Dispatches from the living amongst journalism's walking dead

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Citizen Journalism Is Booming In Egypt and The Middle East, Despite Serious Risks

(Eds note: This is also cross-posted at The Huffington Post)

“American? You are welcome here.”

I must have heard that three dozen times during my visit to Cairo, Egypt last week. Every Egyptian I met made it a point to let me know I was safe in their country.

Egypt is, after all, in something of a PR crisis following a revolution this past spring and regular demonstrations ever since. For a country that relies so heavily on tourism, foreigners’ continued fears are directly affecting many residents, from the guys hustling camel rides at Giza’s pyramids to the restaurants and hotels that are usually bustling with Western tourists.

Many people told me, “Go home, tell Americans it is safe here.”

So there you go. I can at least vouch for myself and say I never felt in danger (except for when I took Cairo cabs – talk about a rush!).

My tour guide lamented the notably smaller number of tour buses lined up in front of the Sphinx and Great Pyramids. She told me the numbers had been down all year, but she was really hoping they’d pick up in the fall, usually a very busy season.

Though tourism may be down, another industry (if you’d want to call it that) is thriving all over post-revolution Arab World: Citizen journalism.

Many online news outlets have launched or grown after the dust has started to settle following the Arab Spring. MediaShift describes the citizen journalism landscape as three-tiered: Independent bloggers; joint initiatives from citizen journalists; and larger citizen journalism platforms such as Global Voices and Menassat.com.

Citizen journalism has a long history in Egypt , in particular. Since the early 2000s, bloggers and activists were chronicling complaints and demonstrations against then-President Hosni Mubarak outside the purview of the mainstream media.

While the news availability may be spreading, there are still dire consequences for citizen journalists (and professional journalists) for writing negative posts about the wrong parties.

In March, Egyptian blogger Maikel Nabil Sanad was arrested for criticizing the Egyptian military’s role in the revolution. He was sentenced to three years in prison for libel. Human Rights Watch called his arrest “the worst strike against free expression in Egypt” in more than three years.

On Monday, activist and blogger Alaa Abd El Fattah was arrested for speaking out against the military junta’s role in violence that erupted at an Oct. 9 Coptic Christian protest in Cairo.

Despite the dangers of doing civic journalism in a time of such upheaval, I had an opportunity to work with some Arab journalists who are doing just that all over the Middle East. I was actually visiting Egypt as an instructor with the International Center for Journalists, helping to guide a selected group of journalists working on investigations of civic issues in their home communities.

Some in this group were documenting cases of staggering government corruption. As part of their coverage plans, each had to consider how to best protect themselves – and the citizens they’ll be working with – from the imprisonment (or worse) that could result from such reporting. It was quite sobering for this American journalist to see what others are willing to risk for the truth.

While the consequences may not be as frightening, citizen and independent journalists in the U.S. also play a key role in exposing and reporting either ignored or unknown happenings in their communities.

This is what we’re trying to help facilitate through OfftheBus, The Huffington Posts’s citizen journalism program covering the 2012 election process. We’re recruiting an army of volunteers to help make sure our elections are honest, fair and open.

For some, this means reporting stories we at the national level may be missing, as OfftheBus contributor Alex Brant-Zawadzki did when he was first to report on the raffle of a Glock pistol by a Republican organization in the home district of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who had been shot by the same kind of gun earlier this year. The story was eventually picked up by news outlets all over the U.S.

Even those who wouldn’t consider themselves reporters have a role to play in holding the nation’s candidates and campaigns accountable. Our reporters can’t be everywhere at once, so keep your eyes and ears open for suspicious tactics, messages and outreach efforts – and let us know what’s going on.

One of the ICFJ program participants I met in Egypt, Ali Ghamloush, is leading a citizen journalism effort in Beirut, Lebanon. He co-founded AltCity, a social venture aimed at expanding access to tools, resources and spaces for independent publishers, activists and tech entrepreneurs.

Ali told me about a sort of newsroom-on-wheels that AltCity takes to more remote areas of Lebanon, giving basic training and computer access to citizens eager to tell their own stories.

His program got me thinking about how we at OfftheBus could be providing more resources to people right here in the U.S. who want to have a role in civic reporting. We might not have a bus to take to your town (but it’d be pretty cool if we did), but we do have the wide reach of The Huffington Post to help citizen journalists report, edit and publish their work for a potentially huge audience. Please, email us and let us know what more we can do to help you share your own stories.

Check out the ongoing work of OfftheBus citizen journalists on the 2012 elections and Occupy Wall Street. We’ll soon have more citizen journalism projects available, so sign up for our email list so we can let you know when they’re starting up. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter to read the latest work from our volunteers.

First try at using Xtranormal for news at TBD

In a wjchat a few weeks ago, we were brainstorming ways to use non-traditional new media tools for news. One of those tools was Xtranormal, an animation site that allows you to make cartoon videos with no offsite tools or experience. In that chat, I had suggested using it to re-enact conversations or press conferences.

Today, I put that idea into action at TBD, using Xtranormal’s tools to make a cartoon re-enactment of a phone transcript from the FBI investigation of an indicted public official in the D.C. area. I had enough free credits to build the most basic video (though it doesn’t cost much to buy more), so I built the one you see around the web where animals talk to one another.

Xtranormal’s tools made it very fast and easy. You pick a package, background and characters. You enter the dialogue as text in the order you want from the characters you want. To add pauses, sounds, camera angles and movements, just drag and drop them into the text at the right place. All told, it took me about 40 minutes – and that’s just my first try at a long transcript.

Jack Johnson, the former county executive for Prince George’s County, Maryland, is talking to his wife (also indicted) about hiding money and destroying evidence. The video is after the jump.

Using Foursquare and Crowdmap to track local elections

With the midterm elections coming tomorrow, lots of news outlets will likely be launching their fanciest new toys and social media ideas to best pull in that coveted election night audience on the web. TBD’s no exception, though our election day experiments are based in off-site crowdsourcing to better inform our on-site coverage.

As we did with the Washington D.C. primary elections, we’re launching a Crowdmap to track voting problems across the District, Northern Virginia and parts of Maryland. We’re asking readers to report long lines, broken machines, ballot refusals, electioneering and such at the polls using email, Twitter hashtags or on-site reports. It worked pretty well in September, though this time I’m a bit worried about Crowdmap’s servers holding up. Right now as I post this, they’re struggling to load any of our maps.

I’m particularly excited to try out Foursquare in Tuesday’s election coverage. In our attempt to take a local approach to the National Post’s Foursquare “exit poll” experiment, I set up three new venues to collect voter check-ins.: Virginia Congressional Elections 2010, Maryland Governor Election 2010 and D.C. Election 2010. Once readers check in to the correct venue, we’re asking them to submit a tip to that venue telling us who they voted for and why.

While these check-ins and tips won’t be any kind of real measurement, it will give an interesting look at how many people on Foursquare are voting in local races and how those votes are leaning – if people use it. If enough people check in, they could earn a Swarm badge, at least.

Here’s hoping something takes off.

Storify narrative: Death outside DC9

On October 15, I used Storify at TBD to make sense of an ever-changing series of events involving a death outside popular Washington D.C. nightclub DC9.

In the course of one day, the story took a lot of twists and turns, illustrated in the narrative by tweets (from both news orgs and those reacting), photos, video and documents. Reading down the story, you can get a feel for how the events developed and evolved in a way that’s not entirely dissimilar to more traditional narrative stories.

I talked a little bit more about the story behind this piece to the Nieman Storyboard, if you want to know more. Here’s the Storify:


Social media’s role in covering the Discovery hostage situation


TBD’s big moment and a view from behind the coverage

I hate these long gaps between posts as much as you do. I’ve been busy over at TBD, but I haven’t forgotten about the old ZJ.

I have a couple of other posts in the works, but a bit of a recap. Last Wednesday, Sept. 1, was a big day for TBD – and for me personally. When a gunman burst into the Discovery Channel headquarters in Silver Spring and took three hostages, we sprang into action and, in turn, were propelled into the spotlight for the first time since our launch.

It was my first real breaking news situation since starting at TBD – and the first I’ve ever experienced in a TV newsroom. Within minutes of hearing from a TV reporter’s wife (who works at the Discovery site) about the situation, we had a helicopter and live reporting on-scene. You don’t get helicopters at the Cincinnati Enquirer, so that was pretty mind-blowing.

Within minutes we were getting in photos and eyewitness reports from Twitter. We were streaming video online before anyone else – heck, it was even used on other news sites in our area. As things were confirmed, I was able to tweet them out ASAP. I had a lot of back-and-forth communication going on with our staff, some of our blogger partners on-scene and other eyewitnesses on Twitter (a few we even got to talk live on-air). In short, it was an amazing time to be behind the Tweetdeck.

We sent 21 tweets on the situation that day. According to the Bivings Report, we were mentioned/re-tweeted 334 times. We got more than 400 new followers, a boost in web traffic – and a lot of wonderful praise from our audience and peers. My favorite tweet was from Justin Karp:

@TBD is having their CNN/Gulf War moment right now. They’re dominating coverage right now. Kudos.

All that praise and warm fuzzies aside – it proved once again that monitoring and using Twitter in breaking news is increasingly important for any news operation. Twitter “broke the story”, we all know that – and for better or worse it owned the coverage in a lot of ways. We in the news media can only engage the best and stream the rest when something like this happens in such rapid-fire succession. It was a day of lessons for us and every media outlet, I’m sure.

In the days afterward, I was working with others to determine who wrote that first tweet from the building and when it was sent, not only to give them credit, but also to see just how far behind we were. We had our first tweet out at 1:33 pm, about 20 minutes after the first tweet we found. We can do better – and next time we will.

TBD experiments in community engagement: Week 1

It’s the end of our first week on business at TBD and, admittedly, I’m completely exhausted. We all are.

It felt like a good first week for us – we got a lot of reviews, positive and negative, from other media sites and blogs. Despite the bugs and occasional complaints, we did have the opportunity to come out of the gates with a few engagement experiments you might find helpful at your own news orgs.

Open discussion on launch day

We had an open Cover it Live chat on the Community Blog from 9-4 on launch day. TBD Community hosts Lisa Rowan, Jeff Sonderman, Daniel Victor and Nathasha Lim took questions, complaints and bug reports from site visitors in an open and honest fashion. They didn’t just address the positive, they also did what they could to assuage the fears of those missing the former websites for WJLA and News Channel 8, now replaced by TBD.com.

Crowdsourcing for breaking news photos

On Thursday, the Washington, D.C. area woke up to severe thunderstorms, high winds, flooding streets – and a lot of damage. While our one full-time photographer was able to get a lot of art, we knew we couldn’t be everywhere. The call was sounded for photos on Twitter and on the site – and readers responded with submissions on-site and via Twitpic.

We ended up repeating this process later in the day with a reported electrical fire near the District’s business center. I first saw reports and Twitpics of the fire on a random Twitter search for “Fire near: Washington DC”. We quickly reached out on Twitter for permission to use the photos – and we were off to the races. It was great to get such good response out of the gate.

Working with bloggers on breaking news

Around 1:30 pm Tuesday, I looked over one of my series of Twitter searches and found a tweet reporting an alleged hit-and-run by a Metrobus in Arlington, Va. I contacted the guy, Matt, via reply and asked him if he’d talk to our Arlington reporter, Rebecca Cooper. He agreed.

At 2:12, network partner site Unsuck DC Metro, who the original tweet was directed toward, had a post up with the tip.

Another partner site, ARLNow, had a story with photos and quotes from the man involved in the accident at 3:07. TBD had a story with the tipster’s report and ARLNow’s report up before 4 p.m, approximately four hours before The Washington Post or WTOP (and a hat tip to the Post for promoting the great efforts of ARLNow).

Without the tip provided by Twitter and the hustle by the bloggers in our community network, there’s no way we could have had such a story so fast. Who says bloggers aren’t journalists? Not us.

Tapping into the crowd for political coverage

Questions submitted via Twitter hashtag

Questions submitted via Twitter hashtag

On Wednesday, TBD TV’s Newstalk program had the Democratic candidates for D.C. mayor on the program for a debate. In the hours before the 10 a.m. debate, we asked readers to submit their questions for the candidates via hashtag on Twitter. The response was more than we could fit on the program, which was great (see right).

When the debate went live on TV and online, fact-checking reporter Kevin Robillard had a live Cover it Live chat where readers could chime in with comments, ask questions and suggest facts to be checked as the candidates said them on the air.

The debate got a lot of traction on Twitter and on the chat. Kevin had some great material for The Facts Machine, which is a TBD blog dedicated to backing up or refuting questionable facts.

We hope to do a lot more projects like this in the future. Not bad for the third day out.

Weather coverage made easy

Weather is big business for those of us in news, especially when it gets to be extreme weather like just about every state has experienced in the last two weeks.

Lots of news outlets have developed amazing new ways to get out weather information and pull in interaction from readers, but sometimes what’s simple can work in a pinch.

Most of the time when we’ve had snowstorms in the past, we at Cincinnati.Com have had a basic story file set up that we re-top and add to throughout the day as the news changes. Without the occasional total re-write during the course of the news cycle, it can end up reading like a very long Frankenstein of an article, with the possibility of specific items getting buried in all of the text.

I recently set up a basic WordPress blog specifically to handle weather events news to avoid this problem. It has links to all the basic weather info we have available on the site, a way to search all of the posted entries and tags/categories that make posts easy to browse by topic or location. The blog uses the TDO mini Forms plugin that can allow our reporters – and our readers – to submit updates from where they are.

Even though we haven’t yet gotten a lot of reader submissions, the blog has been immensely helpful from a news management standpoint. Reporters can file to the blog from their homes, phones or satellite offices, all we have to do it click “publish” in our dashboard. No re-writes are necessary because as the story develops, we can just add news posts. The format also provides an easy way to “sticky” important posts at the top and generates an easy link for the day’s event cancellations.

This easy method of publishing updates weather news has been a great supplement to our info releases and content on Twitter, on our mobile site, text alerts and all of the usual photos and videos we bring out fr every story. The blog’s been doing great traffic on storm days and, from my view, has been a huge burden lifted from the backs of already busy online editors (such as myself).

Because this info has such a short shelf life, I’ve just been deleting all of the old content as soon as the storm coverage ends. We don’t want readers coming back for new weather updates only to find outdated info from last week’s storm. I know that isn’t the greatest option for the sake of SEO and outside linking, but it has made it very easy to essentially launch whole new blogs for each circumstance. I’m curious to hear others’ thoughts on what they would do to prevent link breaks and confusion.

Anyway, that’s been our publishing plan these past two weeks – and if it’s something you think you could use, go for it. WordPress is free, quick to set up and has lot of plugins to enhance user experience.

What has anyone been doing to cover these storms online? What have you been reading?

Blog Archive: Seen and Heard

Probably my favorite project, Seen and Heard was a popular blog on local people-watching on JSOnline from 2005 to 2007. In addition to my usual work duties, I wrote this first person narrative blog as a labor of love. Even though the JS site did not yet have blog technology that could support commenting, I got a tremendous amount of email every day in response to my posts.

It is no longer featured on the JS site following their redesign last year, but I have an archive link here that will need to do until I can archive it elsewhere for myself.

Seen and Heard Screenshot

Radio Feature: ‘Green Bean Casserole’

Although I was a regular producer for WKSU, my own voice very rarely actually appeared on the radio. Lucky for me, during the holidays I had more opportunity to get a piece of my own on the air. When the Inventor’s Hall of Fame in Akron, OH (in our coverage area) announced it would be inducting the inventor of the recipe for green bean casserole in November of 2003, I jumped at the chance to record a holiday feature.

I conducted the interviews, recorded the on-scene and studio audio and produced the entire piece in Cool Edit Pro.

This final product aired on Thanksgiving Day, 2003:

Green Bean Casserole

Daily news podcasts

I spear-headed the start of the Journal Sentinel‘s daily news podcast in 2006. It started with me or another member of the online staff writing, voicing and producing the podcast in Sound Edit Pro each night, but eventually I trained several copy editors to join in a daily rotation for podcasting.

Here are a couple of podcasts I voiced and produced myself during that time. Once I get the stupid Flash player to actually work on this site, I’ll have a pretty audio player to play them here.

Here’s one from February 6, 2007 and one from March 1, 2007.

Radio production: WKSU special projects

I was incredibly lucky to have spent a few years working at WKSU-FM, an excellent Northeast Ohio NPR station, for my graduate school fellowship. Each year WKU did a large-scale news series based around a topic in the news. During that time period, I got the chance to work with some of the best reporters I’ve ever met to help produce these story packages.

The following two projects were products of teamwork, I claim no individual glory. My duties on these pieces ranged from audio editing (we used Cool Edit Pro), in-studio recording, piece selection and transcriptions. I may not be the reporter in the pieces, but I’m very proud of the work I did there.

I encourage you to listen to the pieces or at least check out the transcripts – there’s some amazing stuff here:

A place for me? Adoption and foster care in Ohio

Class in America: The Unspoken Divide

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