Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Earthquake news traveled virally

So, we had an earthquake today. I didn't feel it. I think I was out driving around; it happened at 1:51 p.m. EDT and I was driving home around then. I'm assuming with the mildness of the quake's impact in Upstate New York, being in a moving car would obliterate any chance of feeling it.

My first inkling that an earthquake had occurred was when my wife said something about a friend texting her (and a bunch of other people in a texting group) asking whether any of them had felt it happen. That was about an hour after the quake hit.

My next instinct was not to turn on the TV, as I might have in the past, but to jump on the computer to see what people were saying about it on Facebook and Twitter. The first such entry I saw was from a former student who works in Washington, DC -- not far from the epicenter -- who had FB and Twitter entries with references to the HuffPo website's coverage of the event (which he didn't much like). Another friend who lives in eastern Pennsylvania, still relatively close to the quake's location, had a Facebook post about it. Several Rochester area friends mentioned feeling things shake as well.

Another friend from eastern Pennsylvania, who now teaches at a college there but is originally from California, had at least a couple of dozen Twitter observations about the differences between West Coast quakes he had experienced and this one. He also provided my absolute favorite social media news tidbit with the observation "I was able to pinpoint the epicenter pretty quickly based on descriptions and known locations of tweeters. Took me about a minute."

Now, that's some social media based reporting.

It wasn't until about 4 hours later that I turned to legacy media for news about the quake, and even then I didn't turn on the TV or navigate to a news website. Rather, I looked at the AP news app on my iPad, which had a nice summary story as typical of a wire service. I looked at USA Today's coverage through its iPad news app also. Thus I augmented the first-person reports I had read with the professional coverage that had the "official word" on magnitude of the quake, along with details from a wide range of areas affected by it (from South Carolina to New England to Ohio).

I suppose I'll read about it in tomorrow's print edition of the local paper, too, but that will most likely be a version of the AP story I already have read, augmented by comments from local people whom I don't know. Hearing from people whom I do know is more worthwhile to me, and social media have allowed me to do that already.

Put another way, Twitter and Facebook told me most of what I needed to know, from trusted sources who experienced the event. (To paraphrase Jay Rosen's framing of journalistic authority: they were there, I wasn't, I let them tell me about it.) The AP story was a nice follow-up and I appreciated having the immediate access to it that the mobile app gave me.

Most significantly, both the viral distribution of individual experiences and the professional summary have a role to play in coverage of events such as this. Today's experience was a nice microcosm of that.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Observations from the AEJMC conference

A few random thoughts from the recently concluded AEJMC conference in St. Louis.

* The best line I heard all week in any session was Lisa Williams of Placeblogger during her talk at the J-Lab luncheon. In discussing the emergence of small news operations, Williams compared current large institutions (think: big metro daily newspapers) to the Titanic, and said that when you're coming upon the iceberg you're better off in a kayak (think: small, entrepreneurial organization).

In another terrific analogy, she compared the current media landscape to the high-tech industry of the late 1980s, which was dominated by large, centralized institutions who clung to outdated technologies and ways of working, and eventually went out of business. (One of those was Digital Equipment Corp., which she called "the Knight-Ridder of its time," drawing a laugh from the audience.) As companies such as DEC disappeared, smaller startups such as Google came on the scene using technology in innovative ways to better serve customer needs. "The future is small," she said, meaning many smaller organizations will collectively make bigger impacts than the large central ones that are now fading away. That applies to technology, and needs to apply to journalism as well, she said.

* The same session featured David Boraks of DavidsonNews.net, an online community news site in North Carolina. Boraks talked about how he started off with a journalistic mindset, but quickly learned that success required a business mindset. The operation now employs three people, including one who is editor of a companion site in a neighboring town.

In a post-session discussion among me and several friends, someone asked about whether Boraks should be considered a journalist? Citizen journalist? Citizen who IS a journalist? My reply: he's a publisher, plain and simple. His operation is virtually identical in the scope and style of its coverage to any small-town weekly printed newspaper, led by an editor/publisher with a variety of responsibilities to the operation and the readership; Boraks just does it without printing his work on paper and stuffing it in the mail to readers.

When Boraks described his work, it seemed he is doing exactly what my good friend Howard did in operating the weekly newspaper in Seneca Falls when I lived and worked there 30 years ago. The main difference is that Boraks is able to publish on a more ongoing basis rather than writing and editing his stories for several days to meet a once-a-week deadline. And he doesn't have the expense of printing and mailing the product. But the journalism is the same, it seems to me. And so is the business side, with support from local business as advertisers and readers as "subscribers"/supporters. (Boraks doesn't have formal subscriptions but does ask for and does receive voluntary contributions, and said he might some day investigate a pay wall.)

* There seemed to be less talk at this year's convention about j-schools as community news providers. Last year, there were multiple sessions on that topic and I attended as many as I could. It's something I'd love to see my program get into, if at all possible. But no real mention of it this time around. It seemed to be replaced, to some degree, by talk about journalistic entrepreneurialism, as illustrated by what Williams and Boraks had to say.

* AEJMC did its usual fine job of organizing everything, but they sure have a knack for finding convention hotels that are confusing places to traverse. This one's quirks included:
  • Meeting rooms in two different places separated by a city block walk along the street, or underground passage between the two buildings.
  • One small suite of presentation rooms on the 21st floor of one of the buildings, reachable only by a particular bank of elevators that were well hidden.
  • A mezzanine level in one of the buildings up what should have been one short flight of stairs from the lobby, but with no stairs or escalator to it. Getting there required riding the elevator.
And next year we go back to Chicago. If it's in the same hotel that was used for the 2008 convention in that city, there is a a floor that cannot be reached directly by the escalators from anywhere: you need to go to the floor above it and take a set of stairs down. At least the St. Louis location didn't have that.