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CFCM: Rethinking News

This post covers presentations at MIT’s Center for Future Civic Media at MIT’s communications forum.

Cristina Xu leads off a segment focused on the future of news. She introduces her project, the News Positioning System, by digging into American history to talk about “transient newspapers”. When the US postal system heavily subsidized the mailing of newspapers, they began being used as mementos, or as post cards, underlined to make certain points. The practice became so widespread that Congress had to intervene, deciding that underlining a sentence in a newspaper was okay, while underlining letters to send a letter was not.

Working on ExtrAct, Christina noticed the importance of binders, notebooks carried by community organizers filled with newspaper clippings. They’re critically important for these organizers to document what’s going on in their communities and around the country, but they’re easy to lose and hard to share.

Organizers are now moving to mailing lists, which look higher tech, but they’re still hard to search and share. So the News Positioning System combines the functionality of a bookmarking site (delicious) with a map. This provides critical content for news. And since it includes an email scraper, people who are comfortable using mailing lists don’t need to adopt new tech, while those comfortable with bookmarking can use a bookmarklet. They’re now releasing the code – looks extremely cool and worth checking out.

Florence Gallez worries about the lack of collaboration in the news industry. So she’s working on Open Park,a platform for collaborating on the creation of hyperlocal, national and global news. It’s designed so that people in the community can learn to report the news using the tools. The system includes a code of ethics for collaborative journalism and instructions on using new media tools. She’s testing the tool in the local Russian community, using the platform to report on US-Russia relations.

Dharmishta Rood is fascinated by college media. She admires the fast pace of newsrooms, the need for students to learn journalism very quickly because of the rapid turnover of students. But she worries that college newspapers tend not to be able to customize or update their publishing platforms to improve their web presence, organizational tools, and community support. The Populous platform is being rolled out at UCLA, and includes a system called Campus Walk, a community hub of information, which group profiles, allowing campus groups to publish and share their information, adding context to news stories. The project is based on Django and like all CFCM projects, it’s open source.

Lisa Williams is the pioneering creator of Placeblogger, the largest index of local news blogs. The project celebrates the “scrappy little newsrooms that are thriving while mainstream newsrooms are dying.”

There are only 5,500 named places in the US – it shouldn’t be that hard to locate local information sites in each of these places. As Placeblogger does so, it becomes an observatory for these places on the map, and a distributed news corps that can cover stories in new ways.

Lisa reminds us of the Washington Post expose of the Walter Reed hospital – the problem with any in-depth expose is that it allows the authorities to declare, “this was just an isolated incident.” If we can mobilize a distributed news corps, we can ask questions like, “What percentage of returning US servicepeople who had amputations have been issued prostheses?” The goal, she tells us, is to “turn stories into signals”, which could emenate from one community and influence others, providing bigger and broader pictures in the process.

In discussions afterwords, Lisa points out that placeblogs are startups – we might expect them to fail at the rapid rate that most startups experience. But most actually survive, dying only when authors move.