This scene took place at the Journalism that Matters conference in DC and it relates to one of those little epiphanies we all wish we experienced more often.
It was in one of the breakout sessions at the conference where the future of the media was being discussed. There was one of the blindingly bright twenty-something man of Asian descent that seems destined to get $20 million in backing from an equally inscrutable venture capitalist. When he spoke, people listened and it is a vision of the future we’ve all heard.
The narrative is that we’ll all have our little personal devices that we’ve programmed with widgets that take our orders and deliver us just the news and content we want.
Everyone in the room was doing the ‘damn, we know, this is the future and how do we adapt to it.”
Adopting my ‘incredulous freak’ personality, (It is not mental illness, I promise; it is just a gut level reaction.), my voice went up three octives and I blurted out, “Whooopeee, I always hated civics and now I can my Brittany Spears news 24/7 with out so much as an interruption, Yaaah,” … then returned to my normal self and asked, “How in the hell are we going to inform a public of their civic responsibilities if we have no way to get in their face.”
I’m not quick enough or glib enough to have this answer ready and no one else seemed to have it either. What I do know is that something about my little hyperlocal site works and I instinctively think it may hold at least part of the answer of how we keep news – the news that some might consider boring but is essential to each of us performing our civic duty – in the public’s face.
Now my site is hardly a work of art. Frankly it is pretty much a cheap, low end commercial message board installed right out of the box. Still, the site has gained traction and a level of participation that defies all current expectations. The only logical conclusion is that I’m doing something different and maybe even something right.
Most message boards have a single link to allow readers to view the recent topics. Typically this is just one of many links available and, in my research, is only rarely used in most other boards. But I highlight this link, putting special emphasis on it and it appears everywhere I can put it.
At anytime of the day or night, a reader on Paulding.com can click on this button and see, not the latest new topic, but the last topic to receive a comment. The readers, by their act of replying, determine what topic leads this page.
In a strange way this fulfills the same function that the much more sophisticated software employed by Slashdot.com, which requires its users to rate topics giving those with higher ratings; greater prominence. My recent topics list mimics this because posting a comment to an existing topic acts as a vote of interest in the topic. It says simply that what was said was worth the time of another to reply.
On typical weekdays, the site will have over 400-500 topics active in the past 24 hours (started or commented) . When topics fail to generate conversation (comments) they are aged from the recent topics page(s) and settle into a quasi-archive status in one of the more than 200 active forums.
This function, more than any other, defines what the conversation on Paulding.com is ‘right now.’
And that simple search page is by far the most active single ‘page’ on the site..
This means that a citizen news report – SCHOOL BUS WRECK AT 92 & 278 – is placed at the top of the queue the moment it comes in.
When that kind of topic appears, a different dynamic – the element of the immediacy of the news comes into play … When reading that topic, members are now in what I can only describe as the virtual newsroom of the site.
I’ll create a simplified exchange that illustrates how this simple topic is played and let the reader see how it memics a newsroom when a new story breaks but before the story is actually written and reported. (This example would never make it into most newspapers.)
Headline: (Newstip) SCHOOL BUS WRECK AT 92 & 278 (TIME 2:12 P.M.)
OP: (original poster) I just heard on the scanner there was a school bus involved in a wreck with a pickup truck at 92&278. Clarks, Fire Dept, school, SO and gsp notified. (Clarks = ambulance, SO=Sheriff’s office and gsp is Georgia State Patrol.)
1ST POSTER: oh my God … I hope no one is hurt. (2:12p)
2nd poster: I hope there weren’t any kids on board. (2:12p)
3rd poster: Me too … its early before release, maybe there aren’t … hope no one is hurt either. I wonder what color the Pickup truck is, my hubby comes through there about that time and he drives a red chevy. 2:13 p
OP FD back in station, Clarks reports no injuries. GSP on scene 2:18p
4th poster: Anyone heard anything? 2:31
5th poster: I just drove by there and it was a blue Ford pickup and they nipped the rear bumper of the bus and took out the left-front fender. It didn’t look bad and I bet the guy doesn’t even get it fixed … probably will have to pay the ticket but the bus wasn’t hurt at all. 2:34
1st poster: I’m so glad that it was nothing. I hate it when I hear these kinds of calls. I remember the one last year where the bus was a mile from the school on its way to pickup kids and had that headon collision that killed both drivers. That was so sad. 2:35p
6th poster: Me too, my grandchild rides the bus through there every day. 2:45p
7th poster: I was right behind the guy In the pickup and let me tell you that old POS pickup needs some brakes … he damn near turned the truck sideways because they were so out of whack. And no, if wouldn’t put a nickel toward the repair of that safety hazard. I hope the trooper cited him for having an unsafe vehicle. 4:55 p
8th poster: I think the police ought to do safety roadblocks .. heck I want them done at my subdivision cause the teen nextdoor has this old Honda Civic that he drives like a maniac and it drives me up the wall when he pulls it in the drive with the brakes screeching like fingernails on a blackboard. 5:43p
The topic continues to get reads for the next 24 hours but falls of the recent topics as it is pretty much a non-story. In the end, this topic has 10 posts and 350 reads as school bus wreck is always a hot topic among the moms.)
This was a minor, minor news story that was told in really pretty good depth as far as the essentials. Everyone’s curiosity was more than satisfied and then some. The topic could have gone on as a hijack on the efficacy of police check points where issues of civil rights and the right to stop and search are discussed but … that happens only some of the time.
If this were a bigger story it would generate a lot more replies and I’d probably go to the scene, get some pictures, do a little reporting, put it in a multimedia format with a slide show and audio actuality and that piece would be read and gain comments as well. I might even call the eyewitness for a phone recorded intereview.
But the point is the conversation at Paulding.com includes news topics of this kind all the time along with ads for goods, political and religious commentary and passionate discussions of local, state and national events, some jokes, tips and more all happening now. All kind of like sitting in the newsroom BS-sing about the weather waiting for the bomb to drop.
Paulding.com is that virtual newsroom for Paulding County Georgia. The readers, who have been starved for news, are into the immediacy of what is happening. People who don’t even have a computer, if they hear a series of emergency vehicles travel by their home, will call someone they know is on pcom and ask them, what’s happening … and expect to find out.
I used to say that the recent topics page was the reason for my success … but that really isn’t it. The success comes because what the recent topics represent … a special kind of conversation that is like the kind of conversations we in journalism have always had in the newsroom.
So, the epiphany is that the way to trump ME is with NOW. This happens naturally when the conversation memics the newsroom. It doesn’t require that we turn the readers into citizen journalists as much as by letting them eavesdrop on the newsroom’s conversations. Incidentally, when you do that, they’ll feel free to contribute when they can.