News Leadership 3.0

April 23, 2009

Help for news organizations that collaborate with communities

Publish2 asks: How can newsrooms do a better job collaborating with their communities to produce higher quality journalism and conversations?

Here’s a new post from regular guest Chris O’Brien, who interviewed Publish2’s Scott Karp about the start-ups new “Digital Sunlight” tools for journalists

By Chris O’Brien

Since launching last year, news start-up Publish2 has been trying to be a catalyst for getting more journalists to embrace the practice of linking to other peoples’ content. That’s a big enough challenge, especially since, as we’ve seen recently, “aggregator” remains a dirty word in some corners of the newsroom.

But even as Publish2 has been making progress in selling the value of link journalism,  co-founder Scott Karp said the company is about to tackle another fundamental problem: How can newsrooms do a better job collaborating with their communities to produce higher quality journalism and conversations?

In February, Publish2 announced that it’s trying to solve this puzzle by developing a new set of tools called “Digital Sunlight.” 

“We’re taking Publish2 beyond links, and into what we call ‘collaborative journalism,’” Karp said. “We wanted to continue to expand our usefulness to journalists in the editorial realm to do things that help produce more reporting.”

To understand how that might work, let’s first look at what Publish2 does today. I first met Karp about a year ago and have chatted with him several times since as the Publish2 platform has developed. And I’ve been using it for several months to power a “Recommended” section at The Next Newsroom Project site.

The first thing to note is that Publish2 is designed specifically to serve journalists, one of several things that sets it apart from Yahoo’s Delicious.com social bookmarking service. That will obviously be expanding, to include non-newsroom contributors when Digital Sunlight rolls out. 

Today, a journalist signs up for a free account. When they’re reading a story on the Web that they want to share, they can paste the link into their Publish2 account and add as much or as little information as they want. I’ve added a Publish2 button to my Firefox Browser which makes this process even faster. It also gives you the options of sending the link out via Twitter.

As you build lists of links, you have several options as to how to use them. You can embed a Publish2 widget on your Web site or blog. Or you can select a few links and export them as a blog post. This is where I have come to really appreciate Publish2, because it offers me more control over creating the headline for the link-post, where Delicious just creates a generic header that says “Links” and the date, something not very SEO friendly.

The other main feature Publish2 offers is the ability to follow other journalists in the Publish2 network, and create groups around various topics or publications, and invite other journalists to contribute. So journalists help other journalists build lists of links.

Here’s what I like about Publish2, and aggregation in general.

Even with all the search and social tools for finding news and information, the Web still presents a fundamental challenge to consumers that hasn’t been completely solved: How do I find the best stuff? Aggregating and curating links is an opportunity for newsrooms to help their community solve that problem and serve them in a different way.

Next, local news organizations should be trying to become the main source of news and information online about their communities. So pulling together all the best links about your area can only help build that reputation as the go-to place for local information.

Here’s the other important piece. The Publish2 model recognizes that most journalists are already operating at full capacity. The last thing most people in a newsroom want to hear is that there’s some other new thing for them to work into their daily routines. But journalists are reading stuff all day online, so with basically one click they can share the best stuff and create new value without a lot of extra heavy lifting.

For one example of this in action, check out the Chicago Tribune’s Col. Tribune Recommends box on the right of their breaking news blog.

The Digital Sunlight tools will build on this collaborative linking model.

Karp said the idea grew out of an e-mail exchange he had with Howard Weaver, who is an advisor to Publish2. They were discussing how the stimulus bill would be one of the largest “follow the money” stories for investigative journalists. But was there some way to turn this into a widespread collaborative journalism projects? The money will be flowing into thousands of communities, far too many for just newsrooms to track.

The general lament is that newsrooms are shrinking and there will be less journalism. But there’s still a feeling that we want to do it all ourselves. Those things are going to going to collide here,” Karp said.

At the same time, newsrooms have struggled to really develop models that have produced meaningful contributions from communities on a regular basis. Digital Sunlight will be designed to allow newsrooms to create a structured way to work with members of the community to gather news and information that would be then be open and shared.

“There’s a really small number of people who are motivated to do the work outside the newsroom,” Karp said. “But what a larger number of people may be able to do is contribute information. Think of it as a tip line. What if we could get information flowing in that the newsrooms wanted to report on, in a highly structured way?”

Publish2 is currently building a Web form that newsrooms can customize to fit different topics. The form would be attached to various stories or topic pages in the same way comments and forums are now. The form would lay out different questions or categories of information that newsroom is seeking. Those forms would then feed into a database journalists could then access, verify information, and build it into stories.

The database wouldn’t be published, but rather it would become a set of information and leads for people in the newsroom to verify, or to guide their reporting. Ideally, that database will also be shared across newsrooms. Karp acknowledges that this will be a “radical idea.”

Karp hopes that this will improve reporting, but also the conversations happening on news sites. “There’s the endless debate about the value of comments on the story,” Karp said. “The problem is whether you ask the wrong questions. Rather than asking people to just sound off, let’s try asking, ‘What do you know?’”

As for timing, the Publish2 team is still developing the tools. Karp’s blog post announcing the project said, “...we are baking as fast as we can and will have an update shortly.”

Another work in progress is Publish2’s business model. The company raised $2.75 million in venture capital in March 2008. And Karp said they still have plenty of “runway” with that money.

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Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

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