“It starts with a vision: what if we could cover all of it? When you try to act on that vision, you invariably run into problems. And it’s sweating those problems that leads to innovation, or at least to new knowledge.”
Here’s a little idea for creating innovation in news coverage: the 100 percent solution. It works like this: First, you set a goal to cover 100 percent of… well, of something. In trying to reach the goal you immediately run into problems. To solve those problems you often have to improvise or innovate. And that’s the payoff, even if you don’t meet your goal.
Got it? Good. For that’s the whole idea.
In the rest of this post I will explain what I mean and why I think it can work. And I will give you some examples. Because the 100 percent solution is not an entirely new idea. It’s been tried. My aim is to get more of you to try it in some form.
So let’s start with a few imaginary cases
There’s going to be a wide open mayor’s race in Chicago because the incumbent, Democrat Richard M. Daley, is retiring. Rahm Emanuel is running and he will have plenty of competition. A big city mayoral election generates a lot of events: Candidates appear all over town. Unions and community groups have to decide whom to endorse. Speeches, debates, rallies, fundraisers in living rooms, backyard barbeques, meetings in church basements… Picture them all on a spreadsheet. Now tack that spreadsheet up on a wall.
What if we tried to cover every event, big and small, involving every candidate who had a legitimate chance to be the next mayor, but also all the events where the candidates themselves may be missing but the campaign is somehow alive and present in the space between Chicagoans. That would be 100 percent coverage of campaign events.
Of course in their weakened state, the Chicago Tribune and the Sun-Times couldn’t manage it. But the news ecosystem in Chicago has many players: the weeklies, a big public media sector, community newspapers, the ethnic press, any number of news start-ups, lots of local blogs. To cover everything, they’d have to collaborate in a way that hasn’t been seen yet in Chicago. And figuring out how to do that would be innovation.
Now I know what you’re thinking: who wants that much information about a single election? Wouldn’t it just overload the voter’s circuits and turn people off before the race even got going? Yeah, probably. But I’m just easing you into the idea for now. Aligning supply and demand with experiment and invention is hard, but this is just another way of saying that innovation rarely happens.
Let’s keep going…
Every Sunday, in the churches of Philadelphia, the ministers give their sermons. Each in his way is a community leader. But what do these leaders talk about each week? Maybe there should be a way to find out. The system that would permit us to know by Monday what was said in all the churches on Sunday… that’s the 100 percent solution for the church-going community in Philly. Are you sure there would be scant demand for that kind of information? I’m not.
Here’s an example that comes from my friend and podcast partner, the technologist Dave Winer. In New York City, Verizon is rolling out its super high speed Internet service, called FIOS. There’s no map that tells us which buildings have FIOS, which are in the process of getting it, and which do not have it at all. The company doesn’t provide that kind of information. Verizon does allow you to enter your address and find out about your building, but it keeps the big picture to itself.
So Dave and I have been wondering: there’s roughly 110 blocks in the coverage area for the Local East Village (which is co-produced by NYU and the New York Times.) We figure there has to be a way to get good information about the availability of FIOS in every building on every block. And if we were able to get it, and map it, and put that data before the users of the site, would there be demand for that information? I think there would be.
Is the 100 percent solution beginning to make some sense? I hope so. It starts with a vision: what if we could cover all of it? Then a glimpse into the value proposition that 100 percent coverage presents for a given community of users. When you try to act on that vision, make good on the glimpse, you invariably run into problems. It’s sweating those problems that leads to innovation, or at least to new knowledge.
Now to some real life examples of the 100 percent solution in action.
What if we interview all the bands?
In March of 2010, AOL attempted to interview all 2,000 bands appearing at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin. Saul Hansell, the director of AOL’s seed.com, a network of freelance writers, explained it this way in a blog post aimed at potential contributors:
With this project, we’re starting to show off how Seed is going to be very different from other sites that offer writing work over the Internet. Seed is an integral part of the new AOL, one of the largest journalistic organizations in the world. And we’re asking Seed contributors not simply to regurgitate what they can find searching the Web, but to get on the phone, get out into the world, ask questions, witness events and write what they’ve discovered.
You can also see how we are going to evolve the way Seed deals with creators. So far, we have mainly had open assignments, in which any number of people could submit articles. Some have said this seems more like a contest than a job. For SXSW, we are only asking one writer to profile each band. To make this work, we are using e-mail for part of the process. Soon the Seed site will automatically handle this sort of assignment. And it will invite creators to tell us about their professional experience, so we can match the right assignments to the right people.
Like everything we’re doing now at Seed, this is very much an experiment. We don’t know how these interviews will turn out. But I’m betting, they will be as lively and varied as the SXSW festival itself.
Right there you can see what I mean by “… In trying to reach the goal you immediately run into problems. To solve those problems you often have to improvise or innovate.” Seed.com didn’t have the systems in place to handle that many contributors on one project. So they had to do it by email. But what a great way to get a handle on the system you need to build. The spec sheet practically writes itself.
What we did had internal and external goals. I came up with the idea when I was told that AOL had decided to be a corporate sponsor of the event and would make Seed a major theme. Since the show was about four months after I joined AOL (which was a week after Seed’s launch), it seemed a good time to show the world what we wanted to do with it. There had been a lot of discussion about Robocontent, so one main point of our project was to focus on human reporting—in this case telephone interviews with the nearly 2000 bands that play the show.
We also wanted to stress test our very new systems, both people and machines.
So were you satisfied with the results, Saul?
The project achieved my goals with flying colors. We used our platform to create fun and unique content. In many cases, these were the first interviews with these bands ever by a national outlet. We also created enough stress on the system to diagnose many weaknesses we’ve worked to fix.
In the end, we did phone interviews with well over half the bands. Some wouldn’t call us back. In a few cases there were language problems or reporters who were unreliable. I’ve said it was a PR mistake to say we would interview all 2000 bands rather than try to interview them. But in my mind, that’s a footnote.
Would he recommend this method?
I’m of mixed opinion on the merits of trying to cover 100 percent of something. I think there is a great user benefit to promising to cover everything in a set. A site about cars or movies that has all the models or all the films is far more useful than one that only has some. The risk of wasting your time when you go there looking for something is mitigated by the promise of completeness. And everything is of interest to somebody somewhere, people who we would love to serve.
On the other hand, there are some fields in which there are so many individual elements that it is very expensive to cover them all equally. There are 2000 times more searches each month for Lady Gaga than for Shar Jackson. We would love to create the best possible page for Shar’s still considerable number of fans. But the market is telling us to spend 2000 times more money on the pages we make on Lady Gaga.
True. It isn’t always possible to achieve 100 percent coverage of what Hansell calls a “set.” And I’m not recommending it as an “always and everywhere” solution. Just a neat little idea that can sometimes spark innovation.
Friday night lights
I’m on the advisory board of a newspaper chain, Journal-Register Company (JRC) that has gone “digital first.” John Paton, the CEO, agreed to create an IdeaLab for employees who wanted to experiment with new ways of covering the news. If selected they would get 25 percent of their time to work on their ideas. I urged members of the IdeaLab to try the 100 percent solution and two of them took me up on it.
Chris Stanley, online editor for The Reporter in Lansdale, PA, tried it with high school sports. JRC has a number of papers in the suburban Philadelphia area but they had rarely worked together.
We wanted to get coverage and scores from not just the high schools in our area, but all the schools in PIAA District 1 (the state HS sports governing organization that covers much of the Philadelphia region). Since we have news organizations in these areas that cover these schools, we needed to find a way to integrate their coverage and live score reporting with our own. But some areas of the district are not covered by us, our own sports staffs work on different deadlines, and posting stories for sharing was usually somewhat of an afterthought.
Some games were double and triple-covered, others got no coverage at all. Scores did not appear on the web sites until late at night, if at all.
For live score coverage of Friday night games we turned to Twitter. Reporters, photographers, editors, readers, fans, whoever is at a game can send us Tweets via @phillyscores. We promote this online and in the print product.
Some editors were concerned about spamming or kids trashing rival teams with this account, so we compromised with a system of re-tweeting scores. One person in the cluster monitors the account and re-tweets anything marked @phillyscores. In addition, that account follows many other media, sports and school Twitter accounts and will also re-tweet relevant score information. A Twitter widget is posted on our HS football page, and relevant local scores are also highlighted on a scroll bar.
So not only do we get the benefit of reports from our own staff, we can also draw on many sources in the community. Other score reporting sites have started re-tweeting our own scores, which is fantastic. We can also embed story links among our scores to draw readers to our web site.
One of the benefits of the project was to get the sports departments of the various newspapers in Journal-Register onto the same page.
Other new efforts include using Google Groups to arrange coverage among sports editors at different properties, to avoid double or triple-covering overlapping games and ensuring every game is covered. In the past, sports staffs at different properties rarely talked. Now we know what each property is covering, and overlap has been eliminated.
Schools, teams, parents groups and others post their own web sites, with game information, stats, rosters, photos, videos and more. We need to link to these resources and arrange to use some of them in our own coverage. We can’t be afraid to recognize good information wherever it comes from. The next step will be to integrate all these elements – complete coverage of ALL district games, Twitter, blogs (staff and community), links to those team and school sites, schedules, player and team pages – into a package that will be the ultimate source of information for football (and other sports, as well) in the region. Plans for such a site are in the works on a company-wide level.
“Every high school football game in Greater Trenton.”
Ben Doody is the assistant sports editor of the Trentonian. His Idea Lab project is “live coverage of every high school football game in Greater Trenton.”
The goal was to harness the power of Twitter to have reporters — and, ideally, fans as well — send updates from games, then, through hashtags, bring the tweets together in a live blog in which readers can follow along and ask questions.
We unveiled the feature during the first weekend of play in New Jersey and have run the chat every time there are multiple games in the area. (Essentially, any time games are played other than when one or two makeup games are going on and there’s not enough content to fill a chat. But even then, we’ve had reporters tweet updates.)
The readership total still produces a tiny percentage of our daily page views, but it’s grown steadily over the first three weeks, and compares extremely favorably to what most sites get for live chats… it’s the single-most innovative feature on our site, and the one with the biggest potential.
On the first night, we had 30 readers and two or three games uncovered. Yet this past Saturday, we had every game in the area covered and brought in 150 readers — several of whom chimed in with questions and comments.
I didn’t set out with a particular readership goal in mind, both because it’s not something we can directly control and because I had little idea what the response would be. But a fair metric to be judged upon is growth, and I’m extremely pleased with how quickly it’s caught on.
The one metric I set out to reach was 100 percent coverage — a goal we achieved for the first time this past weekend, but one that we’ll have to work hard in order to make every week. One thing I’ve learned over the past two years is that doing something once is easy. Doing it consistently is the hard part, and that means instead of popping open bottles of champagne, we need to focus on how we’re going to do it again every week.
In order to get live coverage of all the games, reporters had to learn new skills. But not all of them are equally ready for that. Ben explains:
Some reporters needed no prodding and virtually no training. Those were the easy ones. I told them which hashtags to use, and that was it.
Others already had Twitter accounts or were willing to set them up, but needed a lot of guidance when it came to things like the tone and frequency of tweets we were looking for. I showed them some examples, explained the concept we were working with, and they’ve done a good job so far.
We have a third group, though it only has one member: Rich Fisher, a stringer who’s been in the business for more than 35 years — including a long tenure as a full-timer at The Trentonian –and who’s trying as hard as anyone to learn how to stay as modern as possible.
Fish is the one veteran journalist I work with who frequently sends text messages. He also publishes a website — Fish4scores.com — dedicated to youth and high school sports in Hamilton Twp. and wants to market his own site on Twitter. I created a Twitter account for him, and he worked his way up to tweeting from his phone — a huge success story, since he’s the only member of what I’d call the Old Guard who’s now a self-sufficient tweeter.
The fourth group has given me some encouragement as well, though in different ways: People who I was certain weren’t going to tweet their own updates, either because they were unwilling or unable to do so. This is where we need to be honest about how things work and not bite off more than we can chew. We have to recognize situations where we can’t run through a wall and figure out a way to walk around it or break it down piece by piece.
There are a few people in this group, and we’ve reached the point where all of them are calling me with updates so I can post them. One, legendary Trentonian sportswriter George O’Gorman, loves what we’re doing and is happy to contribute, but is often without a laptop and is unable to see the keys on his cellphone clearly enough to send texts.
The system is unorthodox, but it works extremely well: George calls with updates. I have The Trentonain’s Twitter account open and type the updates as he says them. He’s crystal-clear about what’s going on and I’m Twitter-savvy enough to convey it in 140 characters. In many ways, it’s the best of both worlds — and it doesn’t at all diminish the quality or quantity of information we’re giving readers.
Hundreds of small platform meetings
When I worked with Amanda Michel, Marc Cooper and thousands of volunteers on OffTheBus.Net, the citizen journalism wing of the Huffington Post’s election coverage in 2007-08, we looked for ways to experiment with distributed reporting and data collection. Here’s a simple example:
WANTED: Citizen reporters to help HuffPost’s OffTheBus cover the Obama campaign. Over the next two weeks the campaign will be holding hundreds of small platform meetings where the public is invited to help shape the nominee’s platform. We need you to be a reporter in your local meeting, and to measure the effectiveness of the campaign. Already planned to attend one? You can report in directly to us. Either way, it’s another great way for you to get involved in the presidential race.
In order to execute on this invitation, OffTheBus needed:
* a sign-up form and corresponding database of participants;
* instructions for how to navigate to local events;
* a form to fill out with questions the volunteers were to answer, along with guidelines for the act of reporting; (You can see that form here.)
* a deadline by which to submit reports;
* reminder e-mails, telling people that that OffTheBus was counting on them, including one that went out shortly after the event ended;
* a tracking system that told the editors of OffTheBus if the necessary materials had been downloaded. (“There was always attrition,” Amanda Michel told me. Meaning: people who said they would file a report who never took the necessary steps.)
* constant recruitment after the initial call-out, so that whenever OffTheBus mentioned the upcoming platform meetings the invitation to help report on them was repeated. “We never relied on one attempt,” Michel said.
These necessary steps are the learning dividend from trying to cover all the meetings.
So that’s the 100 percent solution. The point of trying it is to jump right into the middle of the innovation puzzle.
But there is another point, which I haven’t mentioned. In a time of contraction in the news industry, and of diminished expectations in the workaday world of professional journalism, we need counter-cyclical measures that broaden our ambitions, widen the lens and insist that with new tools and greater participation–what Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, calls the mutualization of journalism–we can do way more than we were ever able to do before.
After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…
This post marks the debut of PressThink’s new design (by the excellent and artful Lauren Rabaino.) It’s the first overhaul since I launched the blog in 2003. Nieman Lab did an interview with me about how I blog and what I wanted the new site to accomplish.
Comments on the new design are welcome.
Over at the Online Journalism Blog, Paul Bradshaw has added to this post with: A template for ’100 percent reporting’.
I thought I’d create a template for that spreadsheet that tells you just how far you are in achieving your 100% goal, makes it easier to organise newsgathering across a network of actors, and introduces game mechanics to make the process more pleasurable.
“This has to be the daftest thing I’ve read for a long time.” Kevin Marsh at the BBC College of Journalism site isn’t buying it: A hundred percent is no solution. He seems to think it means the end of editing, judgment, and selection.
By usage and custom and civic usefulness, and without ever saying so out loud, we citizens have tasked journalism with giving us timely snapshots of greater truths without the burden of (necessarily) capturing 100% of that greater truth. Bluntly, journalism stops when we citizens know enough – insert here a definition of ‘enough'; it will be different in different places.
Oh, look. Bobbie Johnson thinks the same thing.
The Brumby Dump: an example of the 100 percent approach from Crikey in Australia.
Katrina Dix writes about the 100 percent solution at her personal blog.
My first thought, of course, was, “How can I apply this? What would this mean for me?” I cover Coatesville, PA, the only city in my county, which has been described as a scale version of Philadelphia, or Chester in Delaware County. In my spare time (?) I cover the surrounding municipalities as well.
Back in February, Dave Winer and I discussed the 100 percent solution and AOL’s South by Southwest project on our weekly podcast, Rebooting the News. “It’s almost like the beginning of a wikipedia system for the indy music scene.”
Josh Stearns on Slicesofboulder.com, an example of the 100 percent approach in Boulder Colorado.
In the comments, Brooke Kroeger, head of the journalism program at NYU, recalls a 100 percent coverage system from her days as a wire service reporter for UPI.
Also in the comments, Josh Benton, head of the Nieman Lab at Harvard:
Thinking in terms of “100% coverage” can warp the kinds of coverage one does, not just the quantity or the processes therein. To use your Chicago example, focusing on a goal of ‘let’s cover 100% of mayoral events’ could make it easy to avoid a separate, fruitful argument — namely, “Why the hell should we be focusing so much of our coverage on events instead of on issues?”