Two projects to watch: Ben Franklin Project and's Near You zip code news filter's Near You zip code-based news filter

At 428 am in Washington DC a new news site,, launched, and it is definitely one worth watching. Why? They have assembled an all-star staff, brimming with passion. The general manager for the project is Jim Brady, the former executive editor and vice president of Washington Post Newsweek interactive. Steve Buttry, the site’s head of community engagement, has a long history in traditional journalism, training and innovation.  (For any journalist struggling to come to terms with the unrequited love you feel for the business, read this post by Mimi Johnson, Steve’s wife, as he left the newspaper business to go all digital at TBD.) They have some great staff who I have ‘met’ via Twitter including networked journalists Daniel Victor and Jeff Sonderman.

When he was hired, Jeff described his job as a community host as this:

developing ways to work with bloggers and users to generate, share and discuss content.

He described as this:

Our goal is to build an online news site for the DC metro area, and do it taking full advantage of the how the web works — with partnership not competition, users not readers, conversation not dictation, linking not duplicating.

If you look on Twitter this morning, Jeff and Steve are very busy on their first full day as hosts for the new news service.

Digitally native at launch

The site is clean and clear, easy to navigate with a lot of excellent touches. launched with an Android app and are awaiting approval for their iPhone application. They zip (post) code news filter to find out content not only from TBD but also from bloggers in the area is excellent. I lived in Washington from 1998 until 2005 as the Washington correspondent of I know the city well. I typed in my old home zip code, 20010, and got news about Mount Pleasant including from a blog called The 42 Bus, which was the bus that I used to take to work everyday. Their live traffic information is template for how city sites should add value for such bread and butter news. You can quickly pull up a map showing traffic choke points in the area. They even have a tool to plot your best travel route. The traffic tools are pulled from existing services, but the value is in the package.

They had a launch event last week, and they explained their networked journalism strategy. Steve Myers at the Poynter journalism institute said half of the links at would point to external sources, much higher than at most sites. said that At launch, 127 local bloggers had joined their network. Steve Myers had this quote from Steve Buttry about their linking strategy:

“If we’re competing on the same story, we’ll do our story and we’ll link to yours,” said Steve Buttry, director of community engagement for the site. If another source owns a big story, “we’ll play you at the top of the home page and we’ll cover something else with our staff resources.”

Wow. Personally, I think that this is smart. With resources declining at most news organisations, they have to be much more strategic about how they use their staff. They need to focus on what value that they add. Jeff Jarvis says: “Cover what you do best and link to the rest“, and this is one of the highest profile tests of that strategy.

Ken Doctor, brilliant news industry analyst at Newsonomics, has 10 reasons to watch Harvard’s Nieman Lab for journalism has another six reasons why they are watching the launch. Of Ken’s list, I’ll highlight two. Bucking the trend for many new high-profile news projects in the US, this is a for-profit business. Ken’s seventh point is huge:

7) It’s got a big established sales force to get it going. Both TV stations salespeople with accounts — and relationships. So TBD is an extension of that sales activity, not a start-up ad sell, which bedevils many other  start-ups.

The other thing that has going for it is that it has the commitment of someone who already has seen some success with new models, Robert Allbritton. A few years ago, he launched, bringing in two high profile veterans from the Washington Post to compete not only with their newspaper but also specialist political outlets like Roll Call. Politico has managed to create a successful print-web product, “not profitable every quarter but says it’s turning a profit for any given six months,” Allbritton told What is more important though is his commitment to his ventures. He’s got the money and commitment to support projects past the short term.

“The first year of Politico was pretty ugly in terms of revenue,” he admitted. “You’ve got to have some staying power for these things to work.”

The Ben Franklin Project

The other project that I’m watching is John Paton’s Ben Franklin Project at the Journal Register Company. What is it?

The Journal Register Company’s Ben Franklin Project is an opportunity to re-imagine the newsgathering process with the focus on Digital First and Print Last. Using only free tools found on the Internet, the project will – from assigning to editing- create, publish and distribute news content on both the web and in print.

Succinctly, this company is looking to disrupt its own business. Instead of attacking costs by cutting more staff, they are looking to cut costs by eliminating the price of their own production using free tools. It’s not something that every organisation could do, but with 18 daily newspapers and 150 non-daily local publications, it shows the ambition of their project. This is not a tiny organisation.

In practice, the organisation set the goal for all 18 of its newspapers to publish online and in print using free online and free open-source tools, such as the Scribus desktop publishing application. They are also pursuing the same kind of community engagement, networked journalism strategy that is at the heart of

On 4 July, 2010, Independence Day in the US, they published their 18 daily newspapers and websites only using free tools and crowdsourced journalism. Jon Cooper, Vice President of Content, Journal Register Company wrote:

Today — July 4, 2010 — marks not only Journal Register Company’s independence from the costly proprietary systems that have long restricted newspapers and news companies alike. Today also marks the start of a revolution. Today marks the beginning of a new path for media companies whose employees are willing to shape their own future.

This is just part of Paton’s turnaround strategy for the Journal Register Company. However, in 2010, which is proving to be another tough year for the US economy (especially in some of the areas the company covers), Paton just announced that the company is 15% ahead of its revenue goals. He said:

Our goal is to pay out an extra week’s pay this year to all employees for hitting our annual target of $40 Million.

That is an amazing investment in journalists and an incentive for them to embrace the disruptive change he is advocating, but it’s so heartening to see journalists engaged and benefitting from change in the industry.

With all the talk about innovation in journalism, it is rare to see projects launch with such clear ambitions. After a lot of talk in the industry, we’ll now see what is possible.

Al Jazeera Unplugged: Twitter and the US State Department

This is a live blog. It may contain grammatical errors, but I tried to be as true to the essence of the comments as possible.

William May, US State Department and the office of innovative engagement, talked about public diplomacy as government to people or people to people diplomacy. The end game of that is mutual understanding. What we have now is very different than what we had 10 years ago. Ten years ago, we had 40,000 people that we moved across borders, and we had broadcasting. We have two bookends, the exchange programmes and on the other end, broadcasting. In the middle, we have all this new stuff like Twitter and QQ. Quoting another person at the State Department (Judy Hale), “The new media will work in certain places, and we’ll use the right media to reach the right people.:

There are segmented audiences (you won’t reach 15 year old via a newspaper), and we are moving form monologue to dialogue to communities. Where are those conversations taking place? Where are those communities? Mobile is a huge game changer for us. They may have never touched a laptop or a computer but they have a mobile phone. Virtual worlds is another opportunity to us. Using the right tool is a huge opportunity for us.

  • 2007 they began using Second Life. They used chat and IRC for training.
  • 2008 ECA Social Network on Ning to engage not just people in exchange programmes but engaging the whole world. Their own video contest. Went from zero to 20,000 users in months. They created a mobile game called X-Life for English language learning. They created a digital outreach team. (6 writers in Arabic, 2 in person. They are transparent that they work for the State Department. They attempt to counter misinformation.)
  • 2009 They created the Office of Innovative Engagement. They created 23 Things and the FSI training (institutional things he said)
  • 2010 They created the American Center in Jakarta and implemented a metrics programme (using something called Crimson Hexagon a metrics and opinion analysis tool )

He provided some examples such as President Obama’s speech in Ghana. They wanted to increase the engagement. The embassies in Africa created hard copy press releases to traditional media asking for text message questions. They got 17,00 SMS messages from 85 countries. They filter the questions into five categories and created a podcast that they sent out to traditional media in Africa. (FM radio is to Africa what Satellite TV is to the Middle East, a transformative shift in media.)

Global versus local. Everything is local again. He gave the example of climate change. Do people want the global picture or how sea level will change where they live?

The Department of State has 180 Facebook pages, 50 Twitter accounts and also YouTube accounts.

They are bringing contacts they made in virtual worlds in Egypt to the US, bridging the virtual and real worlds.


The media, the internet and the 2010 British election

Last night, I went to a panel discussion at the Frontline Club here in London looking at the role that the internet and social media might play in the upcoming general election. I wrote a summary of the discussion on the Guardian politics blog. As I said there, the discussion was Twitter heavy, but as Paul Staines aka Guido Fawkes of said, Twitter is sexy right now.

The panel was good. Staines made some excellent points including how the Conservatives were focused on Facebook rather than Twitter for campaigning. Facebook has more reach and was “less inside the politics and media bubble“, Staines said.

Alberto Nardelli of British political Twitter tracker, Tweetminster, said that the election would be decided by candidates and campaigns not things like Twitter. No one on the panel thought the internet or the parties’ social networking strategies would decide the British election. Alberto said that Twitter’s impact would be more indirect. People are sharing news stories using Twitter, which is causing stories to “trickle up” the news agenda.

Chris Condron, head of digital strategy at the Press Association, made an excellent point that so many discussions of social media focus on its impact on journalism and not its impact on people. Facebook and Twitter allow people to organise around issues, which is another form of civic participation. As I said on my blog post at the Guardian, I would have liked for the panel to explore where this organisation around issues might have an impact in marginal constituencies.

Like so many of these discussions, I thought the questions were binary and missed opportunities to explore the nuance of several issues. The moderator, Sky News political correspondent Niall Paterson implied in his questions that if social media didn’t decide the election that it had no relevance. It was an all or nothing argument that I’ve heard before. Change is rarely that absolute. In the US, the role of the internet has been developing in politics for the past decade. Few people remember that John McCain was the first candidate to raise $1m online, not in 2008 but in 2000.

Paterson portrays himself as a social media sceptic, and I can appreciate that. I can appreciate taking a contrarian position for the sake of debate. However, some of his points last night came off as being ill-informed. The panel was good in correcting him, but he often strayed from moderating the discussion to filibustering.

His portrayal of the Obama campaign was simplistic. Alberto said at the Frontline Club that Obama had a campaign of top down and bottom up, grass-roots campaigning, and as British political analyst Anthony Painter pointed out, Obama’s campaign was a highly integrated mix of traditional campaigning, internet campaigning and mobile. (Little coverage focused on Obama’s innovative mobile phone efforts. Most people don’t see the US as a particularly innovative place in terms of mobile, but it was one of the more sophisticated uses of mobile phones in political campaigning I’m aware of.) I love how Anthony puts it, Obama’s operation was “an insurgent campaign that was utterly professional”.

Paterson also implied that Twitter would tie journalists to desks. The only thing tying journalists to desks are outdated working methods. I’ve been using mobile data for more than a decade to stay in the field close to stories. During the 2008 election in the US, my Nokia multimedia phone was my main newsgathering tool. It allowed me to aggregate the best stories via Twitter and use Twitpic to upload pictures from my 4000 mile roadtrip and from the celebrations outside the White House on election night. As I said on Twitter during the discussion:

moderator makes assumption that social media chains journalists to desk. Ever use a mobile phone? It’s mobile!

Sigh. Sometimes I feel like a broken record. Technology should be liberating for journalists, and more journalists should be exploring the opportunities provided by mobile phones and services like Twitpic, Qik, Bambuser and AudioBoo.

You can watch the entire discussion from the Frontline Club here, and here is Anthony Painter’s excellent presentation on the state of internet campaigning in the US and the UK:

Leveraging a print poster on the web

FlowingData highlighted this data project from WallStats showing how US tax money was spent. The US government being the sprawling beast that it is has an incredibly complex budget, and this visualisation not only makes it accessible but pulls the reader into exploring it.

It has to be good. It even had the American queen of home decorating and entertaining, Martha Stewart, talking about it. I also love is that by using Zoomorama, they have leveraged a printed poster online, simply but quite effectively.

US law and comments on websites

David Ardia, on legal liability for comments online from Nieman Journalism Lab on Vimeo.

David Ardia, director of the Citizen Media Law Project at Harvard, talks about CDA 230, the section of the Communications Decency Act that provides some protection to people who run web sites.

Joshua Benton from the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University says:

I wish every managing editor in the country could see this 20-minute video. I’ve heard so many misconceptions over the years about news organizations’ legal ability to police, manage, or otherwise edit the comments left on their web sites. They say “the lawyers” tell them they can’t edit out an obscenity or remove a rude or abusive post without bringing massive legal liability upon themselves — and that the only solutions are to either have a Wild West, anything-goes comments policy or to not have comments in the first place.

That’s not true, and hasn’t been true since 1996.