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June 22, 2006

Case Study for an Unconference: Ken Sands brings to BloggerCon IV

"In Spokane, we know the users are in charge of their informational encounter with us. Increasingly we operate 'on demand' from them. Only a fool would fail to recognize the new balance of power. But these are difficult notions for the Association of Tight-Assed Editors of America."

Ken Sands is the online publisher for The Spokesman-Review in Spokane (circ. 100,000) where he has worked since 1981. He is an active member of the Online News Association. He told me he had always wanted to come to a BloggerCon.

At the session I’m leading (Users-Know-More-Than-We-Do Journalism, June 23, 10:30-11:45 am, background here) I hope we can conjure with the case in Spokane. Ken Sands and his editor Steve Smith—who was recently profiled in the Boston Phoenix—would like to do more social network journalism, if they can figure out how. That’s where the mix and flow and people at BloggerCon come in.

Here’s Ken with the facts of the case. It’s background for anyone coming Friday, but the discussion can start now in comments. —JR

Special to PressThink

Case Study for an Unconference
by Ken Sands
Online Publisher,

I’ve been to about 30 cities in the past year or so to speak at journalism conferences and offer advice to newspapers on what to do with their web operations. That’s because in an industry that finds the Internet pretty scary, I’m a dissenter, one of a handful of editors who’ve embraced the disruptions and are keen to experiment. So I get called upon to deliver the “magic bullet” solution everyone’s looking for.

I’m going to BloggerCon IV because I know there is no magic bullet. There’s only the challenge of doing new stuff that informs the people who choose to use it. I’ll be at Jay’s session in San Francisco because I want to learn about that and because “empowering the users,” the theme of this year’s BloggerCon according to Dave Winer, is exactly what my site,, needs to do.

I am the publisher of that site. And I’m trying to do better journalism with it. I need to know about the tools in use (but not in our industry) and how to get them for my newspaper. I want to hear about technology that doesn’t exist yet, but could be invented.

This is no idle exercise. Ideas that come out of BloggerCon can meet their test in Spokane. Our newspaper is eager to experiment. We’ve proven it before, and received industry recognition. Our latest adventure is part of our Transparent Newsroom initiative. We just started webcasting our two daily news meetings. Now you can watch us sift through events and make decisions. We think it will improve trust. But no one knows.

Here’s what I believe: The readers and users know more than we do. How do we make from that better journalism? I have some ideas to test with you. But, first, the background on us.

Regional portrait

Spokane’s metro area is about half a million people, making it the biggest population center on the northern tier between Seattle and Minneapolis. It’s historically a blue-collar town, a regional hub for railroads, timber, mining and agriculture, and home to a large Air Force base. It’s a politically conservative region in a liberal state. (In 1994, U.S. Speaker of the House Tom Foley, a Democrat who had been in office 30 years, was not re-elected by eastern Washington voters.) More than 90 percent of the residents are white.

The news out of Spokane is equal parts Norman Rockwell and Norman Bates. For more than 50 years, South Hill neighbors have been gathering around an iced-over pond on Christmas Eve to sing Christmas carols. Spokane is known as a great place to raise a family. Bing Crosby grew up here. But it’s also a town where a serial killer murdered more than a dozen prostitutes and a serial rapist once terrorized the city. Our gay-bashing mayor was recalled last year following allegations that he had molested young boys, and used his office to lure young men into having sex with him.

The Spokane region is an odd mix of rugged individualism and conformity. Some people come to this region of beautiful lakes and mountains to escape from city life. Yet social events take on epic proportions. The 12k Bloomsday road race is the biggest timed road race in the U.S., with around 50,000 participants. The annual Hoopfest tournament (held this weekend) has about 25,000 players and is the largest three-on-three street basketball tournament in the country. Clearly, when people here like something, they really like it.

The Newspaper

In Spokane the owners are local people— a rarity in the newspaper industry. The Cowles family of Spokane has owned The Spokesman-Review since 1894. It’s their only newspaper.

In 1910 there were 47 full-time, professional journalists and 250 “correspondents,” or freelance writers, sending in stories and tidbits from throughout eastern Washington, northern Idaho and western Montana. Jump to 2001. The staff of full-time professional journalists had grown dramatically (a disputed number, but somewhere around 167), while the freelancers were down to a dozen or so feature writers and reviewers.

Future business model

Over the past five years, the newspaper has lost 30-40 positions from its peak staffing level. If the newspaper industry continues to struggle with its business model—most observers believe it will—the number of full-time professionals on the news staff may continue to shrink until a new equilibrium suitable to ownership is found. Could we build a sustainable business around, say, 47 full-time staff journalists and 250 part-time, freelance journalists… and perhaps thousands of other users who are participants in the newsgathering process? The people here are community-minded and they are “joiners,” up to a point. We don’t know yet whether they would be willing to join in our readers-know-more-than us experiments. But there’s only one way to find out: try stuff.

Doing good journalism

This is not just a matter of an industry met with disruptive technology, struggling to adapt. Technology may let us harness the “power of many” to create a kind of journalism that never was possible before – to gain knowledge that’s been hard to get, or once gotten hard to analyze.

Journalism is not known for innovation. The Spokesman-Review is an exception. The Cowles family has embraced the ethic of trying stuff to see what works, first under long-time editor Chris Peck, and since 2002 under the editor Steve Smith.

Smith’s arrival in Spokane coincided with an explosion of interest in the Web. Shortly before he got there, in early 2002, the newspaper began its first efforts at blogging. Smith created a new position – managing editor of online and new media– and directed the staff to break the rules. A true experiment, he likes to point out, has an uncertain outcome. Failures will happen. In Spokane, we know the users are in charge of their informational encounter with us. Increasingly we operate “on demand” from them. Only a fool would fail to recognize the new balance of power. But these are difficult notions for the Association of Tight-Assed Editors of America.

Data points outside the media

For about a dozen years, I’ve been following the social network of University of Oregon sports fans. An email listserv evolved into a web site run by volunteers, which joined with other fan-based sites in the “Scout” network. That network now has paid professionals, and thousands of fans cough up $99.95 a year for access to premium content. In all the time I’ve watched this social network develop, it’s always been the first to report University of Oregon sports news. Not once have I seen a breaking news account in the mainstream media that hadn’t already been reported by the social network.

When the Iraq war began in March 2003, I discovered, a volunteer network of media watchers around the globe who found, and linked to, original reporting from a vast range of media sources 24/7. How did this aggregation service compare to the vast resources of, for example, the Associated Press? No contest. Command-post was better, faster, and far more comprehensive. Alan Nelson explained the concept—he called it “the power of many”—in a speech to newspaper editors in 2004.

Progress at The Spokesman-Review

Opinion writer and columnist Dave Oliveria has a “talk-of-the-town” blog in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, a resort community of about 100,000 people. He happens to be very good at blogging. He has a loyal base of readers and contributors, many of whom have started their own blogs, even forming a social network. When Dave live-blogged a recent primary election, his Huckleberries Online (HBO) blog had 11,000 pageviews and 500 comments in one day. Writers frequently bring up issues that then are addressed by government officials. HBO is a public space that is watched by people in power. Here’s a quote from one blog participant (a former city official):

“I’m often in contact with officials from throughout north Idaho. Invariably, the discussion turns to HBO, and how many of them come blurking for public input on important issues. Sometimes, it’s the only public input they’ll get on an issue until, of course, they’ve made a decision on something. Like me, they wish people would comment before a decision has been made, at public hearings scheduled for that purpose. Beyond that, there’s HBO.

We’re also in beta testing of a blog for an outlying community in eastern Washington. It’s called the Deer Park Dispatch, and is intended to be a place for users to surface the news of their community— one that’s usually ignored by the newspaper. At “News is a Conversation” the readers are the bloggers. They critique us, we respond. Sometimes we ask questions to get feedback.

Where to go from here

These efforts merely scratch the surface of what’s possible, and this is where we need help from BloggerCon participants.

We know there are local knowledge networks. Should we try to “tap into” them, or is it better to leave them alone until something happens to make partnership possible? Correspondents— we’re familiar with them. But we don’t know how to operate a vast and dispersed network of correspondents, linking hundreds or even thousands. Does anyone?

Here are some ideas we’ve had. They reflect the state of our thinking, pre-BloggerCon.

College sports. The big sports teams around here are Washington State University football and Gonzaga University basketball. Social networks already exist on fan sites in the Scout or Rivals networks. New information is invariably reported there first. But it’s hard to find, sometimes, because of the proliferation of banter. Part of the appeal of sites like those is the opportunity to share random thoughts and opinions. Is the banter a necessary part of the network? Does it get in the way of surfacing news, or does news flow to the top because of banter-generated interest? We have sports writers who are one-person operations already working too many hours a week to write one or two stories a day based on their reporting; we gave them blogs but they are spread too thin to master the form. Yet the network effects are such that they’ll fall behind if they are not online with the fans. What are we missing?

A new, interactive beat. A simple way to get going is to designate one reporter, on one beat (health and medicine, public schools, youth sports) whose mission would be to harness and aggregate the knowledge of readers and users in order to do better journalism. This is largely a cultural issue. It’s difficult to find a reporter who “gets it.” It’s tough for their editors to adopt a totally foreign method of generating news. But it’s also a cultural issue for the readers, as well as a technical challenge for us. How could such a beat-plus-network be developed online? Where should we start?

Consumer-goods comparison shopping. Spokane residents love a good deal. So much so that they’re willing to drive across town (it’s not that far) to save a few bucks on groceries or other goods. We already know about, and how drivers share information with each other about where to find the cheapest gas. Maybe we should set up a site where users could share information about commodities like bread, milk, and many, many other essential items. How would it work?

A regional online encyclopedia. From the Spokesman-Review, possibly a joint project with local high schools. A good supplement to Wikipedia, or redundant and unnecessary?

Outdoors and recreation: real time data sharing. Our region has one of the highest interest levels in the nation for outdoor sports and activities. We could try to create a site where users could share news and information about their passions. What does the Liberty Ridge route on Mount Rainier look like for this weekend? Is the water level on the Alberton Gorge of the Clark Fork River low enough to be safe following last weekend’s fatality? I know these sites exist already, in bits and pieces, but to my knowledge they are not well aggregated.

High school sports news. The demand here is huge. We have a statistical data base and it’s a start, but what we need is a site that empowers people to inform themselves about their school teams. How?

Weather watch. We recently purchased the domain name with the intent of building a site where weather watchers and photographers could document, in great detail, the unique weather of our area. If that’s worth doing what’s the best way?

Transportation watch. There are two seasons here-– winter and road repair. Winter destroys the roads, and the rest of the time is spent fixing them. Everyone has “pothole hotlines,” but we want a more structured data base that would include lots of information, such as: quickest routes; ill-timed stoplights; dangerous intersections. How to collect and display it?

Holding politicians’ accountable. We want to give out more report cards on how our public officials are doing in living up to their responsibilities and promises. Is there an open source way of grading political leadership?

Finally, if you look at the “citizen journalism” initiatives launched by mainstream providers in the United States, most of them lack spark, life, or intuitive appeal. The “if you build it they will come” approach clearly hasn’t worked. Is neighborhood or city a flawed concept to begin with? This one has stumped me for years. I don’t know what to do, except link to local bloggers. I certainly wouldn’t replicate the “citizen journalism” we’ve seen so far from mainsteam news organizations; there’s no traction there.

I’m far more impressed with the user-generated content on Flickr and YouTube and even MySpace (where we created a persona for our entertainment site). Those sites work; the mainstream media versions—the industry calls it user-generated content—do not. Why?

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

Kevin Anderson at Corante is interested in some of the same questions. See his What would audience-driven journalism look like? (July 3, 2006)

I couldn’t agree with Ken more when he says that there’s no traction in the citizen journalism out of mainstream media outlets. Yes, as we’re about to look back a year after the July 7 bombings here in London, everyone remembers the iconic cameraphone pictures. But I think Ken is talking more about community around content rather than the flood of pictures we now get at the BBC during large news events in the UK. Is there a sense of community, a sense of participation in sending off cameraphone pics to large news organisations?

Probably not.

Mark Jurkowitz of the Boston Phoenix profiles Spokesman-Review editor (and PressThink guest author) Steve Smith, who “brings newspaper transparency to a whole new level.” It begins…

Even in an era of buzzwords such as media “transparency” and “interactive dialogue” (between news consumers and news producers), what’s happening at the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, is pretty strange stuff.

Beginning on June 13, the paper began webcasting its two daily news meetings to the public, letting viewers with computers sit in on the key decision-making staff meetings — once considered secret and sacrosanct — at a daily with a full-time staff of almost 130 people.

Now that’s transparency. Jurkowitz comments: “Having spent two decades interviewing newspaper editors of all stripes, what really strikes me about him is a level of candor and introspection that is increasingly rare in a business where freewheeling and extroverted editors — such as the Globe’s Tom Winship and the Washington Post’s Ben Bradlee — have yielded to successors much more inclined to rely on safe, if opaque, corporate-speak.” Very true. (I was interviewed for Jurkowitz’s piece.)

“Moan, moan, moan. Complain, complain, complain. Wallow, wallow, wallow. This could only be a national convention of newspaper editors in the middle of the first decade of the 21st century.” David Shribman, editor of Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, on the American Society of Newspaper Editors convention.

Patricia Sullivan, staff writer for the Washington Post, in an overview of what the Net is doing to the news biz. “Newspapers, the biggest and oldest segment of the mainstream media, are built on the work of creative, contentious and quick-witted people, but also of curmudgeons who resist change.”

Posted by Jay Rosen at June 22, 2006 1:19 AM