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Friday, December 28, 2007

Social journalism - how to cover major events by tapping into tech tools and the communities who use them

I was just reading a thought-provoking post from Nate Ritter about covering events like fires and earthquakes which affect thousands of people, all of whom need constantly updated information.

He aggregated a pile of information during the fires in San Diego in October, bringing together twitter tweets, emails, phone calls from friends, google map mashups, TV and radio coverage, whatever was around. He posted the information on his blog, on twitter and kept pushing it out.

He subsequently proposed an interesting model which you'll see on the post, headed Ideas on How to Help People in Teams. It's a model that media outlets could (and should) adopt. All it requires is planning and a handful of tech-literate editorial types at the centre of the operation to manage and moderate.

In a nutshell he suggests:

  • set up a microsite for aggregating material (preferably pre-established so you can get cracking immediately once something kicks off, and preferably more than one -disasters sometimes come in threes)
  • include:
    • several video feeds (tv coverage, your own coverage, readers' coverage)
    • several audio feeds (radio coverage, interviews)
    • twitter stream (linked with a hashtag)
    • flickr stream (for readers' pictures)
    • google map (showing where event is, where cordons are etc)
The idea then is to promote the site as widely as possible, getting the url out on twitter, blogs etc and letting people know they can contribute.

For a mainstream news website, a microsite like this would be a great supplement to usual coverage. Some of it could be brought into the main page - pictures, say, and the main site could promote contributions to the microsite.

Increasingly, news websites are using reporters' blogs as part of their coverage of events like this, aggregating public posts and giving fast updates from the reporter on the ground, which are later fleshed out in news stories.

The Guardian, for example, covered a fire in East London in November 2007 in a blog which included video footage posted on YouTube, eye witness accounts and pics taken on the ground by the reporter writing the blog. It was very effective.

A well-run microsite could quickly become the most useful resource in town during an event like this. Great for the public, great for the media outlet, great for emergency services who could also tap into it - posting updates and safety messages.

A perfect new year's resolution: set up a microsite so it's ready to swing into action should, say, another earthquake visit upon our shaky isles.