From the blog that “beat” the NYT?
It’s been an incredible few days–my inbox has been flooded and I’ve received a flurry of media requests for interviews to reflect on the process of using Spot.us to publish the Times piece. David Cohn wrote a great reflection here and Bill Mitchell of Poynter also wrote an excellent analysis here about how this project came about, what worked and what this means for crowd-sourced journalism.
My favorite response over the past few days came from my 11th grade English teacher Ms. Denis, who tracked me down, eight years after I graduated, to say she was shocked to see my byline in the Times:
Another surprising Facebook message came from a friend from England whom I met while working as a reporter for The Argentimes in Buenos Aires, Argentina last year:
These messages are so rewarding since I never know who’ll read the story or how people will respond. And I was really interested in Megan Garber’s critique in the Columbia Journalism Review saying the the blog was more compelling than the Times story:
I followed the blog as Hoshaw updated it in, pretty much, real time—she connected to the Web via satellite phone—and found it at once educational and enthralling. And now that Hoshaw has returned from her trip, the blog offers a new focus on contextualizing her on-the-sea reporting (November 3: “The Garbage Patch Starts Here”). It’s good stuff. It’s what the Spot.us funders paid for.
I’ve refrained from commenting on Garber’s post to allow people to praise and criticize without feeling like the subject of the piece is breathing down their necks. Though I retweeted some of the Twitter comments which were awesome to read:
I’ve tremendously enjoyed reading all the comments on Garber’s piece—the good and the bad. It reminds me of when I first put up the Spot.us pitch and when the Times’ public editor Clark Hoyt wrote an article about my project. Some people were enthused, others wondered if I was going to be the next Jayson Blair and one person asked whether I even had any photo skills at all. Far from being offended, I was thrilled that people were taking an interest—this is how journalism should work! Journalists should be vetted, as I was. Especially when people are putting up their own money to support a reporter they’ve never met. The criticism made me think seriously about the potential pitfalls of the project and what I could do to avoid them.
For the Times story, I completely understand readers who felt the article fell short—it definitely didn’t have the detail and the human side that the blog did. I wrote what I believed the Times wanted though they never specified the type of article they expected. I under estimated the extent to which people wanted a more human element to the story. But I’m glad this has been brought to my attention, I had no idea the blog would gain the following or the support it has.
So this is what I took away from the CJR discussion, and what I knew instinctively after this project was over: people want to feel connected to the stories they’re reading and the people who write them. It’s not enough to write a standard news story and say, “here read this.” People want to contribute, they want to be part of the process. As Clay Shirky says, “they’re looking for the mouse.” They want the human side of the story, even if it’s about unwrapping rotten tomatoes or hula hooping on the bow of a 50-foot catamaran. The everyday became meaningful because it was real and unedited and honest. Connecting to the readers this way was seamless.
And the most rewarding part of the Spot.us project was getting to meet some of the donors in person before I left, listening to their ideas, writing to them on my blog from the middle of the ocean and emailing them when the story came out to celebrate our success.
I had images of my readers’ faces in my mind while I was at sea and it kept me accountable. These were real people not some unimaginable group called “the public.” I knew their names and I’d met with some of them in person. They were tangible and I thought, “what would Alex think if he knew I blogged on behalf of the ship or that I wasn’t diligent about taking photos at every opportunity?”
The reason, I believe, people were disappointed with the Times piece is that they’ve come to expect more. The blog gave them that. I put out every piece of information I could—everything from drinking hot chocolate on the ship to swimming alongside a 200lb. tangle of rope and fishing line, and people felt connected. After reading about every facet of life on the boat in the middle of the ocean I see that a standard 800 word explanatory article could seem dry and unoriginal. For me, this project just proved that community journalism is not a fad or an experiment, it’s absolutely the future.