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Lessons learned at ISOJ

28 Apr

Since this post is a little late in coming, I’m just going to touch on a few ideas and panels that stuck out to me at the International Symposium on Online Journalism on Saturday.

International journalism initiatives

I truly enjoyed hearing about initiatives in other countries on the panel “International innovative experiences in online journalism.” I know I have a tendency to get wrapped up in what’s happening with U.S. media, so it was refreshing to get different perspectives.

  • Harry Dugmore, a professor at Rhodes University in South Africa, had some interesting insight on South Africa and their use of mobile phones to get news. It reminds me a lot of the challenges that NOWCastSA went through to figure out a way to have people send in news and photos. I can’t wait to see the content management system they are developing for mobile so citizen journalists can post straight from their phones.
  • Juan Anonio Zertouche, the international editor for the Mexican news site Reporte Indigo, touched on the organization’s strong multimedia emphasis. They use lots of flash graphics and design to present news and information. Since I’m starting to lean the way of HTML5 and web standards (yes, I think Flash will eventually die – I’ll post about this eventually), I want to keep an eye on this site to see what they do in terms of interactive graphics. The site promotes a mix of free and paid content, but since it is only three months old, they don’t have much stats in regard to who is paying for content.

Civic volunteerism and new ways of funding stories

The panel, “Participatory Journalism: How the old passive audience of mass media is becoming the new active communities of online media,” featured some real journalism rock stars that have developed and implemented new models for content creation.

  • Jan Schaffer, the head of J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism, shared perspectives on her organization’s program called New Voices, which provides grants to news startups. She said about half of the recipients of the grant over the past five years are still alive and well. Schaffer pointed out that the most successful startups had full-time management and were not overly reliant on training citizen journalists to provide content. She also made an excellent point about considering “citizen journalism” to be more like civic volunteerism. Citizen journos are providing a useful service because they know a topic well, have an audience and are willing to provide it to community news sites like the ones New Voices funds at no cost.
  • David Cohn, who is the man behind spot.us, talked about the site’s approach to funding stories and in-depth reporting. Basically, the organization “commission and participate with journalists to do reporting on important and perhaps overlooked topics,” according to their About Us page. Contributors can fund stories they want published. Cohn said this allows people to choose what they want to published and takes out the media gatekeepers who “tell” the audience what they should read. He expounded on this idea by comparing it to ordering the food you like in a restaurant versus the waiter telling you what you should eat. This video from the ISOJ team gives more insight from Cohn about the idea.

Intense ideas from Evan Smith

The panel “Non-Profit Journalism: Models of non-commercial journalism online and their sustainability challenge,” was one of my favorite panels, mostly because it was my first time hearing Evan Smith of the Texas Tribune talk about his organization and their business model.

One of Smith’s comments on how for-profit organization are unable to monetize serious content got a lot of criticism on Twitter, particularly from Jeff Javis, who retweeted my post quoting Smith. I can see both sides and I would argue that it is difficult to monetize “serious content” because some news sites fail to market a story well or place it in a spot that makes sense on a site, but it isn’t impossible.

Smith said the overall mission for the Texas Tribune as a nonprofit organization is to answer to the public and no one else when it comes to the content they provide.

Final thoughts

I’m really glad I had the opportunity to attend the symposium, even if it was just for part of it. I learned a lot just like last year and I can’t wait for the next one. It is a great gathering that I am happy to see is available for online journalists.