By Steve Outing
So, it’s Carnival of Journalism time of the month again, and ringmaster David Cohn this time has posed the question, “Considering your unique circumstances, what steps can be taken to increase the number of news sources?”
OK, that’s an easy one when I apply my “unique circumstances,” which is that I live in Boulder, Colorado, and focus my career on digital media. You see, there’s this project at work that this question is tailored for, exactly. The result so far is the website SlicesofBoulder.com, which is a project that’s part of my Digital Media Test Kitchen program at CU-Boulder’s School of Journalism & Mass Communication (and utilizing technology and consulting from our Toronto friends at Eqentia).
SlicesofBoulder at this point addresses David’s question by not “increasing” the number of news sources serving Boulder, but rather by “finding” them, since so many exist online. Last summer, we (SJMC instructor Sandra Fish, master’s student researcher Jenny Dean, and I) attempted to find all the credible news and information sources in and around Boulder that send content about Boulder flowing onto the web. (If you want to know more, here’s an old blog post explaining the project.)
Here’s my first point: There’s no great need to increase the number of news sources, at least in our scenic college town of Boulder, nor in most cities. If you expand your definition of “news source” beyond its traditional meaning, Boulder and lots of other communities have hundreds or thousands of “news” sources online.
Where the need exists is not in “creating” more news sources, but rather in developing “online hubs” like SlicesofBoulder.com to track them all, intelligently sort and filter them, and provide a simple-to-use interface and personalization features so online users can find the flow of news and information they want from all the sources that now exist in this digital, everyone’s-a-publisher age.
I used the term “online hub” above because that was Recommendation #15 of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy’s Informing Communities report: “Ensure that every local community has at least one high-quality online hub.”
Anyway, for Boulder, at least, the first pass at creating a community online hub has been accomplished. But the next step, I believe, is the most important: Developing systems to analyze and rate the many online news and information sources that serve a community like Boulder, so that a local resident who while using our online hub comes upon a never-seen-before website, or blog, or institutional news feed, or whatever is able to determine if this unknown digital-content entity provides credible information or not.
Researcher Robin Donovan and I currently are working on this next phase of the SlicesofBoulder project. The idea is that a user of the site will be able to see credibility, accuracy, bias, popularity, and other ratings of any source that we track on the site.
My dream is that at some point in the near future, I’ll have a web-browser extension (or the functionality will be built into the browser) that will give me a wide range of ratings representing various and multiple parameters for whatever website I find myself on.
I don’t know that the need is so much that we need to create more news and information sources online, but rather that of the unfathomable number of sources that already exist on the web to provide us with news and information, that we have a way to know whether to trust them or not, or have some indication of their quality based on multiple layers of automated and human analysis.
I’ll be interested to read other contributions to this month’s Carnival of Journalism. Perhaps other writers will suggest that we do need more sources. If so, I’ll be especially interested in how they justify that when we already are faced as news/information consumers with major digital information overload.