Category Archives: New Media

Software Eats The News: Will Nextdoor Eat Local Media?

In 2005 I tried raising money to develop a platform for connecting people with their neighbors, public services, politicians and deliver personalized news, real-estate and other high-value content and services. At the time I was the sole breadwinner with 3 small children rapidly going broke after working at a struggling startup so I shelved the concept and found a job.

And then just the other day I discovered that my city is now using Nextdoor as a news, communication and civic engagement platform. After reviewing their vision, funding and penetration I believe Nextdoor is now positioned to execute on what I envisioned 12-years ago and revolutionize local news & civic engagement.

So instead of worrying just about Facebook, journalists need to be thinking about their Nextdoor strategy.

So what makes Nextdoor special?

  1. Their use of mapping-technologies to mirror and connect physical communities.

2. Building civic engagement tools to enhance communication between public agencies and the public they serve.

How is that different from Facebook and local media?

  • Traditional News approach: Journalists curate everything and publish to non/low-interactivity platforms so impossible to connect and hear directly from neighbors, politicians and public entities. Journalists and sections may be focused on specific communities but since space and journalists are limited, features very little actual local news/information.
  • Email, Facebook & Twitter: You can connect and engage directly with other community members, government and politicians but connecting is extremely inefficient as you need to find and connect one-at-a-time with each person or organization. Also since birds of a feather flock together it leads to people primarily connecting and engaging with friends and folks who look and sound like you. And neither provides sophisticated civic-engagement tools.
  • Next door provides a much more efficient GIS/ address-based platform that automatically connects you with your neighbors and public agencies. Enter your address, and then through the magic of geocoding and mapping software, Nextdoor finds the city and neighborhood you reside in, applying physical geography to the virtual world. Next they provide tools specifically designed to connect public agencies they serve.

So what’s that enable?

Delivering truly-localized/personalized news and engagement based on the many different political and civic spaces/boundaries you live in.

You belong to not just a specific neighborhood and city but to many geographically-defined government and civic areas, e.g. City council districts, county council districts, public-school attendance zones, state and federal representative districts, public-utility, non-profit and business-service areas, etc.

Nextdoor by using mapping technologies, can now connect you with not just your local police but all of your geographically-specific political, educational, business and non-governmental organizations.

Instead of landing on either a generic screen or an information bubble of an algorithm-chosen feed, you can view both news stories and updates from your elected officials, public servants, favorite non-profits and local businesses.

And news orgs could either integrate or build their own geo-enabled platform and deliver personalized news to you. So instead of just getting a story about the city council, you could see exactly how your representative voted.

What does this mean for journalism and news orgs?

The opportunity: A new platform for delivering local news to a built in and engaged audience.

One of the reasons Patch failed and why local news sites struggle is that the World Wide Web is organized around interests, size and discrete facts, not geography.

Entering your address in Google displays info about your specific house but little about your neighborhood.

Enter your city and it tells you only information at the city level.

Go to your local news site and you may get the option for info about your local neighborhood but almost nothing about regional, state and national decisions with local implications and participation.

A geo-enabled information architecture using real-world boundaries provides an entirely new method of discovery and organizing information.

And this represents a huge opportunity for journalists to deliver localized content on the Web to a built in audience via Nextdoor.

The threat: It also represents another threat to local publishers that don’t adopt a geo-enabled platform and approach to news as they lack the personalization and integration capabilities of Nextdoor.

After all, much of what passes as local news involves public affairs announcements, and now that residents can easily get that info direct from the source, it’s one less reason to subscribe or visit a local news site.

Nextdoor also represents a new competitor for advertising dollars, further eroding the economic model for local news, especially since advertisers will be able to target down to the specific address level. Having worked for a real-estate information service provider, knowing a users’ address enables you to target them for all sorts of mortgage, insurance and home-service products specific to the house, e.g. you can see when their house was refinanced and target them with refinancing offers with fairly solid info about the interest they paid vs. now.

So what will Nextdoor do next?

I have no idea as I’ve never spoken to them, but as someone who envisioned similar concepts over a decade ago, I’d:

  1. Build more and more integration points into local public services and political establishments, so Nextdoor becomes your one-stop shop for civic engagement.
  2. Provide two-way communication and organizing tools to enable residents to give feedback and create conversations with both their neighbors, their elected officials and other public-service agencies.
  3. Allow media partners to post their content on the site and enable them to leverage the platform to deliver personalized news in exchange for a revenue share. And since Nextdoor controls the platform, they will determine the deal structure.

What should news organizations do?

Decide whether they want to be content organizations feeding other people’s platforms or whether they want to be information technology organizations that provide civic engagement and intelligence solutions.

  1. If you want to just provide content, then focus on trying to be the first on your block to negotiate a deal so you don’t get locked out. If I were Nextdoor, I’d be putting out RFPs and getting news orgs to compete for placement.
  2. If you want to control your own destiny and compete from strength, integrate geo-enablement capabilities into your content management systems, develop a geo-enabled information architecture and geographically-discrete content.

The challenge is that for 99.9% of the world, even for software developers, the previous paragraph is pure gobbledygook. The only reason I understand it is because I minored in geography, took several GIS courses 20-years ago, have 20-years of software experience and built MyRepresentatives.com as an after-hours public-service project that began providing address-level personalization for Memphians. (Unfortunately we had to shut it down due to work and family constraints. )

But don’t worry, over the next few weeks I’ll:

  1. Reach out to Nextdoor and see if they’re willing to divulge their plans, or even have any for media integration, and share their feedback with you.
  2. Provide more details and provide visual examples of how geo-personalization can work, and my vision for providing civic engagement tools to truly help make America great.
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Software is Eating the News: Are you in the in the Entertainment or Work business?

work-vs-entertainmentRight now, news organizations still haven’t really clarified what business they are in and/or what their audience is really looking for, as a result they often measure and focus on the wrong things.

Information technology businesses fall into two primary categories:

  1. Entertainment: The goal here is to help people have “fun,” to spend their downtime with you. And the more time spent with you the better. It doesn’t really matter whether that time spent makes them a better or worse human being, helps the planet, it’s fundamentally about entertaining people. Think Facebook, Pinterest, movies, gaming, etc.
  2. Work: The goal here is to help people take action and solve problems, whether pay their bills, stock their pantries, lose weight, learn new skills, influence public policies. In this case, the goal is to often spend the least time possible, as the primary thing you care about is the outcome. Traditional B2B software and Google search falls primarily into this category; you’re not using it for fun but to get the task done as efficiently and effectively as possible, and the less time spent the better.

So are journalists and news organizations primarily in the entertainment or work business?

Traditionally, they have straddled both worlds and as a result have muddied their value proposition, measure the wrong things and apply the wrong business models.

Additionally, what one segment of the audience and what journalists’ often think of as entertainment, others often think of as work, politics being one of them.

work-vs-entertainment-politics

In the entertainment world, your goal is to get people to spend as much time with you as possible, since the whole point of your existence is to fill people’s free time. In this scenario, display advertising as a revenue stream and products that encourage spending time make sense.

In the work world, your goal is to minimize the amount of time people spend with you and instead give them the answers to their problems, or eliminate their problems all together. In this case, the less time spent on your site/application is often better, since the goal is to increase their time. In this scenario, display advertising makes absolutely no sense and products that don’t solve problems are bad.

work-vs-entertainment-metrics

So should news organizations focus on delivering more entertainment value or more work value?

And that will be a question for another day. 🙂

CA Investigation: Too Many Facts & Not Enough Design= Missed Opportunities

Hats off to the Commercial Appeal for a good solid piece of investigative journalism about how Shelby County General Sessions Court Judges are absent way more than they should be. http://bit.ly/CAJudgeInvestigation

Unfortunately, because they and most other news organizations are still stuck in a primarily narrative story mode, where text-based stories that disappear shortly after creation are the norm, they missed multiple opportunities to transform their work into more useful, usable and longer-lived content.

If the Commercial Appeal and other news organizations are going to succeed on the Web, they’re going to need to move beyond just writing stories to creating information products that maximize both the value of their work to the news organization and their audience.

So what do I mean by that?

So instead of just writing stories, think about the different challenges your audiences face and how if you structured the information differently, you can help them solve those challenges. And secondly, how could you leverage the information to drive ongoing engagement over time.

Below are a few thoughts that came to mind after I read the story.

Learn how the brain works

The brain has three types of memory:

  1. Iconic Memory: Where sights, sounds and other senses are first processed. Information stays in here for less than a second, but our mind is able to identify certain items instantaneously, even before our conscious mind is aware of them, e.g. length, movement, color, etc..
  2. Working Memory: The brains RAM. Unfortunately we humans can only hold small amounts of information in our working memory, e.g. names, dates, etc.. so as we learn new facts, we either forget what we learned previously or we need to move the information into our long term memory.
  3. Long-Term Memory: Where we store our information for later use.

The key takeaway is that our working memory only holds small amounts of information, so we need to design our information products in ways that make it easy for us to absorb and manage the content being presented, i.e. stories are great for communicating themes and conflict, but don’t work so well for delivering lots of facts and figures.

Just think about all the stories you’ve read where you’ve confused the various characters and have to constantly refer to earlier parts of the story to understand who’s who and what’s what.

Just as we no longer rely on just oral communication, we can’t rely on just text in a world with almost infinite design options if you want to maximize your story’s impact.

I highly recommend Stephen Few’s blog for more insights into the human brain and data visualization.

Help me understand my government

First, while the article was chock full of information, I still don’t understand how the different courts are structured or work. There was a paragraph or two buried in the article about the different courts, but since the article was so fact dense, the information was quickly pushed out of my working memory as I tried to absorb other details in the story.

The local court system in Shelby County is incredibly confusing, but there is nowhere you can go that explains how the different courts are structured and compare them with each other. The CA provided some limited explanation of the court structure in the article, but if they had created a table that explained the various courts and provided links to more in depth descriptions, they would have both provided better context – and created evergreen content that would be helpful to anyone who is trying to understand the Shelby County Court system.

While the investigations are great, developing rich base content about the people and institutions  that serve us would fill a giant information gap in the market and provide a better foundation for stories like this to build from.

Unfortunately, by not thinking of themselves as a Wikipedia for local government, they missed out on the opportunity to:

  • Better serve their readers by providing insights into a confusing and opaque system.
  • Create evergreen/longtail content that will be relevant months and years after it was written.
  • Deliver a better user experience as the structural details of the various players, processes and systems get lost in traditional storyform.

Just ask yourself, where do you, your friends and family turn to when they have questions about their local government? Is it a local news site? And is it easy for them to find the information they want? Or is there an opportunity for you to fill?

Help me vote

Second, by not structuring the story as part of a larger voter-guide initiative, they lost the opportunity to make it easier for me to make decisions about the upcoming ballot.

The upcoming ballot in Shelby County will be huge – especially with all the various judgeships on the ballot. As someone who’s not involved in the legal community nor closely tied to the local political parties, I don’t have a clue who these people or what their duties.

If the Commercial Appeal created a ballot structure with links to the various articles/information – or that had the information in such a way that I could easily save as part of a voter guide, the stories would go from “Hmmm… this is interesting and potentially outrageous” to “Oh… this is great, they’re creating a comprehensive voter guide that I can easily use to help me make voting decisions.”

Instead I read the article, thought this is bad and I need to save this information for when I vote, then promptly lost the article and got lazy about copying the information to a form that I could use to decide and document my ballot choices. As a result, I may not ever use the information in the article as part of my voting decision-making process because of the additional work required by me to make it usable for me. (Okay, I will but only because I’m a nerd who invested so much time writing about the article.)

Don’t make me work

Stories are great for painting pictures of events and conflict, but they frankly suck for providing detailed minutiae as our brains can only hold so much detail in our working memory. Instead of forcing people to remember a bunch of facts and figures, news organizations need to focus on new ways to help people easily understand both the larger context and the details of who’s doing what – neither of which traditional text-based stories are very good at doing.

So considering how much time is invested in investigative work, in the future news organizations need to think how best to communicate that information to their audiences for their audiences’ benefit – and how best to transform that information into valuable longer-term assets.

 

Enable Your Audience to Give Feedback to their Elected Officials From Your Site

MyRepresentatives Feedback Before & After Slide v2Thanks to Joey Brown, Bryan Glazer & Sunlight Labs you’ll be able to soon:

  • Instantly find and give feedback to your state and federal elected officials all across the United States
  • Embed the MyRepresentatives feedback button in your site or blog, so whether you’re a news organization, non-profit or advocacy organization, you can make it easy for your audience to get engaged.

The goal is to transform journalism from just presenting information to providing civic engagement tools that make it easy for readers/viewers to take action. After all, isn’t the whole point of journalism to help drive change?

With MyRepresentatives you can embed the MyRepresentatives feedback button on your site, just like you do links to Twitter and Facebook, and you’re done!

Best of all it’s free! The entire site has been developed as an after-hours non-partisan public-service project, but that doesn’t mean we won’t accept donations.

So stay tuned! And feel free to contact us for more details about how you can integrate MyRepresentatives into your site.

Beyond Squares & Points: Using free-form shapes to search Google Maps and other applications

Map showing examples of searching for travel information such as eateries and hotels using freeform shapesToday you can search for places using a square or a circle – or an existing boundary such as a city, but what about when you want to search for something that’s doesn’t fit in a square easily, e.g. searching for vacation rentals along the coast of North Carolina?

You can’t! So as a result you have to search city by city or include areas that outside the area you really want.

The solution: Searching with free-form shapes AKA polygons. In the old days, you needed specialized software to create boundary files, e.g. city or state boundary. Now you can create boundary files right from your Web browsers at sites like http://www.openstreetmap.org.  The next step is to make the functionality truly easy to use and embed it directly into Bing, MapQuest or Google Maps so that users can easily draw an oval or whatever shape they want and then find what they’re looking for.

Hopefully, SimpleGeo, a startup out of San Francisco will add that functionality to their service, so organizations can easily embed it in their applications.

And you should be able to do the same thing on your phone – but with your finger, just drag your finger on the screen to define the area you want to search.

The next step will be to embed the functionality into any of the many sites that help you find real places, e.g. Yelp, HomeAway, Air BNB, Realtor.com, etc…

Below are my favorite potential uses, what would yours be?

  1. Travel Information: Hotels, home rentals, eateries, etc… I rarely travel in a square or a Zip Code, I generally travel in a line and want to know what’s available along a stretch of area.
  2. Real Estate: Often times we want to search in specific pockets – not just by Zip code, e.g. around a specific school.

Political Coverage: Moving from just reporting to providing civic engagement tools

  • Do you know who your government representatives are?
  • Do you know who to vote for?
  • Do you participate in the political and governmental process outside of voting?

If you’re like me, the answer to all of the above is, “Not really”. And the media is partly to blame.

Instead of providing people the information and tools they need to easily and intelligently engage in local politics, news organizations are stuck in old paradigms, Political Journalism 1.0 – covering local politics following a paper and TV-based model – which is a debacle for both their finances and society as a whole.

Despite the dysfunction and the $4.2 billion political ad spending predicted for 2010, there has been very little discussion about how to comprehensively leverage technology to bring simplicity, transparency and engagement to local politics, which is especially pathetic when there are so many existing models to borrow from.

The first step into the new world is to take off your “story” glasses and try on your “etail,” “social-networking” and other glasses as you think about moving from just covering politics to becoming a platform for civic engagement. This means providing an editorial and technology platform designed to enable participation.

Transforming Retail Politics into Etail Politics

You need to find a new toaster. Where do you turn? Amazon.com. It’s easy, you type “toaster” in the search box, up comes a list that you can sort by price, brand and features. Need information about the specific toaster, click on the links to read product spec, customer reviews, etc.. Want to compare selected toasters, select the models and see how they stack up side by side.

By contrast you need to figure out who to vote for in your local city council. Where do you turn to?  Do a search for your City Council. What pulls up? An individual candidate website.  Maybe you can find a list of city council members – but good luck finding your specific representatives and candidates. And if you can find a list, is it easy to compare them based on their specific stands?

No, No and no! In order to solve this, news organizations need to think of voting as a purchase process and apply basic etail and mapping concepts to politics.

Step 1: Find

You need to help people find their representatives and candidates. Most of us don’t know who our local representatives are – and the current story structure doesn’t help us easily figure that out.

Residents should be able to simply enter their address and pull up a list of all their representatives and candidates from their city council to congressional district.

Today there are multiple sites that enable you to enter your zip code and they will provide a list of your congressional and in some case state representatives – but I’ve yet to find a site that lists all your representatives down to the local level. And amazingly, no local media organizations provide this basic functionality, despite the fact that local politics is a core news offering.

If properly integrated, it would even enhance the reading experience and help make stories more relevant, after all, how many times have you wondered which one of the politicians mentioned in a story are your representatives? Wouldn’t it be great if your specific representative’s names were highlighted with a link to that candidate’s engagement page. Or at the very least enable readers to easily find out which is their representative.
Step 2: Choose and Engage
It’s election season and as I drive to work, I’m surrounded by a sea of signs, but when I go online and try to figure out who to vote for, there’s a paucity of trustworthy easy to find information. And I certainly can’t easily compare candidates side by side the way I can when selecting a toaster online.  The result is frequently clueless, frustrated voters – often either guessing who to vote for, skipping the majority of the races and/or not participating in the elections at all – angry at the media for its haphazard, mostly unhelpful approach to campaign coverage.

If the traditional media is going to stay relevant and regain its standing, it needs to begin providing the same tools people use when shopping online, deciding on where to eat and engaging with each other. That means providing readers the ability to easily:

  1. Compare candidates qualification and positions on key issues. This requires offering both a technology platform and an editorial oversight role to select the key issues for candidates to respond to. A “journalist” should be both identifying issues, e.g. new court ruling will require the school district to redraw school boundaries, and polling residents about what they view as key issues.
  2. Reduce the shouting by limiting the conversation to residents in their specific districts. One of the problems of the Internet era is it’s easy to become the target of a national audience and be overwhelmed by angry voices from outside the district. By requiring address level information to participate, it’s may be possible to reduce the noise from outraged minorities (not necessarily people of color) on the left or the right that often seem to hijack the political conversations.
  3. Encourage participation by enforcing clear rules of engagement designed to maintain civility – as all it takes is a couple of verbal hand grenades to transform the conversation into shouting matches. And I, like many people, find the flames just completely turn me off – and often make me wish for the pre-comment era.
  4. Ask questions and receive answers from politicians. The YouTube debates enabled ordinary people to ask questions and Obama took it the next logical step with his Open for Questions http://www.whitehouse.gov/openforquestions
  5. Vote early and often for candidates. The site www.HotOrNot.com pioneered the ability to vote online – and as simple and as silly it is, it’s addicting. Visible Vote enables you to “vote” on candidates and bills. And this should be a standard for any political site. People should be able to rate and vote on the politician, their stands and their votes – as a way to give people both a voice and engage in the site. There should be weekly polls on the candidates and representatives – and give people the ability to vote on candidates’ positions, ads and everything else.
  6. Campaign online in favor or against candidates. Make it easy for people to share their opinions, create petitions and take action. People post signs in their front yards, why not make it easy to show your support online by providing people easy-to-use tools to show their support on their Facebook pages, blogs and emails.
  7. Personalize political stories.  When I read an article, I’m often not sure if it applies to me, or which council person I should care about. In the future there needs to be prompts and linkages that make it easy to determine who in the article is my elected representative and their position on an issue. Traditional story telling isn’t dead – it just needs to be updated to take advantage of new technologies and meet key readers’ needs.
  8. Read reviews from groups and people they trust. Customer reviews are standard on retail shopping sites, but are a little more problematic for reviewing politicians. As a conservative gay Republican I don’t care what straight liberal Democrats think about a politician. I care what other conservative gay Republicans think. Today, sites like REI.com or diapers.com enable you to not only read reviews but select reviews based on what group the reviewer belonged to. After all, I may not trust a journalist to provide me with “unbiased” commentary, but if I belong to the NRA, I’ll trust their candidate ratings.

Until news organizations move from just thinking of themselves as storytellers and thinking about how they can leverage the Internet to drive civic engagement, they will continue to fall further behind the curve.

Partnering with Community Organization for local Content

Hillquest.com receives about 27,000 unique visitors each month and as many as 250,000 page views a month.

Not enough to make anyone rich, but considering it’s a local site covering just one neighborhood in San Diego, it’s a pretty impressive stat.

Of course, not every local site is updated multiple times a day or has people as devoted and as able as Nancy Moors and Ann Garwood working on the site, but there are plenty of people and organizations that are already publishing community newsletters and Web sites.

Unfortunately, many of these organizations struggle because they lack the tools to create simple but quality Web sites and even more importantly, the channels to market them to readers.

Newspapers, which are always talking about the importance of local news, unfortunately have done little to actively help organizations easily and effectively connect with their communities. And this is a tragedy for both parties.

Newspapers miss out on an invaluable source of free local content, which is what readers desperately crave and don’t get from their large regional paper. In addition, by not providing the tools and bringing these publishers into the fold, they are creating competitors and losing audiences.

In fact, it feeds a common perception among many readers, that the local paper is arrogant and uncaring.

Or as Moors stated, “Newspapers have been arrogant, thinking that they are only choice for so long that they’ve blown off the community. That’s what’s given life to community newspapers.”

And she spent her whole life working for newspapers! Imagine what other people think.

On the flip side, most community organizations struggle to get the word out because they lack the tools and the channel to communicate their message to their constituents. Even sophisticated operations, rarely have reach that local newspapers have.

Not surprisingly, Moors said they’ve gotten repeated requests from various neighborhood associations to help them with their sites.

“We’re passionate about our community and that’s why we do it.”

Isn’t that why we got into journalism in the first place? And wouldn’t it be great if newspapers did a better job of tapping into that passion.