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 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.

  • Fede!

    I agree a 100%. News are a social service. That’s, at least, how it’s supposed to be. You can tell a story, write an article or take a nice picture, but you can always add useful and important information on the side. Sometimes assuming the role that one cares about is also our responsability as journalists, but not always and certainly not everyone thinks that way. It’s not our job to change the world or make things better, but it is our job to give quality information that help people make better choices in whatever matter we are writing about.

  • http://www.timwindsor.com timwindsor

    Jeff, it’s not just the training of the journalists that forces articles. It’s also (more so, I’d argue) the CMS. Patch, for example, is built around the article, so it’s articles you’ll get. There is some effort to atomize the content a bit more in their new design that’s rolling out on Long Island, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough.

    This: “What I want from news and technology companies is a platform that enables us in the community to share our knowledge.” That’s what I think Patch would like to be, but so far the technology and the thinking behind it aren’t there yet.

    • http://twitter.com/jeffcdi Jeff Stanger

      An important comment. We’ve defined “content” as “text blobs” (aka, articles, stories, posts). Current “content management systems” — at least as implemented and used — perpetuate the article/story as the overwhelmingly dominant information form. They “digitize,” they don’t create something truly “digital” like Jeff is calling for. I call this this the “CMS Effect.” The best outfits are those that have the digital design and development skill to put CMS’s in their place (aside? in the trash?) and build digital-native resources from scratch. What Jeff is after are digital “applications.” The best journalistic orgs will emphasize this emerging form over increasingly inadequate legacy forms.

  • http://twitter.com/alexschmidt alexschmidt

    The circumstance where people need local info as badly as you did after Sandy — when they turn to their local publications out of sheer need — are, I’d argue, few and far in between. Local is a tough nut to crack because, normally, it’s tough to make people care. I do agree on the point about utility — why articles, when lists would do fine? (I’m thinking of Civil War casualty lists published in local papers). But, again, I think these skills aren’t well honed because the circumstances that necessitate them are relatively rare.

    Perhaps part of the problem is the public’s expectation that a news
    publication fill this role when other services (and your simple
    use of them) could easily do so. There are tons of free wiki, bulletin board, blog, chat services out there. If people really want to trade information in the aftermath of disaster, and they possess a working internet connection, there is little stopping them. In your case, it would’ve been particularly easy with the established Jeff Jarvis mouthpiece.

  • Eric Reasons

    “Journalists gonna journal…”

    But in all seriousness, what if journalists are just yet another about-to-be-disrupted middleman?

    I had a rather strange interaction with a door-to-door salesperson last week. I later hopped on facebook, where I frequently interact with my township supervisor, and posted a question on her “friends of …” facebook group.

    Within 48 hours there were more than 75 responses, all from neighbors who shared similar events, gave useful advice (“Redford Twp. issues I.D. Badges for sales people, ask to see it!”), gave some not so useful advice (“Get a gun ,and some dogs”), and at least two pieces of great humor.

    There’s just about everything I ever got from the “news”, all wrapped into one conversation.

  • http://twitter.com/rozzy Ryan Osborn

    The platform is not available in New Jersey yet but neighbors in Philadelphia and NY connected using EveryBlock during the storm. Here is a post with some examples: http://blog.everyblock.com/2012/nov/06/hurricane-sandy/ (Disclosure: I work for NBC News Digital which owns EveryBlock.)

  • Brian Addison

    Jeff, as President of EveryBlock, I agree with several of your points and welcome the opportunity to discuss them with you further.

    It was inspiring to see how EveryBlock users tapped into the true social utility of our service throughout the storm and its aftermath. We’re an “always on” platform in every neighborhood within each of our 19 cities, open to any user-generated content on the subject of neighborhood news. In this case, that accessibility and flexibility combined to make for a powerful tool during a time when an extra premium was quickly placed on hyperlocal updates.

  • http://twitter.com/mgrangenois mgrangenois

    Along with the practical information Jeff was longing for post-Sandy, embeded in his post is identifying something else that perhaps has gone missing: this standard that journalists think of themselves “in service to” a particular, or many communities.

  • Sandep

    The most useful information I found post-Sandy was from Gasbuddy/sandy which showed which stations in the area had gas supplies and how long the lines were. It turns out the info was crowdsourced from people on the scene rather than “reported” by journalists.

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  • http://twitter.com/amlikethewind amlikethewind

    I’m curious how you think all the things you want will be paid for? you are long on ideas, short on practicality.

  • Steve T

    GOP House Video:

    We’ve Got Your Back Small Business:

    http://commoncts.blogspot.com/2012/11/house-gop-video-weve-got-your-back.html

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  • peter palme

    What if every street had a unique id as every website does? Street reporting by users would become so much easier and help to quickly scan what is happening around you . Is the gas station open again in my street, is there an accident, a traffic jam, ice on the road, flooding,…

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  • http://www.technology4turnover.co.uk/ Jeremy Griffin

    Just caught your comment on twit about “it’s not content it’s a service” and really rang a bell. I was running a training course last night and was telling the guys that the web has become less about being pretty and more about enabling / do-ing / adding-value.
    “Measure success not by column inches or by page views but by results” – love it!

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