November 28, 2012 at 13:52 PM EST
Journalism as service: Lessons from Sandy
I was badly informed in the aftermath of Sandy. I blame the news. After all, isn’t that its job: to assure we’re informed? Shouldn’t news organizations be judged by that standard? The other day, I argued that news should be seen as a service, not a product, and that journalists should measure their success not [...]

I was badly informed in the aftermath of Sandy. I blame the news. After all, isn’t that its job: to assure we’re informed? Shouldn’t news organizations be judged by that standard?

The other day, I argued that news should be seen as a service, not a product, and that journalists should measure their success not by column inches or by page views but by results: whether we, the public, know what we want and need to know. Sandy provides a good test-bed for this idea of outcomes-based journalism.

After Sandy, what journalists provided was mostly articles when what I wanted was specifics that those articles only summarized. Don’t give me stories. Give me lists.

I wanted lists of what streets were closed. I wanted lists of what streets the power company was finally working on. Oh, the utility, JCP&L, gave my town, Bernards Township, lists of streets, but they were bald-faced lies (I know because my street was on that list but their crews weren’t on my street). The town and our local media outlets only passed on these lists as fact without verifying. I wanted journalists to add value to those lists, going out to verify whether there were crews working on those streets. In a word: report.

I wanted media organizations or technology platforms to enable the people who knew the facts — my fellow townspeople — to share what they knew. Someone should have created a wiki that would let anyone in town annotate those lists of streets without power and streets — if any — where power crews were working. Someone should have created a map (Google Maps would do; Ushahidi would be deluxe) that we could have annotated not only with our notes and reports of what we knew but also with pictures. I’d have loved to have seen images of every street blocked by trees, not just for the sake of empathy but also so I could figure out how to get around town … and how likely it was that we’d be getting power back and how likely it would be that buses would be able to get through the streets so schools could re-open.

But instead, we got mostly articles. For that’s what journalists do, isn’t it? We write articles. We are storytellers! But not everything should be a story. Stories aren’t always the best vehicle for conveying information, for informing the public. Sometimes lists, data bases, photos, maps, wikis, and other new tools can do a better job.

My local weekly paper was as useful as always. Not. It gave me articles days after the fact that told me nothing I hadn’t already ferreted out. In my town, Patch* blew it. Here was its opportunity to be *the* hyperlocal resource for my town. Even though it had no newspaper to fill, it still insisted on giving me articles. When I couldn’t reliably find out about where power work was occurring from the town or Patch or the paper, I did use Patch to post an open letter to the town complaining about officials passing on JCP&L’s bogus lists and I learned more from the comments there than from those articles. NJ.com* gave me articles but also did give me some lists, constantly updated, which I hung on to find out the latest on roads and transit — and so I could decide whether I had any hope of getting into New York and work. Those lists were great but, a statewide paper being what it is, they couldn’t tell me about my neighborhood.

That’s where the need and opportunity remain: in very local information. No one has cracked the geographic nut well — not big papers, not big networks of sites, not Twitter. Desperate to find open gas stations, we gathered around the #njgas hashtag but it wasn’t terribly useful learning that a station 50 miles away just opened up. I needed someone to add value to that list of posts about stations by putting them on a map.

After my neighbors and I got out our chainsaws and cut through probably three dozen trees to free us from our blocked streets and driveways, I went to Nextdoor.com, a platform that enables neighbors with verified identities and addresses to create private networks.

In a neat bit of functionality, I was able to delineate my own neighborhood — which is valuable information to a site, knowing what someone considers a neighborhood to be. But Nextdoor scolded me and said I didn’t have enough neighbors, forcing me to include people who live 2.5 miles away I’ll never meet — because Nextdoor thinks it knows better. Its mapping data sucked and many of my neighbors couldn’t join but Nextdoor wouldn’t let us fix the addresses — even though we know better. We wanted to talk about power and buying generators and trees still lying over our streets and more but Nextdoor gave us a tab to talk about “crime and safety” because they think they know what we want. No. You’re a platform only if and when your users take over what you’ve built and use it in ways you never imagined because they find it that useful.

What I want from news and technology companies is a platform that enables us in the community to share our knowledge. I want them to provide an opportunity for — or shame — shame town officials, utility companies, transit officials, as well as local businesses — even gas stations — into using such a platform to share the data they have and invite residents to add to and improve that knowledge. I do not expect the journalists to be able to gather all that information. In the words of Emily Bell, Clay Shirky, and Chris Anderson in their new tome, Post-Industrial Journalism, I expect the journalist to move up the value chain. Or in my words, I want the journalist to add value, to ask and answer the questions that aren’t already known. Do what you do best and link to — or build a platform for — the rest.

* Disclosures: Patch has long listed me as an advisor though I am not one. I am, however, an adviser to NJ.com and helped start the service back in the day. I have no relationship with Nextdoor.

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