10 lessons for the future from women in media

As 2010 drew to a finish and the end-of-year lists started streaming in, I began to feel that there was something missing from the din of bold predictions and celebrated thinkers in the tech and media world: female voices.

The lists were awfully, um, man-happy -- an especially jarring finding in a year when I learned more from trailblazing women than I can begin to recount.

There's a good chance I was just reading the wrong lists, or not enough of them. But it was an inspiration for me to compile a list of my own.

If you aren't familiar with some of the folks named below, prepare yourself for a treat. Here, in no particular order, are some of my favorite insights gleaned over the past year, from a bevy of brilliants who all happen to be women.

The transformation of crisis reporting

There's a certain generation of journalists who came of age in the era of Watergate and Vietnam, inspired by the likes of Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, and Seymour Hersh to do bold, courageous investigative journalism.

I hope that the journalists coming of age today are taking inspiration from folks like Ory Okolloh, one of the founders of the crowdsourcing platform Ushahidi. The tool is quickly creating a new standard for reporting in the wake of a disaster, quickly and reliably capturing information about conditions on the ground and transmitting that data to rescue workers who can help.

2010 saw Ushahidi nearing scale, deployed soon after earthquakes shattered Haiti and Chile, and when record snowstorms buried neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. Just last week, Okolloh announced she was stepping down as executive director of Ushahidi to join Google as the company's policy manager for Africa. I can't wait to see what she'll build next.

The power of free tools and creativity

If you love investigative journalism, you've gotta be rooting for ProPublica to find sustainability. It's hard to believe the news organization's been around for only three years (as of January 2011), given the impact of its journalism. But its leaders have made no secret of the fact that they don't have an easy answer to the question of what support will keep them operating, or for how long.

The quest for sustainability has two components: increasing revenue for ProPublica's work and driving down the material cost of heavyweight investigations.

The organization's director of online engagement, Amanda Michel, is attacking that second bit in two ways:

  1. reaching out to the public to crowdsource some of the reporting that goes into ProPublica's investigations and
  2. using a creative blend of free tools such as Google Forms and Google Maps.

Just as important, Michel (a member of Poynter's National Advisory Board) is both methodical in tracking how her crowdsourcing campaigns work and generous with the knowledge she garners from her efforts.

Check out this 2009 interview for a taste of Michel's insights.

How humans can harness networked intelligence

In late 2008, Gabe Rivera announced that "the age of the news cyborg has arrived," with the introduction of human editor Megan McCarthy to the tech news aggregator Techmeme, which until that time had been run entirely by algorithms. In March 2010, Rivera and McCarthy brought the news cyborg innovation to media news, launching Mediagazer.

I'd been a consumer of Techmeme and its political news counterpart Memeorandum for a few years, but I couldn't tell the power of Rivera's engine and McCarthy's editing until they turned their firepower on a niche I knew well. For me and many others in the online media world, Mediagazer quickly became a daily read. I wish comparable news cyborgs existed for every niche I had an interest in. And I suspect one day soon they might.

In the meantime, there's only one Megan McCarthy. To my mind, she has one of the most fascinating, future-riffic jobs in editing today, and I'm definitely paying attention to how she does it.

How to tell absorbing stories on the Web

When I first encountered Pictory this year, it felt familiar, bearing the DNA of The Boston Globe's Big Picture and JPG Magazine. But the moment I scrolled through the first Pictory story, it instantly felt fresh.

To create a Pictory showcase, Laura Brunow Miner strings together a suite of compelling images from a variety of people, each paired with a tightly-written microstory in a caption, all revolving around a coherent theme. Somehow the format feels both lush and simple.

Miner's wonderful, whimsical editing and vision makes each showcase a standout. At October's ONA conference, I had the pleasure of attending a panel where she explained some of the tricks of her trade, such as the subtle art of crafting the perfect "ask" to elicit a coherent yet serendipitous batch of images from Pictory contributors. I'd love it if more websites could suck me in this way, and if we could build experiences this intimate around the news online.

"Please act like you like this place"

I've been a member of the group weblog MetaFilter for nine years. It's always been my go-to reference for illustrating the potential to create genuine community online. But it wasn't until 2010 that I found myself observing the site closely to discover how the moderators maintain the civility and intelligence that characterize MeFi at its best.

As I did, I kept coming back to the work of Jessamyn West, a.k.a. jessamyn, a librarian who spends some of her time keeping MetaFilter threads in line.

I think few throwaway MeFi moments capture her tone like this one, a gentle admonishment in a thread that had started to go off the rails: "few comments removed -- please act like you like this place." You can almost hear the sighing den mother in that line. How could a troll resist such a canny assault?

Like any great online community leader, jessamyn's authority comes not just from her comment-removing privileges, but from the fact that she participates fully and authentically in the community she's helped to build.

Again and again, I wander into threads on Ask MeFi (MetaFilter's question-and-answer subsite) and find among the responses a long, thoughtful, delightfully written answer from jessamyn, usually with a healthy number of approving votes from other members. Peruse her account on MetaFilter for a tutorial in how community management should be done online.

What we're aiming for when we aim for "engagement"

For her Donald W. Reynolds Fellowship project at the Reynolds Journalism Institute, Joy Mayer's been exploring the notion of engagement, interviewing a ton of smart people about the definitions and measurements they attach to the term in their news organizations.

One of my favorite products of these explorations has been Mayer's interview with Meg Pickard, head of digital engagement at the Guardian. Pickard's thoughts about engagement offer an invaluable framework for how we might think about public participation in journalism. I'm not going to encapsulate it. Just go read.

How gaming can save the world

The idea that's spent the most time ringing in my head since SXSW 2009 came from game design expert Nicole Lazzaro.

Moderating a panel about what Web designers could learn from games, Lazzaro said that a key challenge of game design is the art of making frustration fun. Among the most intense emotions people can experience when they're playing a fulfilling game is something we don't even have an English word to encapsulate -- fiero, the feeling of personal triumph over adversity.

That thought -- the power of making frustration fun -- nestled into the journalism part of my brain next to this one: Frustration is a key civic motivator. What on earth would news organizations pursue if it weren't for frustration? So how might we harness that powerful motivator to drive civic engagement?

Fortunately, brilliant thinkers are wrestling with these questions. In February, game designer Jane McGonigal gave a TED Talk making the case that gaming can save the world.

"If we want to solve problems like hunger, poverty, climate change, global conflict, obesity," McGonigal says, "I believe we need to aspire to play video games online for at least 21 billion hours a week by the end of the next decade."

Watch her entire talk, and you might walk away convinced. For more about McGonigal, Lazzaro and their colleagues' efforts to bring solutions from the gaming world to problems in the real world, check out this recent New York Times story.

But if you need an Xbox 360 to help save the world, someone's going to be left out. So if you follow McGonigal (@avantgame) and Lazzaro (@nicolelazzaro), add gamer, blogger and social justice wonk Latoya Peterson (@latoyapeterson) for a trifecta of gaming wisdom.

On her personal site LatoyaPeterson.com and on her popular blog Racialicious, Latoya regularly explores issues of access and identity in video games.

Complicate your Big Idea

If book sales are any indication, we all love the Big Idea -- the Theory of Everything from Clay Shirky or Malcolm Gladwell or Nicholas Carr that lays out all you need to know about the future. The more of these I read, though, the more I look for arguments that complicate these Big Ideas, pit them against each other and point out their contradictions, looking for the nuances that genuinely explain our world and where it's heading. Again and again, Megan Garber provides those arguments.

In her essays and reports for the Nieman Journalism Lab, Garber finds the wrinkles in theories and soft spots in arguments that animate media philosophers. One of the few texts in 2010 with more ideas per capita than Clay Shirky's "Cognitive Surplus" was Garber's review of it, in which she teased out ambivalences hidden in the sunny term "surplus," even as she gave us a wonderful, complicated lens for reading Shirky's work.

Pivoting off another New York Times entry in the "kids-these-days" genre of news writing, Garber carves out a thoughtful argument for the value of distraction and the focus inherent in fragmentation.

To enjoy Garber's writing, you'll have to suspend any aversion to big words, semicolons, dependent clauses and throwaway references such as "Carrian" and "Postmanite." It's heady stuff, but what good is a Big Idea if you don't really want to think about it? For me, those Big Idea books are quickly becoming a means to an end: more Megan Garber essays.

How to think about privacy and publicness

Thoughtful journalists have long understood that the line between private and public is a spectrum, not a boundary.

News organizations have wrestled for decades with the ethics of publicizing information about individuals, especially considering that most of us have never known just how much of our "personal" information is public.

The increasing trajectory of all media towards the social is making questions of privacy and publicity incredibly complex. Can an e-mail be private in a world with Google Buzz? Is there a difference in publicness between a tweet and a status update?

The single most helpful guide I've found for sorting through this morass is sociologist Danah Boyd. Her keynote speech at SXSW 2010 was one of the most important items of media I encountered this year.

It should be published in textbooks, whether the subject is civics, sociology, media literacy, computer science or journalism. Continuing the theme of complicating Big Ideas, this talk does not easily resolve into a thesis or a takeaway. You won't walk away understanding privacy. But you'll have a framework for thinking about it.

The perils of the personal brand

Marc Ambinder's farewell to blogging provoked a lot of attention in the circles I run in. Even better than Ambinder's essay, though, was Lois Beckett's response in a comment thread at my blog Snarkmarket:

"For the past three years," Beckett wrote, "I’ve heard over and over that journalists must develop a 'personal brand' in order to survive in the new world of Web journalism. Get a blog, get on Twitter -- get an audience, or you’re toast. [...] I think Ambinder’s essay is important because it’s the first time I’ve heard pushback on this idea from a journalist who was very successful in making himself a personal brand. I read Ambinder’s farewell to blogging as his desire to de-brandify himself, to retreat from the persona he had created."

The full, essay-length comment is wonderfully thought-provoking, a valuable meditation on what might be lost in the rush to all build social media fiefdoms for ourselves.

Paradoxically, though, Beckett's comment also offered me a vivid example of what I've gained by having a space like Snarkmarket, where I can interact with folks like her.

Keep up with these thinkers

Follow these folks on Twitter! I've made a Twitter list of a few of the women who inspired me over the past year. You can find that here.

  • Matt Thompson

    I serve as an Editorial Product Manager at NPR, where I work with member stations to develop niche websites. Before coming to NPR, I worked with the Knight Foundation and the Reynolds Journalism Institute.


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