In Praise of New Voices

I’m delighted to have been invited to join the Advisory Board of New Voices, focused on seeding innovative community news ventures in the United States.   New Voices is among the many excellent initiatives of the J-Lab for Interactive Journalism, based at American University and led by Jan Schaffer. This gives me a great excuse to talk up their work!

  • The New Media Women Entrepreneurs program will award $12,000 to four projects led by women who want to change the world of journalism.  The application deadline is just around the corner on April 12.
  • The Knight Citizen News Network is a self-help portal that offers guidance to community members and traditional journalists who want to launch and operate community news and information sites,
  • The New Voices program will provide startup funding for 56 local news ventures.  This year’s application deadline has passed, but there are great ideas and lessons to be learned from current grantees.

In announcing the 2009 New Voices grants,  Bruce Koon, News Director of KQED radio and a New Voices Advisory Board member, summed things up well:   “With all the anxiety about the future of journalism and news outlets, these projects are a breath of fresh air because of their creativity and commitment to serving communities. They’re providing valuable lessons for the future.”

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Local Media That is Location-Aware, Plugged In and Vitamin-Free

Last weekend, I was delighted to speak at the Knight Foundation’s Community Information Needs Boot Camp for local foundations that won matching grants from Knight for projects aimed at finding creative ways to use new media and technology to keep residents informed and engaged.

This was my first presentation to foundation folks after having given many talks through the years to people in the media industry.  When I thought about what I would say differently to my new colleagues in the foundation world, the answer was, “Not much!”  And I offered this advice about how to succeed in the world of local media:

Be Aware of Your Location

I started out by showing a picture of the solar system, with planets orbiting around a giant sun, and people started laughing without my having to say a word.  My point, which thankfully was understood right away, was that when you create a startup it’s easy to become confused about your location.  You think you’re the sun around which everyone else revolves, but in reality, you are just the latest entry in a local information ecosystem that has been around the time when people learned to communicate (and yes, that pre-dates the Internet).   Your job is not to be the sun (or act like the sun), but rather to find ways to plug into the local network.

Networks as Drivers of Media

It was a watershed moment earlier this year when Facebook began driving more traffic to key portal sites like Yahoo than Google.  I believe that network-based information-sharing by individuals and groups is THE driving force in media today.  If you are not taking part in social networks, then you risk being invisible.   Recommended reading on this topic is Pew’s Understanding the Participatory News Consumer.

Fish Where the Fish Are

In learning your local media ecosystem, you need to find and befriend other local content content creators.  Here are some places to go fishing:

  • Facebook’s advertising interface lets you see how many Facebook members are in your community, and drill down by age, gender, interests and more.
  • Find local photographers by searching for your community’s name on Flickr and YouTube.
  • Look for local business reviewers on Yelp.
  • Find tweeters in your neighborhood using Twellow.

Focus on who and why (not just what)

Most startup proposals are long on the “what,” describing features and functionality in painstaking detail but devoting little time to why anyone needs this in the first place.  You should spend time consider the practical needs you want to meet (such as saving time and money) as well as the emotional needs (such as feeling safer in your neighborhood or looking smarter at happy hour).   In the world we live in today, you need to explain why a time-starved, stressed out and cynical person should make time in the day for what you’re creating.

Stop talking about yourself like a vitamin

Often times, earnest community startups talk about how what they are doing is important, is badly needed, will be good for the community and make for a better world.  This sounds like the media version of “Eat your carrots.”  Please stop talking about your projects using the same language as One-A-Day.  Guilt and obligation are not positive ways to motivate someone to take time out of their day to spend with your project.  Be specific and energetic in talking about your work.  Show some personality! Have a point of view!  This is an especially important point for foundation folks, who easily lapse into jargon.

Q&A

We had some time for Q&A at the end, and several questions were about the topic of how foundations could learn to tolerate risk, especially when it came to media startups.  I do two things on this front:  (1) strongly emphasize that funding independent media means it is highly likely that some coverage will annoy us as funders because we would have told the story in a different way or prioritized other topics, but that the overall benefit of the grant will be a positive one; and (2) budget for risk.  Set aside a small percentage of your grantmaking budget for the express purpose of investing in higher-risk or emerging media.  That limits your exposure and creates a way to manage the risk so that it doesn’t seem out of control.

Foundations are always interested in the question of sustainability — will this project endure beyond the initial funding period?  But as Lisa Williams so eloquently said in response to a question about this (and I’m paraphrasing her), “Why does a project need to last forever?  A song or a film are not considered unworthy simply because they have a beginning and an ending.  Why can’t we think of other kinds of media this way?” Amen.

Thanks again to Michele McLellan and Vikki Porter for inviting me to speak, and I look forward to watching all these terrific Community Information Challenge projects as they launch and grow.

Now is the time for us to tell our stories about why health care reform matters

Though President Obama has signed health care reform into law, the battle in the court of public opinion rages on.   For all of us who will benefit from health care reform, or know people who will, now is the time to tell our stories.  We need to tell our stories over the breakfast table, in the grocery store lines, on our blogs, at church, where ever we hear someone say that health care reform was a huge mistake.

Here’s my story.

My dad passed away suddenly last year, leading to a very serious emotional and health crisis in my family.  I ended up quitting my job and moving back to my hometown to help.   I was eligible for COBRA coverage, but the pricetag of $500 a month was very steep for someone without a job.   So I called HealthNet, the insurance provider of my former employer, having seen on their web site that they offered high-deductible policies that were more affordable.  I thought they would be likely to insure me because they had access to my medical history and could see that I was in good health, had never been hospitalized, did not suffer from any chronic illness and wasn’t on any prescriptions.

The phone conversation was going along smoothly until I was asked:  “Have you sought psychological counseling in the last year?”  I responded truthfully, explaining that I had taken part in family grief counseling following my dad’s death.  Then I was asked:  “Did you go to more than four counseling sessions?”   Again, I was truthful and said yes.

Then HealthNet told me I was uninsurable, for the sole reason that I had seen a counselor more than four times in the last year.  I was deemed mentally unstable for seeking help when I needed it.

This is an outrage that will stop, thanks to the new health care reform legislation that will not keep people like me from obtaining affordable health insurance because of the “pre-existing condition” of having sought counseling when faced with a family trauma.

I am so grateful that this important legislation has passed, and if you are, too, then start spreading the good word.

A new way to visualize Internet usage

We usually get information about Internet popularity in bits and pieces, through services such as Alexa or announcements about  usage volume, such as Twitter recently exceeding 50 million tweets per day.

The BBC offers another, more useful approach through its Visualizing the Internet graphic, which does two important things.  The first is that it shows the relative popularity of different categories of sites, and the second is that it uses monthly unique visitors as the key unit of measurement (versus the number of people who have registered for a site, but don’t use it regularly).

BBC Internet traffic visualization

By mousing over any square, you can get the specific number of unique users of each site within a category.  The larger the square, the more people visited that site.  Some metrics that jumped out at me:

  • ESPN has more users (26.6 million) than the New York Times (23 million) or Fox News (18 million), but Disney Interactive beats them all with 31.3 million.  (I question the categorization of Fox Interactive Media as the top traffic-getter in media/news — I suspect that includes traffic to MySpace, which is not listed separately in the social network category.)
  • In gaming, the social game site Zynga leads the category with 25 million monthly users.
  • Walmart and craigslist have the same number of monthly users: 35 million
  • eBay is still a powerhouse with 121 million monthly users.
  • Facebook’s monthly usage of 218 million is substantially lower than its claim of 400 million active users although in fairness the Nielsen data used reflect usage only in the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Brazil, US and Australia.

For the geeks out there, the maps were generated using the Flare toolkit developed by the UC Berkeley Visualization Lab.   This map is part of the BBC’s excellent Superpower series about the Internet.

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