A few weeks back, I heard gunshots outside my window. It was pretty scary, and reminded me of my urban environment here in Potrero Hill, San Francisco. But where could I turn to get the story on what happened? Was someone killed? Do police know what happened? In the past, I might have heard something about it on the local TV news or radio news, or perhaps read something in the local newspaper.
But in this case, no one was hurt or killed, so there was nothing to see in any of the bigger media outlets in my local area. Later, I got the details on what happened from a local email list related to the Potrero Hill Parents Association. I found out that people in two passing cars had fired upon each other and hadn’t hurt any bystanders.
This case illustrates to me the disconnect between the local news happening in my neighborhood down at the real block-by-block level and the way local news outlets fail to cover that news. We have an opportunity, thanks to technology and the Internet, to serve communities better than ever before, give them a voice in news coverage and make local news a much more interactive experience.
MediaShift Idea Lab will be a place where you can read about what innovators are doing to help reinvent community news. The dozens of authors at this new group blog — hosted by PBS.org and funded by the Knight Foundation — have received grants from Knight in their 21st Century News Challenge, and are going to report first-hand on the status of their projects. Some of them are actually being given grants just to blog about a topic related to reinventing journalism in communities.
As the editor of this group blog, I’ll mainly be overseeing the content and design of the site, and will stay out of the way of all the people posting their own stories. The authors will be able to post and publish directly to the site, and I’ll be editing after they have posted content — keeping the content timely and fresh. As readers of Idea Lab, you’ll be able to post comments to any blog post, rate the posts that you like best, and directly contact the authors via our Feedback Form.
The main MediaShift blog received a grant from Knight to produce Idea Lab and also to launch new multimedia features, such as a regular audio podcast, video reports and a citizen media project. I’m looking forward to having those features come to fruition and hope there will be many chances for collaboration with the Idea Lab authors on MediaShift as well. I will continue to laud and criticize Knight’s many intiatives, as I did with the News21 program recently, remaining editorially independent and transparent.
After many months of hard work from Knight, the PBS.org tech team, and House of Pretty design team and everyone involved in this project, I’m really proud (and relieved) to have it go live online. I look forward to your readership, participation and feedback as we reinvent community news together.
UPDATE: Mike Koehler, deputy sports editor at the Daily Oklahoman in Oklahoma City, wrote me an interesting email about Idea Lab:
This is a subject that keeps me awake at night as an assignment editor at a mid-size daily. But then I looked at the bios of all the contributers [at Idea Lab]. Just one is a reporter at a daily newspaper. Sure, many have experience, but I just don’t understand how we are going to solve the problems in our business with a bunch of professors, consultants and others who are divorced from the day-to-day grind of the industry.
Sure it’s great to have utopian visions, but how will that work in the real world? I don’t mean to sound like a Luddite. I’m far from it. I’m reading my Blackberry in the men’s room and wondering how that simple action is going to impact my job in the near and far future. There just needs to be some dose of reality: How do you convince reporters to embrace transparency and treat crowdsourcers as peers? How do you balance the popularity of the latest Britney Spears viral video with your story about the city council that really effects reader’s lives? How do you ask your staff to write, record, edit and shoot video, and still enable them to be home in time for their kid’s soccer match?
I’m just worried that the innovators will be busy innovating, but remove the human element. And with no connection to the living, breathing newsroom trenches of today, that’s bound to happen.
I think Koehler makes a good point about Idea Lab participants being a bit removed from the trenches. However, I wonder whether people who are in the trenches actually have time to start something innovative as a side project. I hope that Koehler and others in the trenches will read and participate on Idea Lab, and keep us all connected to what they’re seeing and how that relates to these new projects. It will provide a much needed reality check on what we think and do here.