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June 16, 2008

Filter the Best Stuff to the Front Page: A Demo

OffTheBus and NewsTrust.Net ran a little test two weeks ago. It's a crowdsourced week in review feature for high quality John McCain coverage, June 2 to 9. Here's the background and results.

The mission of NewsTrust—it’s nonprofit and non-partisan—is to be a “guide to good journalism.” The site offers a “range of tools to help you find and share” the best work. It has a system for surfacing quality news that anyone can participate in by rating news stories and works of commentary, or by submitting them to be rated.

NewsTrust is one kind of answer to a question I am often asked. If supply keeps expanding (because so many have media power now) won’t there come a crisis in demand? And don’t we lose something if we no longer have that common narrative once provided by Big Media? (A favorite of Big Media interviewers.)

Sites like NewsTrust take it for granted that expansion in media space is a good thing. But filtering and forwarding systems must keep pace. The better we are at that—finding the good work, forwarding it to eager users—the easier it is to relax and accept that anyone can be a producer, or that good contributions can come from anywhere.

In this connection, I point you to NewsJunk.Com, a new site. Dave Winer, with some co-conspirators, created a river of news intended for serious users of political coverage. It’s designed to be radically inclusive and selective. (And fast.)

At last week’s gathering of Knight News Challenge winners at MIT, Ethan Zuckerman, co-founder of Global Voices Online—a “find new voices” project that’s working—said he was concerned that tools to organize the flow and make it practical for people to use were not keeping pace with expanded opportunities to publish.

For a more intelligent and flexible filter we can trust in pro editors to adapt to the Web. We can turn to bloggers (they edit the Web for us and always have.) Or we can try the participation route, also called social media.

OffTheBus teamed up with NewsTrust to see how a combined hunt for the best McCain coverage of the week would turn out. We asked the people we reach to sign up at News Trust so they could rate and submit stories: help filter McCain coverage for a week… intelligently! Arianna put out the call to HuffPost readers and Amanda Michel explained the project at OffTheBus. More details are at the NewsTrust blog.

The project ran Monday, June 2 to Monday, June 9. Members were invited by email and on both partner sites to find superior works of journalism about McCain, and to review some of the recommended stories on NewsTrust’s McCain topic page. We wound up rating 233 recent stories on McCain. In total 1,713 reviews were done. About 780 people took us up on our invite and registered with NewsTrust to participate; 300 took the next step and became reviewers.

To make the list below OffTheBus intern Gabriel Beltrone and I took all stories with ten or more reviews and ranked them. There were about 50 of those. I excerpted a few comments from members, and added them to headlines and summaries. (Click on “reviews” to find all the reviews.)

So here’s a simple demonstration of what Ethan called—it was the first time I had heard this term—a “social hack.” As against the programmer’s kind. People aligned themselves to create an intelligent filter for a week’s worth of McCain news. Gabe and I then made a simple editorial product out of it: a list with highlights.

I don’t know if OfftheBus members are up for doing this as a weekly thing, but I bet it could be done. Something else I would like to see: a News Hunt for all the McCain coverage by the Arizona press going back to the start of his political career. Surfacing the consensus best of that would be very useful.

It took me about three hours to pull this together and check it. The results aren’t spectacular or surprising, and I make no large claims for them. They do show that people really like accountability journalism and that Charlie Savage, now of the New York Times, wrote the most important McCain piece that week. Key contributors Jeff Clark, Randy Morrow and Richard Riehl did individual top ten lists, which we posted at OffTheBus. They can be compared to the totals below.

After the list, I have some further discussion.

NewsTrust.Net and OffTheBus present…

The McCain News Hunt, June 2-9, 2008

Results by Jay Rosen and Gabriel Beltrone

Top Ten Rated:

1. McCain, spying and executive power: A complete reversal in 6 months. By Glenn Greenwald,, June 6. (33 reviews/avg. 4.6 of 5.0)

“In order to satisfy the right-wing extremists he now needs, McCain — who only six months ago was giving answers on spying and executive power that were exactly the same as though expressed by the ACLU, Russ Feingold and Chris Dodd — is now spouting theories of the Omnipotent President virtually equivalent to those used by John Yoo, David Addington and Dick Cheney over the last seven years to impose radical changes in how our Government functions.”

NewsTrust host Chris Finnie:

…This story left me feeling sad. Despite the fact that I disagree with many of his positions, McCain has served his country in his own way for most of his life. It is sad that, near the end of it, he should have to betray the very ideals that made him attractive enough to independents to win the nomination for political gain…

2. Adviser Says McCain Backs Bush Wiretap. By Charlie Savage, New York Times, June 6. (48 reviews/avg. 4.5 of 5.0)

“A top adviser to Senator John McCain says Mr. McCain believes that President Bush’s program of wiretapping without warrants was lawful, a position that appears to bring him into closer alignment with the sweeping theories of executive authority pushed by the Bush administration legal team.”

Reviewer Cathleen Bemis:

An outstanding piece of journalism on McCain’s position on warrantless wiretapping, one of the most controversial issues facing the candidates in the presidential campaign. Using McCain’s own public record, Savage then brings together an impressive spectrum of viewpoints on the issue from the campaigns, from legal scholars, traditional and independent media, This is how journalism should be done.

3. Katrina Kerfuffle. By Lori Robertson,, June 5. (23 reviews/avg. 4.5 of 5.0)

“McCain claims he ‘supported every investigation’ into the government’s role regarding the hurricane, when in fact he twice voted against an independent commission.”

4. John McCain’s Gramm Gamble. By Patricia Kilday Hart, Texas Observer, May 30, 2008. (23 reviews/avg. 4.3 of 5.0)

The GOP presidential nominee is relying on the ex-senator who helped bring you the mortgage crisis, Enron loopholes and Texas Governor Rick Perry.

5. The John McCain file By (St. Petersburg Times and Congressional Quarterly), ongoing. (17 reviews, 4.3 avg of 5.0)

A political “fact sheet” about McCain that includes a truth-o-meter on some of his more controversial statements, rating them as True, Mostly True, Half True, Barely True, False, Pants on Fire. (Obama sheet here.)

6. The wife U.S. Republican John McCain callously left behind. By Sharon Churcher, Daily Mail, UK, June 8, 2008. (16 reviews/4.2 avg. of 5.0)

“My accident is well recorded. I had 23 operations, I am five inches shorter than I used to be and I was in hospital for six months. It was just awful, but it wasn’t the reason for my divorce. My marriage ended because John McCain didn’t want to be 40, he wanted to be 25. You know that happens…it just does.”

7. Soft on Iran. By Joe Miller,, June 5. (15 reviews, 4.2 avg. of 5.0)

“John McCain is attacking Barack Obama’s opposition to the Kyl-Lieberman amendment, which (among other things) called for labeling Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization. McCain claims that Obama’s opposition means that he also opposed calling the IRGC terrorists. We find otherwise.”

8. Will the real John McCain stand up?. By Ed Pilkington, The Guardian, June 5. (31 reviews, 4.1 avg of 5.0)

John McCain has been portrayed as a maverick, unafraid to stand up to those he opposed. But now, as the presidential race hearts up, the Republican candidate is busy befriending those he once despised and ridiculed - the religious right, the gun lobby and the Iraq war hawks.

9. McCain: I’d Spy on Americans Secretly, Too By Ryan Singel,, June 3. (41 reviews/4.1 avg. of 5.0)

“If elected president, Senator John McCain would reserve the right to run his own warrantless wiretapping program against Americans, based on the theory that the president’s wartime powers trump federal criminal statutes and court oversight, according to a statement released by his campaign Monday.”

Reviewer Maurice Lee:

A very interesting insight into how McCain’s postion has changed dramatically from his position a few years ago. A must read for those passionate about Constitutional limitations on presidential powers and McCain’s changing positions on that subject.

10. McCain Emerges as Master Economic Flip-Flopper By Gene Sperling, Bloomberg, June 6. (16 reviews, 4.1 avg. of 5.0)

“McCain, who would like us to see him as holding a consistent and principled stance on tax cuts and fiscal discipline, is engaging in the mother of all economic policy flip-flops,” says a former Clinton adviser.

A Few of the Lowest Rated:

1. Iraq helped Barack topple Hill, but could hurt him vs. Mac. Bill O’Reilly, Boston Herald, June 8 (12 reviews, 1.7 avg. of 5.0)

“Obama has achieved the nomination, but his winning primary strategy on Iraq could come back to haunt him in the general election, when the far left becomes rather insignificant. Already John McCain is painting Obama as a terror appeaser who would snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in Iraq.”

Reviewer Marina Sakhno:

Mentions fewer casulties and increase in oil production as measures of “success” as if those alone were the objective and makes no mention at all how it has translated (or not) into governmental reconciliation and financial self-reliance…

2. McCain Sells His Kind of Change By James Carney, (12 reviews, 2.9 avg. of 5.0) rating

“The four-term Senator from Arizona might have chosen to avoid the reform motif entirely, to run instead on ‘experience’ or ‘leadership.’ But he and his campaign have decided they have no choice but to embrace the idea that voters want change above all. They also believe that Obama is the chimera of change, while McCain can actually deliver it.”

3. McCain to try to claim mantle of change. By Liz Sidoti, Associated Press (10 reviews, avg. 2.9 of 5.0)

“With voters sour on the status quo, Republican John McCain plans to spend the next five months arguing that he has a history of fighting to reform government and that Democrat Barack Obama talks of change with nothing to show for it.”

(Off topic but very current: what I just did—quote the AP and link to its story-is bad practice, according to the AP.)

Our McCain News Hunt was a collaboration among professionals (meaning: it’s their job to do it) amateurs (it’s their choice to do it) and computers (they just do it!) Fabrice Florin, founder of NewsTrust, elaborates:

On the professional end, Amanda Michel of OffTheBus, and NewsTrust’s Beth Wellington, Kaizar Campwala and David Fox played an essential role, from planning the hunt, to initial training, editorial coaching, meta-data coding, database cleanup, reviewer validation and technical support.

On the amateur end, a good measure of our success were the unusually high levels of participation from HuffPo, OffTheBus and NewsTrust communities for this project, as shown by our traffic stats for the week. This was one of our best News Hunt of the season, and we saw quite a bit of activity on NewsTrust as a result — with 5,235 visits from Huffington Post during that week, or 21% of our total visits. Our overall site traffic nearly doubled during our News Hunt, reaching 72,650 page views for the week. Total visits increased by half, with 24,891 visits from 16,738 unique visitors. These visitors spent more time and viewed more pages on our site than usual, with nearly 3 page views per visit and 5 minutes spent on site. So for each reviewer that rated our news selections, we had at least ten other visitors reading the results on our site, with many more reading them through the widgets on our partner sites, by email or RSS.

And on the computer end, what made it possible for you and Gabe to pull your list together was a set of sophisticated computer algorithms that rank rated stories on the fly, 24/7. These multilayered calculations take into account a variety of rating criteria, and weigh them based on reviewer experience, reputation and transparency and review depth. Future versions of the software will make it easier for you to customize the listings to only show stories with 10 reviews or more, or group them in different categories.

By the fall, he said, software will allow for any affinity group’s ratings to be broken out separately.

I’m not sure where all this is going. Right, now I’m just reporting what happened when we invited OffTheBus and Huffington Post people to find and filter McCain News for quality, joining the more established members of NewsTrust, who are also more experienced at rating.

Why would people want to spend time doing that? (Always a fair question in social media.) They might if the end product—the week in the review, the over-night rankings—got very good, and very reliable. The potential can be seen when we imagine not “33 reviews/4.7 avg of 5.0” but “1633 reviews/4.75 avg. of 5.00.”

One of interesting things about the NewsTrust initiative is that is has both emergent and conservative ideas built into it. The news judgment of newsroom priests is dethroned. The people formerly known as the audience take over the “gate,” as it were. But the virtues upheld—accuracy, fairness, evidence, proportion, decency, respect for our intelligence—are the old sturdy ones.

* * *

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

Jeff Howe, the writer for Wired who helped coin the term, has been posting excerpts of his forthcoming book on crowdsourcing and incorporating the comments in the final draft. The latest one is from Chapter 8: What the Crowd Creates: How the One Percent Is Changing the Way Work Gets Done.

Overview, definitions and linkfest about crowdsourcing and its literature by two academics, Jane Singer and Louse Thomas. Excellent reference work.

And do see A journalist’s guide to crowdsourcing by Robert Niles.

Nancy Scola at TechPresident:

The results are in from the first go-round of the McCain News Hunt, a joint project of the Huffington Post’s Off the Bus and NewsTrust. A great big pile of McCain-related stories were rated and reviewed in an attempt to filter out the most useful news takes on the all-but-certain Republican nominee. Jay Rosen reports his findings, but Jay’s commenters raise the obvious question: is the left-leaning audience for the project engaging in an act of confirmation bias, looking for stories that support what they already think?

William Ockham in the comments: “What’s missing from the 10 best? The Horse Race. What’s that worst list made up of? The Horse Race.”

Posted by Jay Rosen at June 16, 2008 4:30 PM