January 9th, 2009

Networked link journalism: A revolution quietly begins in Washington state


The discussion about journalism’s future so often focuses on Big Changes — Kill the print edition! Flips for everyone! Reinvent business models NOW! — that it’s easy to forget how simple innovation can be.

Sometimes all you need is a few Tweets, a bunch of links, and some like-minded pioneers.

That’s how a quiet revolution began in Washington state Wednesday. Four journalists spontaneously launched one of the first experiments in collaborative (or networked) link journalism to cover a major local story.

But it gets better. Those four journalists weren’t in the same newsroom. In fact, they all work for different media companies. And here’s the best part: Some of them have never even met in person.

“The whole thing came together on Twitter yesterday morning,” Elaine Helm, new media editor at the Herald in Everett, said in an email Thursday.

The story was crazy rain in western Washington: evacuations, flooded and closed highways, avalanches, a breached levee, the whole deal. Elaine (@ehelm on Twitter), put a call out for local Twitterers to adopt a common hashtag for flooding coverage. Paul Balcerak (@paulbalcerak), assistant editor of dynamic media for Sound Publishing, suggested #waflood, which they agreed on and posted for their Twitter followers to see.

As Paul described it in an email, Brianne Pruitt (@briannepruitt, Wenatchee World web editor) and Angela Dice (@adice, Kitsap Sun web editor) picked up on the hashtag, “and it snowballed.”

That would have been innovation enough, but Paul went a step further: He saved links to flood coverage through Publish2, tagging each with “waflood,” and posted on Twitter that he was doing so. Soon Elaine, Angela, and Brianne were also adding links to Publish2 with a “waflood” tag.

They then put Publish2 widgets on their news organizations’ sites that displayed the links they were collaboratively gathering, greatly expanding their sites’ coverage of the flooding.

Here’s the Herald’s link roundup (which is also linked on the Herald’s homepage);

Kitsap Sun’s (inset in a story at left, linked on the homepage at right, and on this full page of links);

Wenatchee World’s (see inset box at left);

and the one at Sound Publishing’s pnwlocalnews.com (see “Washington state flooding” at the bottom).

Voila — instant collaborative link newswire!

The collaborative spirit of journalism’s future

This collaboration is remarkable in all kinds of ways.

First, you can tell by the Twitter timestamps how quickly everything came together. Second, with a link newswire fed by multiple news organizations, there’s a danger that everyone might add only their own stories to the mix. But this group added outside sources as well (including the News Tribune, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Seattle Times, Yakima Herald-Republic, the Daily Record, and more). Third, all four independently and instantly “got” what the others were doing, which shows how much the ideas of collaboration and link journalism (and even the term itself) have spread.

Lastly, did I mention the four journalists work for different media companies? The Herald is owned by the Washington Post Co., Kitsap Sun by Scripps, Sound Publishing by Black Press (of Victoria, B.C.), and Wenatchee World is independent/family-owned. Paul hasn’t met Angela or Brianne in person, and has met Elaine briefly once. Yet none of that was an obstacle.

I asked Angela in an email whether she knew the others in non-Twitter life. Here’s her wonderful answer:

I used to work with Elaine at the Sun and talk to her regularly, and she’s one of the reasons I joined Twitter. While I’d never done any project with Brianne before, she had made it a point to visit other papers around the region and introduce herself when she became the Wenatchee World web editor, which is how I started following her on Twitter. I met Seth Long [Sound Publishing's new media director] on Twitter, which is how I met Paul, neither of whom I’ve met in person. They both, however, work with a former co-worker and friend of mine. It’s a small, small online journalism world in Western Washington.

How refreshing is that? Forget walled gardens — this is the spirit of journalism’s future.

In some ways the networked linking process is an extension of how newsrooms collaborate with traditional wire services, but I think the Washington project is more than that. Papers using a traditional wire service aren’t really collaborating. They’re primarily trying to a) extend the reach of their stories, and b) get access to material they can’t afford to produce on their own.

The dynamic on display Wednesday, and the relationships Angela described in the quote above that allowed for this collaboration, seem more organic — a mental leap forward. They even emphasized the collaboration in the widget descriptions: Kitsap Sun’s says “Stories are chosen by news reporters and editors from Washington news organizations,” while the Herald’s says “Below are news stories that journalists around the state have selected to post using a service called Publish2.”

I asked Seth Long (@greenergrad) about a similar project he and Angela had worked on in December to round up links to snowstorm coverage. (For future Wikipedia articles on link journalism: To my knowledge, theirs was the first example of networked link journalism across media companies.)

He noted that “Her newspaper is a direct competitor with a group of our community weeklies.” In the old world, that would have made collaboration a non-starter. But today readers rightly come first. As Seth said, “My perspective is that our job is to serve our communities as best we can.”

Innovation that’s easy, popular, and cheap

The Washington link projects should serve as models for the entire news industry. They show that collaborative linking draws readers, is easy, and costs nothing more than time (and not even much of that).

Seth said the December snowstorm link roundup was on the homepage for three or four days — but it was the site’s most-trafficked story for the entire month. (This tracks with Knoxnews.com’s success with a popular football link roundup.)

Angela described some of the other benefits of collaborative linking:

I think it’s especially useful in situations like these, where events affect a large region. I can also see it being used as a way to track things like state government news, or any broad-reaching issue that your readers will be talking about.

Having a group of people adding the links just makes your job that much easier. As both a reader and a web editor, I can keep updated on what’s happening on a particular topic without opening and slogging through a dozen web sites.

This is the power of collaborative news networks. By forming a network, newsrooms can discover not just a greater volume of news, but a greater volume of relevant, high-quality news than one person, one newsroom, or one wire service could alone.

Compare the Washington group’s great waflood link roundup to a Google News search for “Washington flood” — I know which one I’d rather have as a resource if I lived in that area.

Doing this isn’t complicated. In an email, Brianne described the extent of her planning: “I follow the others on Twitter, and they had started a hashtag, #waflood, and then mentioned using the same tag for publish2 links.”

That’s it! Any group of news organizations can do this, even if they’re not Twitter-friends.

A good way to start is to set up a Publish2 newsgroup and invite other journalists (as Angela did with a Northwest News newsgroup in December). Collaboratively save links about a couple of non-breaking-news subjects to get a feel for it, and try publishing feeds of those links. Then when a big story breaks, it’s a simple matter of choosing a common tag and alerting everyone in the newsgroup.

Don’t get hung up on worries about sinking a lot of time or money into this. As Angela said, “There’s a perception that with some tools, it’s a lot of extra work, but — I’m specifically talking about the Publish2 model — when you realize how little time it really takes to bookmark a page you’re already reading, it’s a wonder you weren’t doing it before.”

As for money, when the technology is free all you need to invest in is smart journalists. Here’s what Paul had to say Wednesday:

I think it’s worth pointing out that everything we did today cost us $0.

That, too, is the spirit of journalism’s future. I can’t wait to see what this innovative crew cooks up next in that spirit — and who will be the first to follow their lead.

Comments (39 Responses so far)

  1. Thanks for the great post on our collaborative efforts to cover flooding in Washington state.

    My newspaper’s Web site is now featuring RSS feeds for the waflood tag from both Publish2 and Twitter on a special flood page we whipped up this afternoon: http://www.heraldnet.com/flood.

    I hope this inspires other journalists to jump in and try these new tools. It’s easy and rewarding.

  2. Wow. Very cool. Thanks for the information and analysis. It shows how innovation can help the communities journalists cover and how journalists can be relevant.

    A reporter who left here and just started at Medill said only 2 of the 20 in her class are on Twitter. That surprised me, but others reminded me that it’s a new technology and not mainstream.

    This shows how journalists can use it well.

  3. [...] story of this week’s collaboration was featured today in the online publication “Publishing 2,” which reports on developments regarding an online system that helps connect journalists together. [...]

  4. [...] 2.0 (which I found via a #waflood tagged tweet from Evan Calkins this morning) looking into the creation, evolution, and use of the #waflood tag over the past few [...]

  5. Natural disasters tend to bring out the best in collaboration and innovation. Let’s hope it can be sustainable.

  6. Excellent idea. And I love the fact that because Publish2 is only open to journalists, it eliminates spammers from taking over the waflood tag. Spectacular.

  7. [...] Networked link journalism: A revolution quietly begins in Washington state [...]

  8. [...] no Twitter de manhã e à tarde já era um projecto sólido. O futuro do jornalismo colaborativo pode estar [...]

  9. Cheap and fast, so probably this will be popular, but it looks to me like a way to share the conventional wisdom (perhaps the biggest public service problem of modern journalism) without even having to go to a bar together after filing the first day’s stories. Skipping the bar? I’m not sure that’s progress.

  10. [...] Networked link journalism: A revolution quietly begins in Washington state. This is one of the most significant things that happened in journalism last week. I’m not kidding. Go read about how four newspapers collaboratively covered Washington State’s weather mess. Four newspapers owned by four different companies. Driven by the folks on the ground. [...]

  11. This is a fantastic example of what can happen when you have just a few Twitter-savvy reporters working on a big story spread out across a region. It almost makes me want to go back to daily journalism, wait for a big story to happen, and then get to work with other journalists around the state!

    Yay for the future of journalism!

  12. This has been fascinating to observe as tweets emerge in real time (or nearly so…there have been a few Twitter hiccups along the way). One problem that surfaced, at least from my perspective, is Twitter spam (for lack of a better term) in which information not related to the #waflood tag/topic keeps filling up the search results. I’m curious if other readers have ideas on how to deal with this. Wallowing through unrelated information to get to the contextual information is, at best, a distraction. …Oh, and by the way: great idea, and great work!

  13. I have many business associates that I have never met. I kind of prefer it that way now!

  14. Althought I am not a journalist, but am a Web 2.0 user, I think it is important to note that the cost of this was not “0”. Although the technology used may have been free, these people’s time and knowledge to make this all happen has a value.

  15. Hi there, interesting. But amidst all the enthusiasm I’d like to ask whether a list of links is what readers expect from journalists. In my opinion it’s more important to provide roundups with relevant information. I don’t have the time to read through 25 different stories to get a picture of the situation.

  16. Nicely done. You’re almost at the stage of the citizen journalists during the Mumbai attacks, with their delicious.com shared bookmarks, flickr photos and wikipedia article/clearing house.

  17. [...] Networked link journalism: A revolution quietly begins in Washington state – Publishing 2.0 via @perryhewitt: "The discussion about journalism’s future so often focuses on Big Changes — Kill the print edition! Flips for everyone! Reinvent business models NOW! — that it’s easy to forget how simple innovation can be. [...]

  18. [...] Networked link journalism: A revolution quietly begins in Washington state – Publishing 2.0 – [...]

  19. I like the idea of collabrative journalism across companies, like CSM and McClatchy on a micro level. But the main problem is the subject, you just can’t expect newspapers to be around to really explore Web 2.0 stuff if weather stories are the only thing they can come up with. Don’t mean to be a downer and I realize for local breaking news its nice, but a weather story is still a weather story, no matter who tells it or how.

  20. Ryan, I like how you minimalize our plight at the hands of cruel mother nature’s destructive wrath that spanned several counties. (Just kidding, just kidding. :)) You shouldn’t get so hung up on the little details like subject of coverage.

  21. @Matthias, Links with summaries of what is in the story, why one should read it, and relevant tags are all options to include. In fact, links have a much higher editorial value when the journalists take the time to say why a story is relevant and important to the readers.
    You have a list of “required reading” links on your blog. Is that somehow different that what these reporters are doing?
    As blogs and now many major media sites show, at the very least, a well-curated set of links offers a nice benefit to readers who are interested in a topic or the person who is recommending the content.

  22. @Ryan, I’m also usually a cynic about basic weather stories. But I don’t think there’s any way a major regional disaster (or potential disaster) like last week’s floods could be considered just an average cliched weather story.

    Even if it had been “just” another weather story, there’s no reason the process behind the collaboration couldn’t be applied to many other topics — whether allegedly frivolous or good and substantive.

    Also, everyone should check out this Paul Balcerak post about the collaboration and the response to the collaboration (including my post). I especially like this bit:

    “The old mentality of being hostile toward your competition or ignoring them has got to go. By all means, be competitive, but understand that essentially, you’re all trying to do the same thing. It also doesn’t hurt to remember that the business is mostly tanking and if there were ever a time for teamwork, it’s now.”

  23. [...] Networked link journalism: A revolution quietly begins in Washington state [...]

  24. @Tammi: What I’m referring to is this: “Particularly fascinating was the piece in which the managing director of Northwestern’s Media Management Center, Vivian Vahlberg, explained how newspapers that cram their sites with every possible bell and whistle are misinterpreting what their youngest readers want; millennials prefer online offerings that are lean, curated and respectful of their limited time.”

    I do not see this approach in the project here described. It’s great collaboration, no doubt, but the outcome is that news websites throw a couple of dozen links at their readers for them to choose from. The fact that they are commented does not mean I have the time to read even a third of the stories behind those links.

  25. Oops. I included a link, but apparently your blog software automatically deleted it. Here: tinyurl dot com slash 88s69l

  26. @Josh Korr – ‘there’s no reason the process behind the collaboration couldn’t be applied to many other topics’. Can you suggest some? That this kind of collaboration works very well for a local weather story is indisputable, but I’m not so sure it’s a really useful future model for journalism beyond this – but I’d be very interested in other examples of where and how it’d work to prove me wrong.

  27. [...] by the recent efforts in Washington state following flooding, I’m really interested to see what Chapel Hill’s [...]

  28. [...] i ostatnim gwo?dziem do trumny dla upadaj?cej prasy. Edwin Bendyk napisa? ostatnio o “networked link journalism“, opisuj?c przypadek, gdy dziennikarze ró?nych gazet podj?li wspó?prac? za pomoc? [...]

  29. [...] i ostatnim gwo?dziem do trumny dla upadaj?cej prasy. Edwin Bendyk napisa? ostatnio o “networked link journalism“, opisuj?c przypadek, gdy dziennikarze ró?nych gazet podj?li wspó?prac? za pomoc? [...]

  30. Brilliant, but why stop there? Why not mash it up with pictures, video, audio, and the types of information available on everyblock.com. Newspapers all have these resources available. The cost of media online is miniscule and its value inestimable.

  31. [...] Networked link journalism : A revolution quietly begins in Washington state [...]

  32. [...] Networked link journalism: A revolution quietly begins in Washington state Publishing 2.0 | 9 JAN 2009 [...]

  33. This is a great example of people putting their heads together to make something happen.

  34. [...] As Josh Korr starts in his post A revolution begins quietly begins in Washing State. [...]

  35. This is AWESOME! I am teaching a Convergent Journalism class at a local college and this is exactly what we are talking about. In fact, a student brought it to my attention. You are on my class blog now!



  36. [...] post on the Washington state linking project focused on the awesome innovation involved and on the benefits of collaborative linking in general. [...]

  37. [...] among journalists and newsrooms using Publish2, all arising from big news events, e.g. floods in Washington state, Obama’s inauguration, the Blagojevich [...]

  38. [...] among journalists and newsrooms using Publish2, all arising from big news events, e.g. floods in Washington state, Obama’s inauguration, the Blagojevich [...]

  39. [...] from the editors in Washington State who have been practicing collaborative curation, whether for a statewide flood or a flu [...]

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