Our website, Tijd.be has existed for 15 years now, and my colleagues recently asked me to write an opinion piece about what the next decade and a half will bring — a daunting task.
I had some ideas, of course, but I wanted to eat my own dog food and actually tap into my social media networks to write the piece.
After reading about Mathew Ingram’s "news as a process" on GigaOm, I was inspired to create a "making of" process with my readers, interacting with them on a daily basis while I was researching and writing the article.
Here’s how I did it, and what worked and what didn’t:
Posting the Question All Over
We run a blog about Communication, Innovation and Frustration, so on May 24 that’s where I announced what I was up to, inviting readers to comment on the question, “What will news media look like in 15 years’ time?”
I asked the question on Twitter, of course, on Facebook (Dutch) and Facebook (English), LinkedIn, Quora and The WELL. And, I told the readers on the blog that these were where I would look for answers.
On Quora, where I started my question as a new item, I got some responses, but I got even more inspiration by reading similar questions that already existed, like "What will the Internet look like in 2020?”
The WELL + TEDTalk
What inspired me even more was the discussion at The WELL, which, in web terms is an ancient institution: It was launched in 1985 as the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link, and “provides a watering hole for some articulate and playful thinkers from all walks of life,” according to the site.
The WELL has some very specific rules. People unveil their identities; they even pay a fee to participate. It’s not exactly the fastest-growing network out there, but there’s a remarkable intimacy. That also means you cannot just publish The WELL conversations without asking permission to do so.
On The WELL someone pointed me to a TEDtalk by Eli Pariser about The Filter Bubble, and I realized this would become a central point in my article.
In the meantime, I got other suggestions on LinkedIn Answers (a great place to get expert advice) and on the Facebook group Newslab – Exploring News 3.0.
MindMeister, Twitter, Storify
All of which was inspiring enough to set out to make a wiki mindmap and publish it on the blog, on May 25. I used MindMeister, embedding the map and explaining to readers that they were free to change the map, add stuff, and so on.
I also posted Pariser’s TEDTalk and another video, EPIC 2015.
At this point, I started to worry about Twitter. No responses! So I started identifying knowledgeable people and asking them personally, on Twitter, to suggest posts and videos about the future of news media. This yielded results. I got answers from people like Howard Rheingold and Paul Bradshaw who referred me to their social bookmark collections. Author Bruce Sterling provided me a moment of fun, tweeting a link to an ancient museum.
On May 26 I decided to organize a selection of the reactions and suggestions in a Storify-box, embedding this also in my blog post. I pointed to suggestions I thought were interesting, but ultimately would not be part of my article in case some readers might want to explore those matters further.
That evening, I could start writing my article. (I published an English-language version on my personal blog, MixedRealities.) Instead of talking only about new developments on a gadget-level, I focused on the issue of filtering. Nearly everything you do on the Internet, whether it’s looking at Facebook status updates or searching on Google, is personalized and customized — filtered. That has its advantages but also risks locking you inside your own comfortable bubble where you will no longer be surprised by new and challenging opinions and information. That made me ask questions about blogging and journalism as a curating process and about human and algorithmic filters.
On May 27, I told my blog readers that the article was ready for publication. As soon as the story was published, I informed not only the readers of the blog about it, but also the members of the Facebook group and people on The WELL and Quora (and, of course, I tweeted it). One nice result was that a French-speaking member of the Facebook group offered to translate the article for his audience in France — which I happily accepted.
Five Lessons Learned
1. Forums such as Quora and The WELL are useful for researching ideas and new developments. It takes some time to familiarize oneself with those groups. As in every group, there are explicit and implicit rules. In both places, people use real identities, so contacts tend to be more personal and courteous.
2. I’m not a Twitter celebrity, so chances are my tweets are not noticed. However, by asking knowledgeable people in my network, I got useful answers.
3. LinkedIn Answers is not very well-known, but it’s a useful place for expert advice. Also, explore the Facebook groups — they are yet another place where people use their real identities and will help you out.
4. I think it was a good idea to document “the making of” the article in a blog post. There were more than 600 people who consulted the Storify curation, not bad for a rather specialized topic on a blog. Most of the views came from the blog. I think it’s essential that curating tools are embeddable so that your readers find the information in a familiar environment.
However, I got no reactions on that post. (I did get a few reactions on the article itself.) Maybe this was because the question interested only a limited part of the community of our business newspaper, and the whole idea of publishing "the making of" as it happens is rather new.
Also, I posted “the making of” in English, which is a second or third language for my readers in Belgium. I posted in English because the wider, distributed discussion was also in that language.
5. The MindMeister map (pictured below) was only consulted by about 50 people — I guess wiki-mindmaps are rather exotic for most members of my audience, and it takes a high level of engagement to start modifying such a wiki.
Doing my research via social media gave me useful insights for my story. Writing the “making of” post, making the mindmap, and organizing the suggested links in Storify surely were not a waste of time: I had to do those things anyway.
Researching a story often yields far more results than you can use in your article, video or graphics. Rather than stashing away all that material in some private file, it seems more useful to make it social: posting it on a blog, curating it, organizing social bookmarks and the like.
As I explained in my opinion editorial, transparency is crucial for journalists and bloggers who want to stay relevant. Inviting people to participate, explaining where the information comes from, and giving access to curated sources and to raw material have to become part of the default workflow.
Being a curator (whether you consider yourself to be a blogger or a journalist does not matter) is not self-evident. Even though chances are some members of your community will participate in the effort, the overwhelming majority will stay passive and just consume your content — which is fine and to be expected. After all, the real scarcity in these matters is time.
Question: Are you also reorganizing your editorial workflow so that it involves more transparency and collaborative efforts? What are the limits of that transparency?
Roland Legrand is in charge of new media at Mediafin, the publisher of leading Belgian business newspapers De Tijd and L’Echo. He studied applied economics and philosophy. After a brief teaching experience, he became a financial journalist working for the Belgian wire service Belga and subsequently for Mediafin. He works in Brussels, and lives in Antwerp with his wife, Elisabeth.