News as Platform
Back to Hurricane Sandy. When news sites all-in-all failed to give me the information I needed or the means to get it, I used other tools to turn directly to my neighbors. I went to Patch, the hyperlocal news service then owned by Aol. Patch was one of the news services that gave me articles with stale summaries of too little information. But it also provided a blogging platform that allowed me to publish a brief screed complaining that our town was spreading misinformation by distributing a list of streets where the power company was supposedly working — including ones around me, where nary a truck was to be seen. I criticized the town for taking the utility at its unreliable word. In the comments under that post, other residents joined in, checked the list against their streets, and shared their observations and my frustration. It was through collaboration with my fellow townspeople — not a reporter’s reporting — that we could fact-check the utility’s list. If only a local news organization had provided that functionality with a more organized platform, better than comments, to let us to share what we knew. It could have posted the list in a wiki where we could add notations or to a map where we could add pictures and reports.
My neighbors and I got our chainsaws out to remove about three dozen trees from our street and driveways just so we could get out and so emergency crews could get in. We were all without power. Once freed, some neighbors went to stay elsewhere — my family, luckily, in a hotel; others with relatives or at vacation homes. The neighborhood Sandy diaspora wanted to stay in touch to stay informed. We resorted first to email but the chain became unwieldy. So I opened an account at a new service, Nextdoor, which promised a private network for neighbors with verified addresses. There was a platform! I hit a few snags: Nextdoor’s address database was missing many of my neighbors’ home addresses and wouldn’t let me correct it. The service insisted that I include a minimum of 75 homes in my neighborhood even though, in my semi-rural area, that meant including people I’d never met who lived more than two miles away. And it prescribed topics for discussion — crime and safety, primarily — instead of what we really wanted to talk about: getting power back on or, later, buying generators. A true platform would have allowed users to best define how to use it. So we reverted to inefficient email. In the meantime, I’ve met Nextdoor’s founder, Nirav Tolia, who raised $100 million from an impressive set of investors: Kleiner Perkins, Greylock Partners, Benchmark, Jeff Bezos’ personal fund, Google Ventures, Allen & Co. The company is addressing these issues and building a promising platform for neighbors to connect and share information in a private, trusted environment. I’ve spoken with him about how local media should be involved. Tolia says Nextdoor can exist because Facebook blew its chance to create a platform for verified identity. I’d add that Nextdoor can exist because local newspapers missed the opportunity to be Nextdoor.
After the hurricane, New Jersey suffered a gasoline shortage, because downed trees and flooding blocked deliveries and service stations lost power. When stations did open up, lines formed for miles, so police had to come and direct traffic. The police knew when stations had power and gas and would be open. They could have shared that information with the public, and media could have helped them do that. But they didn’t. So drivers sought any tool that could help while wasting precious gas driving around looking for more of it. Many resorted to another rather unwieldy platform: Twitter, where we shared information around the hashtag #njgas. It was an imperfect system, because it meant reading alerts about open stations too many miles away and because the information had a very short shelf life. Still, it was the best available information and it was useful enough to tell me to head west, toward Pennsylvania, where I would find fuel. In gratitude, I contributed my own updates about open stations.
What if a local news organization provided a platform that could have met our needs post-Sandy — or on any day? What would that look like? I don’t mean that it should build another Twitter or Nextdoor. Note well that in the case of Twitter, the real platform wasn’t so much the technology but the social convention of the hashtag. The idea of the hashtag itself was first proposed by Chris Messina, not an employee of Twitter, who suggested in 2007 that it would be a way to find tweets around events or topics. NJ.com claimed credit for starting and promoting the specific #njgas hashtag after Sandy. Platforms need not be made via coding. They can often be made via common, spontaneous conventions. News organizations have the megaphone to help establish those conventions.
There are many ways a news organization can become a platform. It can provide existing technology (wikis, forums, maps, data bases, surveys, and more) and work through existing services its communities already use (culling relevant information and reports from YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Google+, Pinterest, Vine, Tout, et al). News organizations can explore new technologies (for example, sensors that report the environment around them, wearable cameras, video streaming from phones, data analysis of social conversation) to facilitate the sharing of information. It can also help independent bloggers and community correspondents succeed at covering their own towns — offering them content, promotion, technology, advertising networks, training, and the means to collaborate. News organizations no longer operate alone, in monopolies or silos. They live surrounded by many competitors or collaborators — how you view them depends on your worldview — in a disorganized but growing ecosystem of news.