6 Tips for User-Generated Content from 'Monkey on the Loose'
Just after lunch on Sunday, the note on the neighborhood listserv popped up with a subject line that defied deletion: "Monkey on the loose."
Renee Barth, a neighbor up the street, wrote: "I can hardly believe I'm posting this, but this afternoon I discovered a rather large (approx. 70-80 lbs) monkey in our pool cage!!!!! Unbelievable! So let's be careful with our pets and children."
The presence of such a primate in our waterfront community just south of downtown was startling but quite believable -- and not just because of Florida's well-deserved reputation for weird animal stories. A monkey has been eluding wildlife officials -- including a tranquilizer shooter whose darts hit their target without much result -- for more than a year in the Tampa Bay area.
Although this was its first visit (that we were aware of) to our Tropical Shores neighborhood, the monkey had touched off a chase in a neighborhood a few miles south of ours just a few weeks ago.
Sixteen minutes after Barth sounded the monkey alert to the listserv maintained by our neighborhood association, another resident, Lynette Gryniak, moved the coverage along with this imperative: "post a pic!!!"
Seventeen minutes after that, Barth's husband, Jason, uploaded two high resolution images of the monkey to the list, along with this observation: "He's bigger than our English bulldog!"
More exclamation marks than you'd find in your average newspaper account, but apart from that, my neighbors appeared to have a pretty good story pretty well in hand. All I did was get Barth's permission to forward her photos to the St. Petersburg Times, which Poynter owns.
By the time Barth's photo made it to the paper's Web site and into the centerpiece slot on page 3B of Monday's Times -- not to mention all the derivative coverage on radio and TV -- the neighborhood and the newspaper had collaborated on a nice little case study of user-generated content.
(Update: By Wednesday morning, the monkey story had gone national with a TODAY show segment by Kerry Sanders that included an interview with Barth and shots of the Mystery Monkey of Tampa Bay Facebook fans page.)
I count at least a half-dozen lessons learned along the path from neighborhood incident to national story.
1.Old-fashioned reporting can be just as important as sophisticated technology in confirming the authenticity of images and other content.
When the editor on duty, Craig Gemoules, returned the message I left with the clerk on the Times city desk, I asked if the paper was still interested in the monkey, which serious news consumers might argue has already generated more than its share of coverage.
"We're always interested in monkey stories!" he exclaimed, reaffirming my belief that my local paper knows a good story when it swings out of a tree into its lap.
But Gemoules was also focused on making sure the story was true, and he had two strong resources at hand: Joe Walles, a photo editor with 30 years experience at the Times, and Kameel Stanley, the night reporter who, just by chance, had been the staffer who was hot on the trail of the monkey during its last sighting in south St. Pete.
I figured Walles would tell me that he spent most of his time examining the data inside the image to be sure it hadn't been manipulated. Walles offered a simpler threshold question: "Is it publishable?"
The answer to that was a resounding yes, with Walles describing Renee's photo as "the best photo anyone has taken of that monkey."
Noting that photo editing software enables trickery that can be very difficult to detect, he said he was more interested in what the paper could learn about the circumstances of the photo -- and the photographer -- than pinning too many hopes on technical analysis.
He said it was Stanley's conversation with Barth that played the biggest role in his conclusion that the image was legit.
2. Payment for content can come in many forms, not all of them financial.
In my first e-mail, I told Barth I doubted that the Times would pay for the photo. That did not turn out to be a problem.
"This was kind of fun and a cool experience," she told me by phone the next day. Describing the excitement of spotting the monkey behind her house and her ensuing scramble to grab a camera and photograph it, she said, "There was a kind of natural high and frenzy about it." She said seeing the photo published provided a kind of "euphoric payment."
3. Journalists are rarely on the scene when most news happens, but there are more and more ways to get around that problem.
Barth is not a St. Pete Times subscriber. Gryniak, the neighbor who asked for photos, happens to work in marketing at the Times. But she told me by e-mail that she was simply hoping Barth would share the images on the listserv and wasn't trying to round up pictures for the paper.
How might a news organization put the word out to readers and non-readers alike that it's interested in news its reporters don't know about? In this case, I found a phone number on page two of the paper and left a message for the editor in charge, but I'm not sure how many people would go to the trouble to do that.
Sandra Gadsden, who has been editor of the paper's Neighborhood Times editions since 2005, was named to a new post as assistant metro editor for community news just a few weeks ago. She said the paper hopes to select about 10 neighborhoods from the more than 70 with neighborhood associations to begin developing a network of community correspondents.
"With shrinking staff across the board, we can't be everywhere and it just makes sense to get people to help with the news from where they are," she told me in a telephone interview. She said the paper hoped to find people "who are plugged in to where they live so we can get plugged in," adding, "There are tons of stories out there that we're not touching."
She and others at the Times are working with Howard Finberg and Rick Edmonds at Poynter to make some training available for non-journalists interested in doing journalism.
4. As enthusiastic as non-journalists may be in providing content, it's worth remembering that they have day jobs and might not be as available (or as focused on the story) as newsrooms would like them to be.
By the time Barth got home from work Monday evening, she found the business cards from 10 media outlets inside her door. She said friends told her that at least one radio station put out a public plea over the air to get her to call in and describe her encounter with the monkey.
She said she was glad to be as accommodating as possible, but added, "This monkey story isn't my job. And I do work for a living."
In the interest of accuracy, the story does always need to be somebody's job. That job will change, though, with journalists sometimes spending more time verifying and presenting news gathered by others.
5. It's important to beware of little things slipping through the cracks, in this case three versions of Barth's surname published with some editions of the story.
Barth was not especially bothered by the use of her maiden name in a caption, her married name in the story and yet a third variation ("Block") in the credit line. But she pointed out that a reader questioned the discrepancy in comments attached to an early version of the article. "People noticed it," she said.
(This tip applies to bloggers, too, including this one, especially in light of an incorrect spelling of Sandra Gadsden's name in an earlier version of this article.)
6. Especially on a slow news days, maybe it's time to reconsider what we call news.
Anyone who has ever pulled weekend duty on a city desk knows how difficult it can be sometimes to find stories conventionally regarded as news.
It's not every day that a monkey falling in a pool and swiping grapefruits from a backyard tree shows up to break that pattern. But maybe, with a little help from non-journalist colleagues, we'll uncover some equivalents of monkeys on the loose.