NewsTrust Baltimore takes a local approach to media literacy and showcasing new journalism

NewsTrust sees its mission as helping readers find “good journalism” by giving people the tools to separate good from bad. But when it comes to journalism, good and bad aren’t exactly universal truths anymore. Is a story good if it adheres to facts but lacks strong writing? Is a story bad if it’s on a blog, regardless of how it’s reported? And what if its told through an ideological or political lens different from your own?

While NewsTrust has previously employed its tools for vetting journalism on a national level, their newest test, NewsTrust Baltimore, takes things to a smaller scale — namely one where readers’ connection to news is based on geography (will a new school be built? is the police department cutting staff? did the legislature cut taxes?) and necessity.

That familiarity, with both the news and outlets reporting it, could make for a better experiment in media criticism as well as media literacy. Who better to judge the Baltimore Sun or WYPR than the people who live in the area?

When I spoke to Fabrice Florin, executive director of NewsTrust, he said their two-month Baltimore project makes sense because of the upheaval in local journalism, as staffs and resources have shrunk at traditional media outlets in the region. At the same time new blogs and alternative media, some created by former journalists, are cropping up.

“The news ecosystem in Baltimore is fascinating. It’s extremely diverse right now,” he told me.

That’s reflected in NewsTrust Baltimore’s partners, ranging from The Sun and WYPR to Baltimore Brew, Urbanite Magazine and local Patch sites. Stories from these sites are aggregated on NewsTrust Baltimore where local reviewers can rate them. (NewsTrust also has a widget that a number of partners are using that allow readers to review stories without having to leave their site.) The rating tools let reviews decide whether stories are factual, fair, well-sourced, well written, and provide context. Beyond that, it also asks whether reviewers trust the publication and would recommend the story. A glance at a recent review shows promising signs:

This would seem to be an in-depth investigative piece, presenting multiple points of view. I can cite no part of it that I know for certain is erroneous or slanted. Therefore I must cautiously assume it to be an informative article. However, I have past experiences with this publication that cause me to bring a skeptical eye to it.

Florin said the value to news organizations is a balanced, structured system to offer feedback. (Contrast that review with what you might see in the comment section at the end of stories.) “Going through the review process the participant is forced to explicitly give criticism,” he said. “The rating system is based on journalist qualities, and when they click on rating buttons they’re giving actionable feedback to the journalist.”

Of course, a smart series of buttons does not automatically make one a media critic. Florin said they offer helpful explainers to what “fair” or “factual” mean to a story. Additionally they’re putting together a library of guides on media literacy and the basics of thinking like a journalist — although that too can be contentious turf.

Ultimately the goal is to create a better informed citizenry, not to make readers think like journalists. That also means trying to foster a broader news appetite among readers and exposing readers to a wider variety of media outside of traditional news sources. “There are people who are doing good journalism on the fringes and not necessarily getting the recognition they deserve,” Florin said. “This is where NewsTrust shines.”

They’ve created a formidable regional news aggregator, one that is headed up by editors and a community manager, which makes NewsTrust Baltimore something of a news hub for the region. “In a different world, if we were a for-profit, we could offer a very credible news consumer destination,” Florin said. “We’re really proud of our feed. We really do aggregate the best journalism in Baltimore.” In that sense, NewsTrust Baltimore is more than just an experiment in media literacy or a response to shrinking news sources. By presenting a menu of local news sources, NewsTrust Baltimore is encouraging people to sample broadly and rate their server.

Food analogies aside, NewsTrust could potentially set up franchises (sorry) around the country, with NewsTrust sites for communities with an abundance of new and traditional news sources. Though the Baltimore project is expected to run two months, the NewsTrust team did apply for a Knight News Challenge grant to continue their work and develop funding models to make the project sustainable.

“We’re careful, we don’t want to disrupt the ecosystem. We want to add value to it,” Florin said. “We don’t want to replace the people who are there.”

Links on Twitter: The Gawker redesign backlash, the AOL interest algorithm, the cost of a HuffPo homepage ad

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Today in awesomeness: the Jules Verne-inspired (and interactive!) Google doodle »

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Popular on Twitter: Olbermann gets Current, Mashable launches Follow, Valentines for journos

  • Mashable rolls out Mashable Follow, its new social layer -
  • An awesome Google Doodle to celebrate Jules Verne’s birthday
  • Olbermann’s news/commentary show on Current TV debuts later this year
  • Instagram launches a developer API
  • David Rhodes, currently the head of Bloomberg TV, will run CBS News
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  • The Bay Citizen tracks bike accidents
  • The Daily gets an exclusive with the Winklevi
  • They’re back! 10000Words’ Valentines for journalists
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  • How Egypt’s uprising is helping redefine the idea of a “media event”

    In the fall of 1989, television screens in Wenceslas Square in Prague broadcast the massive rallies of the Velvet Revolution to the protesting public. It was a media event where television served as an intermediary, unveiling change as it took place. With the mass unrest in Egypt, though, we have a different kind of media event taking place. New forms of media are working with mainstream to provide a story to the rest of the world.

    When I use the term “media event,” I refer to the sense of the term used by communications scholars Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz. They argued that certain events depart from news events, and instead become ceremonial occurrences that are treated with reverence by broadcasters (and by, today, the online community). In an update to their work in 2007, Katz and scholar Tamar Liebes note that, increasingly, media events provide viewers with “ready access to disruption.”

    Ironically, when Dayan and Katz first thought about “media events,” they were inspired by the Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat’s 1977 visit to Israel. The three-day visit marked the first time that an Arab leader had visited the country, and it was continuously broadcast live on TV. And the recent live broadcasting of events in Egypt seems to fall squarely under the theory Dayan and Katz proposed. But amidst all the discussions we’ve had about social media’s role in the uprising, it’s important also to think more broadly about how these events fit into a larger framework of media history.

    To Shawn Powers, an assistant professor of global media at Georgia State University and an expert on Middle East affairs, the events in Egypt have captured our attention because they represent the story we love to see: “The story is the perfect American story. There is a clear evil-doer. There’s a clear person you want to remove from power. The images are provocative and as engaging as anything you’ve seen in recent history. There’s a whole mythology of it with a despotic dictator.” And the story only gets more compelling when journalists like Anderson Cooper get attacked — literally — ostensibly for bringing the story to the American public.

    To Dayan and Katz, media events are not routine. As they argue, media events “intervene in the normal flow of broadcasting and our lives…Television events propose exceptional things to think about, to witness, and to do.” And in this case, Al Jazeera English and CNN have been providing us the images necessary to think of the unrest in Egypt as an historic moment.

    But while some of those images were provided by TV, much of it has been unfolding elsewhere — and Powers uses the term “i-event” to describe the fact that many of the people following the events in Egypt have done so by streaming Al Jazeera English on their computers, or watching CNN International online.

    Mainstream television came to the party only after a few other factors in the media ecology — namely, social media and online streaming — arrived. First, social media provided those already plugged into the networks the first signs of unrest. Social media was to some extent a way for people to organize in Egypt (though it played a much larger role, in that respect, in Tunisia), and it was a way to get the word about the unrest out to a wider audience. For those plugged into social media who were paying attention to global events — especially in those scanning news in the U.S. — the event began unfolding over the web. Americans began watching the coverage on Al Jazeera English over livestream — so much so that Al Jazeera’s web traffic rose 2,500 percent, with 1.6 million views in the US as of last Monday. (Almost 50 percent of the overall traffic to its web livestream has come from the U.S., Al Jazeera social media head Riyaad Minty told Justin.) Clamoring began to include Al Jazeera English as part of the regular cable package.

    After that, CNN began covering the events in Egypt, as did MSNBC, with live coverage. CNN drew attention to coverage from Al Jazeera English and Egyptian state TV. Its own camera crews then came in for the story. And social media continued to play its role, with Al Jazeera English providing a regular Twitter feed of events (despite the Egyptian Internet shutdown). But as Mohammed el-Nawawy, a professor of communication at Queens University of Charlotte, noted, “Using Twitter and Facebook is not affecting people on the street — they don’t need it anymore. Social media instigated the people. The situation is now in the real world and not in the virtual world. That’s where the developments are.”

    And by “the real world,” he’s talking about events that people can actually see unfolding on TV, not online.

    Media events in 1992 had different characteristics than media events of the digital age. In the past, media events were characterized by news networks’ monopolistic coverage; now, though, media is much more segmented. Nonetheless, Katz’s theory is still robust for describing news that is happening live — and that is organized outside of the media.

    It’s also being expanded by Egypt, where the “media event” extends far beyond television. The media ecology now involves a complex interplay between social media, streaming Internet, and mainstream media — all working together to create a much larger, more nuanced picture of the live broadcasting of history. And the events in Egypt, crucially, captured our imaginations even if the hold on TV was not monopolistic. As el-Nawawy put it, “This uprising is unprecedented in history. No one has seen it in this scale of millions of people going out on the street. This is something people are not used to seeing in such a context [the Arab world].”

    Similarly, he noted, “For many Americans, this is shocking and unprecedented.” And it’s unprecedented for media coverage, as well. The combination of social media, Internet streaming, and mainstream coverage represents a shift from simple documentation to interactivity — and a new turn in how historic events can unfold.

    Image by Sharif Hassan used under a Creative Commons license.

    Mashable, tackling info overload, launches a Follow function keyed to user networks and interests

    Mashable currently boasts 12 million unique visitors per month — making the social media-focused news site the largest independent tech news site on the web. It churns out huge quantities of stories, every day. And while that’s great for the site — not to mention its 3.4 million followers, spread across the Internet’s social networks — it also creates what you might call a nice problem to have: How do you scale in a way that doesn’t overwhelm your readers? How do you serve tons of users with tons of content — without contributing, at the same time, to information overload?

    Today, Mashable is launching, in closed beta, its response to those questions: Mashable Follow, a new social layer intended to help users personalize their experience on the site. “With Mashable Follow,” an explanatory video notes, “you can have a custom tailored experience by only following the topics that interest you and ignoring the ones that don’t.”

    Follow has four key features:

    — “Follow” buttons on every story that let users subscribe to that story’s topics via a “My Stories” feed;

    — A one-button sharing tool that allows readers to add their Facebook, Twitter, Google Buzz, and Digg accounts (with more options coming soon) to their profile pages and share to all of these services with one click;

    — Profile pages that let users promote their social media accounts and connect with other Mashable community members who share their interests; and

    — Badges that members can earn for sharing stories, connecting with other Mashable users, commenting on articles, following topics, etc. (“Over time,” Mashable notes, “we’ll create more substantial rewards for our most engaged readers, awarding more influence to our most dedicated community members.”)

    The idea for Follow has been in the works for about a year now, Vadim Lavrusik, Mashable’s community manager, told me. And it came from the need for controlling the chaos that is a lively, and constantly updated, website. “When you come to the site, you just see all these new stories, constantly being posted,” he notes. “And all of them have hundreds of shares. It’s just an overwhelming experience, I think.”

    Follow, Mashable hopes, will streamline that experience by offering a customized, centralized space for users to consume the kind of information they’re most interested in. (And also: to interact with the users who share those interests.)

    To create that space, Mashable is leveraging some key tenets of social curation: that people like customized news experiences; that they like social news experiences; that they like to be rewarded for consuming and sharing information. The Follow features aren’t, on their own, new; the features being rolled out today are similar to the ones you’ll see on HuffPo, Digg, Facebook, and similar sites. What’s intriguing about them, though, is the way they combine extant experiments in the social news field with the aim of creating a truly centralized experience for their users.

    “We didn’t want to try to recreate the wheel, necessarily,” Lavrusik says; rather, the point was to combine features users are already familiar with — sharing functionalities, badges, and the like — in a smart, seamless way. “We took ideas and bits and pieces,” Lavrusik says, “and added some of our own that would make the most sense from our readers.” With Follow, “we’ve tried to think, as much as we can, about the user experience.”

    In that, the Follow features tackle another problem besides information overload: user fragmentation. The web is, in general, a peripatetic place, an environment and an experience that encourages hopping and moving and exploring. That’s perhaps its key virtue; but it can also be, from a UI perspective, its key vice. All that moving around can become, for the user, exhausting. Mashable’s solution is to offer centralization in place of fragmentation: to provide a one-stop shop where its multi-million-member community can both consume and share information. On most social platforms, from Facebook on down, the content comes from elsewhere; with Follow, the content will be integrated. The content will come from the platform itself.

    “This is a place where you can now curate Mashable content as a user and really personalize your news consumption experience,” Lavrusik says. “And I think the potential it has for bringing our community closer together in one place — not just on the outskirts of Twitter and Facebook and all our other social platforms — can really strengthen our community.”

    The core logic of Follow is that curation itself is a community function. And that’s a fascinating proposition — one that’s only beginning to be explored and, in the best sense, exploited. As Pete Cashmore, Mashable’s founder and CEO, put it in his announcement today: “Beyond personalization, we believe that curation is the next great wave in news, and empowering our community to choose the news of the day is the ultimate aim of the Follow project.”

    Links on Twitter: Reconciling Patch and Huffpo, Audioboo looks for media partners and Flipboard vs. The Daily

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    Readability and Instapaper team up to make reading later pay just a little »

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    How @WestWingReport gets the most out of Twitter and White House reporting »

    DocumentCloud in action: How PBS NewsHour, WNYC and The Washington Post use DocumentCloud »

    My Boss is a Robot: It’s only a matter of time before the machines take over journalism »

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    NewsBeast has the writers, but do they have the web team to succeed? »

    "PDF is to e-publishing what the steam locomotive is to the high-speed train" »

    Report: Yahoo is developing its own Flipboard-esque app »

    Audioboo plans to partner with media companies to add audio recording to other apps »

    The case for even more metrics in online journalism »

    AOL/HuffPo deal puts Arianna in charge of all editorial content. Also MovieFone and Mapquest »

    Marines ask Basetrack to leave amid security concerns

    A curious development over at Basetrack this afternoon. (You may remember Basetrack as Teru Kuwayama’s Knight News Challenge-winning project to use social media to tell stories about an American military unit in Afghanistan.) Word from Kuwayama is that they’re being asked to leave the Marine regiment they’ve been working with.

    Posting on Basetrack’s blog, Kuwayama wrote: “It was hard to get clarification on why, how or who issued the order…but we’ll keep you posted.”

    While praising Basetrack for the work they’ve done to highlight the lives of Marines serving overseas, a memo from the unit’s public affairs officer says they’re asking Basetrack to leave because of “perceived operational security violations.” From the memo:

    These concerns are legitimate. Specifically the websites tie in to google maps to display friendly force locations. At this time there has been no official OpSec determination yet and therefore they are being asked to leave and NOT disembedded (disembedding is a formal process that occurs after OpSec determinations have been finalized). RCT 8 Public Affairs concerns lie in the fact that anytime too much information is aggregated in one place in a fashion tying unit disposition and manpower together we have facilitated the enemy.

    The news is a surprise to say the least: Kuwayama has spent extensive time embedded with Marines. The about face by the military is more surprising, as Kuwayama told The New York Times last year that the Marines were the ones who asked him to come along to chronicle the day-to-day life in Afghanistan. One of the more remarkable aspects of Basetrack is the collaboration between the military and the project’s photographers, a melding that allowed Marines to connect with family and friends back here in the states. (A quick look at responses on Basetrack’s Facebook page shows a mix of confusion, sadness and pragmatism as troops safety is their top priority.) And the integration with mapping tools is one of the most impressive elements of Basetrack’s site.

    Kuwayama was a speaker at December’s #niemanleaks conference, where he told the audience about the lengths Basetrack goes to to make sure they don’t release sensitive information. Kuwayama called it a “denial of information” system, that allowed for the military to quickly and easily redact information as needed. We’re reaching out to him to see if we can get more clarity on what exactly this means for Basetrack.