News Leadership 3.0

Posts tagged with: Mobile

June 27, 2012

Colorado wildfire app can enhance coverage of any local emergency

By Amy Gahran

This week—when a major wildfire broke out near Colorado Springs, Colorado—two young programmers there quickly built an app to help people follow social media posts about the fire. They also posted the open-source code, allowing anyone with some basic coding skills to spin off their own version.

Here’s how, and why, community news sites can use this tool to augment coverage of any local emergency…

The Waldo Canyon Wildfire Tracker is an app that aggregates Twitter posts which include the hashtag #WaldoCanyonFire. It was built by Robbie Trencheny and Scott Seibold.

Trencheny, a developer for the fundraising app company Momentum, lives about five miles east of the blaze. I interviewed him for this CNN.com story about the app, and gathered some additional insight from him on how community news sites might use it.

This app does more than just display tweets with the hashtag. It organizes photos attached to tweets into an attractive photo gallery up top. “People really like the photo gallery, we’re getting a lot of compliments on that,” said Trencheny.

The app also offers checkbox options to hide retweets (which can tame the sometimes overwhelming flow of posts), pause the automatic updating (so tweets don’t scroll by too fast), and turn off notifier sounds. And it provides links at the top to key resources for city residents.

Trencheny and Seibold were able to build this app in less than an hour, because they had access to a lot of pre-existing code and tools. But they haven’t had time to add some features. However, this app could be adapted and expanded to incorporate maps as well as posts from Instagram, Flickr, or any social media service that offers a public application programming interface. (Since Facebook is a closed network with no public API, it’s not possible to add Facebook updates to this app.)

Technically speaking, this isn’t a traditional app. Most people think of “apps” as software that you download and install on a mobile device or computer. But this is a “web app”—all functionality is delivered via a web browser. Users don’t need to download or install anything—they just need to point their browser to WaldoCanyonFires.com.

This app is even fairly easy to use on smartphones—and Trencheny is working to make it even more mobile friendly. And since it’s a web app, it will work on any phone with a web browser and a data plan. Unlike traditional apps, for web apps you don’t have to create and maintain a separate code base for each mobile platform (Android, iOS, Windows Phone, etc.) That makes it easier and cheaper to deploy.

How can this app help a community, or a community news outlet?

This web app could prove useful or engaging to community members who may not be especially savvy about technology or social media access. As long as they know how to find a website using the web browser on their computer, phone or tablet, it provides them with access to a broader range of real-time information about an unfolding local emergency.

Trencheny observed that most people in Colorado Springs don’t seem to use social media much, aside from Facebook. “Many communities are kind of still back in the 1980s or 1990s as far as the internet and social media are concerned,” he said. “This app is a way for them to find out relevant stuff from Twitter or other services, whether or not they use those services themselves.

Ideally this app would complement the emergency news coverage and other information produced by local news outlets, bloggers, agencies, and officials—with opportunities to cross-promote news stories. For instance, a news site adapting this app for a local emergency might add a section to the layout that highlights links to its own recent news stories, or official bulletins.

What does it take to spin off your own version of this app?

Trencheny has uploaded the complete code base for this app to GitHub, a popular resource for programmers who build or adapt open source code. Anyone can download, customize, and redeploy this app at no charge.

You don’t need to be (or to hire) a highly skilled programmer with years of experience to adapt this web app.

“It’s all written in Javascript, and the front end is a blend of HTML and Javascript,” said Trencheny. “And you’d need to know a little bit about cascading stylesheets, too. As far as web development skills are concerned that’s very, very basic stuff. And to deploy the code base, you just need to change the API keys for Twitter or other services to your own, and change the search query, and that’s it.”

If you aren’t a coder, or don’t have a coder on your team, it might be a good idea to start building relationships with local coders. Earlier on KDMC, Trencheny offered some advice on how to build connections with programmers for community projects.

If you use this app, here are some tips:

  1. Promote the app on your site. Write a short post explaining what this app is, how people can access and use it, and which services and hashtags it draws information from. Explain how this complements traditional news coverage and official announcements—and caution people that information on this app is not necessarily verified or accurate. Then add a box or prominent link to this explainer from your home page as well as all story pages about the emergency.

  2. Promote the app via social media. Periodically mention the app in your posts to Twitter, Flickr, Tumblr, and other services—including Facebook, even though the app can’t aggregate Facebook posts. Ask your social media followers to share the link to your web app with their followers.

  3. Find—or start—the right hashtag(s) to follow. Trencheny mentioned that city government and emergency response agencies in Colorado Springs have been doing an excellent job of using social media in this emergency. Right after the fire broke out they declared an “official” hashtag (#WaldoCanyonFire), used it consistently, and encouraged others to use it.

    But in other communities and other emergencies, people may start by using several different hashtags, or none at all. Aggregate into your feed the most relevant hashtags—and as your community starts to gravitate toward one or a few most popular ones, weed out the less prevalent ones from the stream of updates. Also, use the most prevalent hashtag(s) consistently in your own social media posts. And remember: all you have to do to start a hashtag is to start using it.

  4. Add the hashtag as needed in retweets. Many people, especially social media newcomers, don’t understand what hashtags are or how to use them well, and so omit them from relevant updates. When you see this happening on, say Twitter, repost or retweet items you’d like to include in your app using the appropriate hashtag.

    Aside from getting more great content into your app, this technique indicates that you support their efforts, which can encourage those social media users to post more about the emergency at hand. It also can subtly educate them about how to use the correct hashtag.

  5. Get a domain name—fast. When you deploy this app on your web host, you’ll want to make it easy for people to find it and recommend it. Especially for local emergencies, a lot of this will happen by word of mouth and over local radio. But right out of the box, the URL for your version of this web app will probably be long and ugly. It helps to quickly register an easy-to-remember and easy-to-spell domain name, and apply it to the app.


The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The Knight Digital Media Center at USC is a partnership with the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. The Center is funded by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

July 11, 2012

How RJI’s mobile news research could expand to benefit community news

By Amy Gahran

This summer, Roger Fidler of the University of Missouri’s Reynolds Journalism Institute has been releasing the results of his detailed research into how people are using mobile devices to access news.

This is an excellent resource for major national and metro news organizations. Here are a few thoughts on how this kind of research might be extended to also benefit community and niche news outlets—an important emerging part of the digital news landscape…

From January through March, RJI staff interviewed more than 1,000 people contacted via randomly selected phone numbers. More than half were cell phone numbers. The results were published in three parts:


This was an appreciable undertaking, and the results are useful, especially to large news outlets. But to benefit smaller community news outlets, more examination of nuance would be helpful. If this research project is to be continued or extended, RJI might consider adding questions to explore three vital topics:

1. Distinguish between national/metro vs. community/local news. According to RJI’s survey, 63% of mobile device owners use these devices to “keep up with the news”—and these people spend an average of five hours per week doing this.

However, RJI apparently did not distinguish between national, global, state, and metro area news vs. community or hyperlocal news. Asking specifically about how people use mobile devices to access community news might be revealing.

This could complement the excellent September 2011 Pew Internet report, How People Learn About Their Local Community. It included a section on the role of mobile devices and social networks, which noted that 25% of all adults said they use mobile devices to get news about their local community.

2. Ask about text alerts. A simple text message is more like “lean media” than “rich media.” RJI’s research focused on mobile media devices—a key characteristic of which was that they “are designed primarily for consuming and interacting with mixed-media content.”

This definition left feature phones and texting out of the picture. But according to comScore’s latest estimate, over half of U.S. mobile handsets in use still are feature phones.

Aside from the fact that feature phones remain popular in many communities (particularly for low-income households and seniors), and that many models now come with web browsers, virtually every mobile phone can send and receive text messages. And aside from voice calls, texting is the most popular thing that mobile users in all demographics do with their phones—even on smartphones.

Opt-in text alerts can be a powerful tool to drive mobile users to mobile news—mixed, rich, or otherwise. And they can be particularly useful for community news publishers.

3. Ask about sharing or posting photos or video. People use their phones (even feature phones) to take and share photos or videos of what they see around them. This is an inherently local activity, usually with far greater relevance to local publishers and communities than mass media news outlets.

RJI’s survey inquired about “creating and managing content” which they defined as “creating, editing or managing non-work or education-related content such as documents, photos, videos, music.” This is valuable, but within that large category it’s photos and videos which are most likely to have specific news value or community relevance. Understanding more about mobile users’ propensity to create or enhance news coverage, as well as consume news, would benefit all news outlets—but probably especially community news publishers.

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The Knight Digital Media Center at USC is a partnership with the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. The Center is funded by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

July 25, 2012

The “Evening Edition” approach to community news curation

By Amy Gahran

Last week some web designers and an editor joined forces to revive the “evening edition” approach to news—long a staple of the newspaper business, which catered to news consumers’ availability and willingness to catch up on the news during evening hours.

The new Evening Edition website demonstrates a curation strategy that community and niche news publishers could emulate and expand upon in order to more effectively engage their readers, especially via mobile devices…

The idea for Evening Edition sprang from a July 9 tweet from former NYTimes.com design director Khoi Vinh: iPad suggests ‘evening newspaper’ habits; tablet owners consumer more news than those who don’t own tablets.”

The web designers at Mule Design took that idea and ran with it. Just one week later Evening Edition launched—with Paz on board as editor, and sponsorship from Mother Jones. And no ads.

Evening Edition is devastatingly simple: An experienced editor, Anna Rascouët-Paz, sorts through the day’s news and assembles a single page of news: six or so important stories spanning a wide range of topics, published on the web every day at 5 p.m. The design is clean, easy on the eyes, and loads quickly and well on a tablet or cell phone browser—no need to download an app, no sifting through voluminous bundles of stories under section heads. Links to the original stories are included, so readers who want more can get more easily.

This is truly a curation effort, not mere aggregation. ReadWriteWeb noted that Paz “often combines several sources into a concise summary. It draws on other people’s reporting, like just about all of what passes as news these days—but Evening Edition performs a critical journalistic function that often falls by the wayside online: It elevates the significant information above the noise.”

And that’s a significant bonus, since (as GigaOm’s Mathew Ingram observed):

“Sifting through vast quantities of information in order to show people the important stuff is what newspapers are supposed to do, but many newspaper websites and even mobile apps still shovel an enormous amount of content at users with very little filtering. ...Why do they do this? Because they have hundreds of reporters and editors whose job it is to pump out thousands of articles a day for the print edition, and the website gets all of that and more.

“It’s a supply-oriented approach to information, rather than a demand-oriented one. In effect, a newspaper website says to a reader: ‘Here’s all the things we came up with today, which you may or may not be interested in.’ Something like Evening Edition, however, says: ‘We know that you are busy, and overwhelmed with information, and we want to help you—here’s what you need to know.’”

This is a great idea, and the best part about it is this is not rocket science.

Any news publisher or editor could emulate this approach to launch a curated and highly relevant digital news product. In fact, community and niche news publishers might be in an especially good position to use this strategy to add value to readers and engage audiences daily via mobile devices.

Consider this: Community news editors constantly peruse a variety of news and information, and glean from that relevance to the communities they serve. They also have a strong sense of what matters or is most important to their communities—and often they also have a strong historical perspective on their community.

A community news site could launch its own “evening edition”—which might be a separate website, or a section of its current site. The design would be clean and spare, emulating Mule Design’s Evening Edition. The handful (three to six?) stories curated there could be a mix of the publisher’s own top stories, as well as top stories from other news venues (say, the nearest metro daily paper or network TV news affiliate) or other resources (state or local governments, local school systems or institutions, blogs, nonprofits, etc.). The editor could also add insight and context, highlighting the direct relevance to the community.

For instance, a community site in California might mention and link to the Oakland Tribune’s coverage of Pacific Gas & Electric’s new solar plans—and relate it to nearby solar projects. The community news publisher’s main site might not have a specific story on this—and might not even run one—but by putting this issue on the community radar, that publisher is offering a service based on context and convenience.

Who’s going to pay for this? I think Evening Edition is on the right track that ads would be a bad mix for this aesthetically spare service—but sponsorship might be an option. It’s a discrete project that could gain prime-time local popularity, and thus might be an attractive sponsorship offering for local businesses, foundations, or other organizations.

Since this publishing strategy relies on the web, rather than apps, to deliver a good mobile experience, that makes is less costly and technically simpler to implement. It could also be supplemented with an e-mail edition that would be pushed out at the same time the web edition goes live.

It’ll be interesting to see Evening Edition evolve. But for now, it’s an interesting option not just for the national and global news of the day, but for smaller more focused news audiences.

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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