organized, findable stream of aggregated content that helped Atlantans and their friends stay informed as the rain kept falling, killing at least 6 people, swamping interstates and causing major delays at the airport. The Georgia governor declared a state of emergency in 17 counties.

We’ve all read posts about how Twitter provides immediate coverage of earthquakes or bloody election fallout. But this moment showed how a social media tool enabled aggregation of all local news coverage through one search, quickly, in a large city, for breaking news.

Individuals shared links to stories from the established local news outlets quickly throughout the day. And a picture on Twitpic of flooding on Atlanta’s downtown connector received more than 60,000 views in about 10 hours.

Considering it a victory for untrained “citizen journalism” might be a bit misleading. Burns has newspaper experience from California, Georgia and Florida, and Daughters is a writer and corporate communication professional who worked for ABC News for six years. Also heavily involved was Tessa Horehled, a strategic marketer who advises companies about social media plans. Tweeting at @driveafastercar, she braved the rain with a video camera numerous times throughout the day from her neighborhood, and posted pictures late into the evening as a creek approached her front door.

She also created the tag #atlgas, used extensively during a gas shortage in the fall of 2008 in the Atlanta area. That tag was featured in a TED presentation by Twitter founder Evan Williams.

Certainly many other people were posting on Twitter, and local media outlets covered the story well. linked to a Twitter search of the tag. But because individuals used the tag while pointing to established media stories as well as posting their own observations, the tag itself served as a way of aggregating all media into one search.

But yes, there’s a drawback, in counting on the crowd to control the content of a tag for aggregation: As soon as the hashtag hit the Top 10 trending terms on Twitter, opportunistic usurpers crowded the stream and made it much less valuable. That gaming of the system shows that a tag is most useful when it’s NOT in the top 10 trending list.

About 8 p.m., one person on Twitter from Cambridge expressed frustration to Dan Gillmor, author of “We the Media,” that no national media outlets were covering the story, and he repeated the tweet. About 9 p.m., the L.A. Times sent out a tweet pointing to its story, with a dateline “Reporting from Atlanta.”

But throughout the day, the best place for aggregated coverage from both established local media and from individuals came from searching Twitter for the #atlflood tag.

Until it hit the “trending” list.

News that oozes: Finding the local implications in a national environmental project

When the water gets really low in my neighborhood creek, a lovely ooze from the creek bed becomes apparent.

I’m not sure what the ooze is or from whence it comes. Part of me doesn’t want to know.

Two sewer lines run along the creek, one at least 50 years old and one about 30 years old. The older line is slowly being replaced, and the work will arrive soon in the neighborhood greenway, ripping out walkways, trees and underbrush as the backhoes do their thing.

So when The New York Times published a massive, nationwide, data-rich
recently, called “Toxic Waters,” I was fascinated. And when pundits on Twitter called for local news organizations or independent journalists to delve into the state-by-state data, I was further intrigued.

Dan Gillmor, who wrote “We The Media,” tried to shame local news organizations with this note on Twitter:

“Local journos in **every** state could/should folo NYT water investigation; few will because of idiotic not-invented-here syndrome in media.”

It’s not as simple as that.

Don’t discount this post as an apologia for news organizations or citizen reporters; take it instead as an acknowledgement and reminder of the huge hurdles faced when taking a huge data dump local, and the need for real, feet-on-the-street reporting. Data dumps are great things, and combined with reporting, truth will out, especially on stories that ooze, instead of break.

But we all should know by now that data can mislead without reporting.

“Numbers are an interesting thing and they can tell many different stories depending on how you look at them,” said the representative of the N.C. Division of Water Quality who responded to the New York Times package.

Herewith, some hurdles for local people, in trying to build upon the excellent work by the Times:

  • “Fishing expeditions” in newsrooms rarely get time and money these days. Sometimes reporting needs to happen to determine whether there is a story, and what the story is. And even for alternative news organizations like Spot.Us, time and funding for those fishing expeditions are difficult, because pitches for funding must be specific in promising certain results.
  • Often, the real story is in the null spaces, the blank places on the map, the industries that are not regulated, self-regulated or unnoticed by the state agencies who shared data with The New York Times. In a quick overview of the beautiful N.C. map by the Times of regulated entities and violations, I saw no indication of violations at the Eastern North Carolina hog farms. (They might be there, but I couldn’t find them easily.) I saw no indications of violations near the coal-ash fields right next to Mountain Island Lake, the drinking supply for the City of Charlotte. Does that mean there are no problems in those spots? Only deeper, expensive, local reporting will determine that. And it’s a fishing expedition.
  • Finding context and reading with a critical eye are rare skills that take time. The massive amount of work by The New York Times on this project cannot be quickly interpreted and localized because merely reading all the source material and comments takes time. It’s rare for local reporters and editors to have that time during their paid work hours, and it’s rare for “citizen journalists” to have the time either. Plus the mass of information can be intimidating. File it under “fishing expedition,” to read some day.
  • Public finding and aggregation of related stories and documents is not easy for the “citizen journalists” and others who have time to dig deep. Readers of the Times’ piece on Sept. 12 contributed 478 comments so far, some with relevant links to other sources of information. While some comments are labeled “Editors’ Selections,” or “Readers’ Recommendations,” (great features), there’s no public, easy way to aggregate all those links and other related stories, such as work done by USA Today in 2008, “Overflows cost sewer system $35 million in fines.” Further, locally, N.C. documents related to enforcement are often available only in PDF, and documents and stories that give context are not readily available to citizen journalists without deep web searching, available through university databases or expensive Lexis/Nexis. This is a key point: People who work or study at universities can easily forget that the regular “citizen journalist” does not have free access to the deep databases available through universities and libraries.
  • The problems and solutions for each dot on The New York Times map are complex. One example from memory and a wee bit of Google research: The tiny mountain town of Saluda was sued by the American Canoe Association in the early 2000s for repeatedly violating Clean Water Act standards. The town’s sewer treatment plant was failing, and it needed money to fix the plant. Paying big fines or court costs and settlements would not further the goal of fixing the plant. Eventually, the town received a Clean Water Bond grant from the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center to fix the problem. So questions for today: Do the bonds still exist? How many other small towns face similar issues? How much would be the total cost of fixing the state’s sewer-plant issues, where will that money come from and how will it be awarded?

A few suggestions for overcoming those hurdles:

  • Citizen journos/bloggers can go on fishing expeditions, becoming the first filters through the data or on the street or by the streams. This concept is championed by the good people at The Sunlight Foundation, and they provide and fund many tools for individuals to do this work. Sadly, it appears that many passionate media consumers would rather make comments on existing stories instead of delving into the data to find trends and story leads. Over time, perhaps this trend will change.
  • Public libraries could play a role in aggregation and perhaps training and access to the databases available in the deep web. While excellent tools like Publish2 have been developed, this kind of work needs to be the work of public institutions, not just private companies. How can that work be funded? Your guess is as good as mine.
  • We can all acknowledge that this work takes time and a different sort of critical thinking, and our collective attention span has grown exceedingly short. Slow, deep, critical analysis of data and documents is out of style, as we all succumb to a fast-rushing stream of information through new sources of news. Gillmor’s call on Twitter for local reporting came on or shortly after the day of publication, and came amid calls by Jeff Jarvis and Jay Rosen. Their attention (and ours?) appears to have moved on.

Hope springs eternal. Many individuals have become increasingly interested in the quality of what they put in their bodies, and the long, searchable tail of the internet has given us new tools to share ideas and information. I wrote a quick post in early 2008 after hearing that Dasani had been getting its bottled water from Charlotte’s drinking water supply. That old quick post still gets readers and serves as a reminder that we don’t have alternatives for clean municipal water supplies, because the stuff in plastic bottles is actually from those supplies.

So here’s hoping that individuals go forth and investigate. And here’s hoping we all acknowledge and adjust to the new reality: Many established news organizations do not have the resources to do the work for us. Perhaps we all can find ways to help.

10 more for #followwomenjournas (student edition)

Here are 10 more people for #followwomenjournas on Twitter.

These are current or very recent students. I make no apologies for the list being heavily weighted toward UNC.

I’m sure there are others out there. Find them through listening or participating in #collegejourn, a chat run by one of these students, or by looking through the following lists of these people.

I’m willing to bet I left off someone at the @dailytarheel. If so, apologies. You all deserve to be followed, to get some sleep and avoid #H1N1.

@americaarias, (America Arias): News assistant @ KABC-TV. Los Angeles. Recent journalism and political science grad from Cal State Fullerton (CSUF). News junkie, loves politics.
@ewstephe, (Emily Stephenson): UNC senior, @dailytarheel community manager, Star Heels dancer, Jane Austen fan.
@jmestepa, (Jessica Estepa): Storyteller. Student. News junkie. Multimedia editor at @UNR_Insight. Does various other journalistic things. Loves mountains, reading and you. Nevada.
@kelseyproud, (Kelsey Proud): University of Missouri convergence journalism senior (graduating in May!), behind the curtain for @Journgasm, looking for her first job.
@ljwilkinson, (Leslie Wilkinson): MBA student at UNC, recovering newspaper designer, boomeranged back to the east coast after a year and a half in Los Angeles.
@mkellen, (Kellen Moore): UNC senior and managing editor at the @dailytarheel.
@poorstudentnomo, (Jess Shorland): UNC-Chapel Hill college student from Virginia. She’s posting updates on her progress paying off $40k in student loans in 12 months. I’m not sure she’s a journalism student, but her blogging efforts qualify, for me, in this case.
@saragregory, (Sara Gregory): student at UNC-Chapel Hill. @dailytarheel’s managing editor for online. She’s quarantined from the student paper at the moment because she might have #H1N1.
@sarahsodyssey, (Sarah Jackson): Freelance writer, journalism student, info junkie, meticulous observer, curious soul. She’s pursuing a career in feature and financial journalism. Now in Surrey, British Columbia.
@suzanneyada, (Suzanne Yada). Runs #collegejourn chat on Twitter, created a semester global project for student journalists focusing on health. San Jose State University.

Lessons from Charlotte’s Web

In all the recent talk about news organizations’ “original sin,” this Steve Yelvington quote stands out: “Cox threw away much of what it had learned.”

Let’s not do it again.

The “original sin” meme going around is about “What did traditional news organizations do wrong?”

It’s often asked in a quest by those organizations to find a business model for the sharing of information.

I’d broaden the question, to how and why our society lost the concept of community information as a public good, instead of a private privilege, controlled and siloed by private industry.

Once upon a time in Charlotte, a news organization nurtured a small effort that grew into a big nonprofit project, Charlotte’s Web, funded by government grants, to connect community and share information.

Read some historical links at Innovate This to see how politics and funding affected the organization as it grew.

The history has pertinent lessons for nonprofits encouraging such information and community building online, as well as the journalists and other people associated with those projects.

And then send a good thought for Steve Snow, may he rest in peace. He was a community builder and information sharer, and remembering and learning from his efforts is important as we go forward.