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MIT Media Lab Offers a Simple Recipe for Publishing Homegrown News 

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Veteran journalist Jack Driscoll's research group has teamed up with senior centers and schools around the world to teach would-be journalists how to write and publish community news. The program gives participants simple online publishing tools -- and a few key lessons in how to be reporters and editors. 

Jack Driscoll is a quintessential old media journalist: He's been a sports writer, a copy editor, a news reporter and a supervising editor. He has worked on newspapers and for the wires. He served on the Pulitzer Prize Board of Trustees from 1991 to 1995, helping determine which stories should win journalism's top prize.

Driscoll was The Boston Globe's executive editor from 1982 to 1987, and editor from 1987 to 1994. After working for more than 40 years as a journalist, Driscoll retired at the age of 60 in 1994. Or so he thought.

Instead, he was coaxed into a new career in digital media, as editor-in-residence of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, where he works on research projects on photography, video, radio, newspapers and electronic forms of content delivery. He describes his job as translating the tech world for his former colleagues in journalism.

His projects have included Salient Stills, a new video enhancement and management technology that has been spun off as a separate company, and "data hiding," a technology that embeds, for example, photo captions in the photo itself.

Then there's the Audio Notebook, which Driscoll describes as a stenographer's notebook on steroids: It captures audio and synchronizes it to the reporter's handwritten notes. Journalists who have tried it all want one, but Driscoll said hardware manufacturers don't see a market for it, so it exists only in prototypes.

Driscoll's most important work may be his projects that have focused on teaching senior citizens and students around the world how to be journalists. He has helped create user-friendly editing software for non-journalists and trains technological newbies to be online storytellers. Those who participate in his program learn simple rules of journalism and then use their skills to cover their communities. Often they cover communities that were previously getting no coverage from the mainstream media; usually their work publishes just on their project Web sites, but sometimes their reports are picked up by mainstream media.

The junior high and high school student journalists in Driscoll's programs are called Junior Journalists and the seniors are Silver Stringers. The training projects are getting teenagers engaged in the news and seniors to exercise their minds. The result is "a much better appreciation of traditional media," Driscoll said.

This is an edited excerpt of his conversation with the Online Journalism Review:

OJR: What is your take on participatory journalism?

Jack Driscoll: Professional journalists always saw themselves as being the eyes and ears of the public. Average citizens had no printing presses in their cellars, no broadcast networks to tap into.  Now they do.  It's cheap, it's fast and it's called the Internet.  The major media need to figure a way to let the "new journalists" under the tent. 

It was no accident at the Media Lab when we published a personalized electronic newspaper called Fishwrap that invited participation at several levels.  The first "restaurant review" we received was about the multiethnic food trucks that converge on the campus each day. 

It was no accident that Steve Newhouse, editor of The Jersey Journal, and Walter Bender of MIT coined the term "Silver Stringers," borrowing from the age-old lingo that labeled correspondents as "stringers," because their clippings were measured with a 21-inch-long string, the length of a newspaper column.  Their pay was based on the number of inches multiplied by the going rate -- it was 10 cents an inch in my teen days.

We're not just talking about the new journalist stumbling onto a news event. We're talking about a definition of news that takes into consideration the perspectives of teenagers on Iraq and AIDS and suicide; the Y generation on family, workplace and leisure; the seniors on the economy, values and a host of issues to which they can lend their wisdom.

The media need to open themselves to thoughtful, new voices.  The day of the couch potato has passed.  There's gold in them fields.

OJR: How did Silver Stringers get started?

JD: I happened to know of this new senior center and I said, "Why don't we go out and see if there is some kind of a research project that we can do with them?" And so we sat with a dozen people ? only two of whom had computers, neither of which was connected to the Internet. And we basically said we were willing to do some sort of collaboration with you. And whatever you wanted to do, we'll see what we can work out. And they were the ones that, even though they had very little feel of what it meant to go online, they were the ones who said, "Well, we want to be on the cutting edge." Those were the exact words they used at one of our first meetings: "cutting edge."

So they learned some from us, some from each other and just learning from one another how to do computing. Except for two of them, they had no experience with journalism. Two of them had done some freelance work -- reviews, that type of thing.

OJR: So they had to learn both the technology and the journalism?

JD: Right. And, in fact, interesting that you perceived that, because that's exactly the way we presented it. We set up a sort of a regimen where we would go up there. For a while we went up once a week, or once every two weeks, I guess. And one week I would do a journalism workshop and the next week a student that we had assigned to this project would do a technical workshop.

So we literally taught them how to use Microsoft. That I can remember, the very first technical lesson. We said everything starts with "start." I mean, that's how elemental we had to get. Now they're pros, I mean they can walk circles around me in the technical side.

OJR: Do you remember the first story they did?

JD: Well, let's see. What I remember is they said, "Well, how do we get started?" And Walter Bender said, "I'm going to be coming back in two weeks. Why don't each of you bring a story? And I don't care whether you bring it on a disk or typewritten or handwritten. We'll worry about, you know, how it gets shrunk here to there, but I want each of you to bring a story."

And so at this point we had about 15 people and we had had, I think, three meetings before they published. And I have to think for a minute to remember what the first few stories were.

OJR: Were they about each other or their communities?

JD: They tend to do some remembrance kinds of things, some live things. They like to do people stories. I've got the minutes of the meetings for seven years here. In June of 1993, one person did a crossword puzzle. I'm not sure if this is exactly the first issue. But a woman had visited and viewed the volcano on Hawaii at night from a boat and she wrote about that and had pictures. Another one had just come back from a trip to Antarctica and then she wrote about that. There were five poems.

Another person and her husband wrote a terrific story on driving across country in an Airstream travel trailer. The title of it was, "A Little House on Wheels." Another story was about a local order of nuns who were celebrating their 150th anniversary of their order.

OJR: How many stories did they produce in a typical month or so?

JD: Well, they actually tried to restrict the number of the published to about 20. Yeah. If they get 40 or 30 stories, they'll hold them back. In fact, they're usually holding back a few stories. Their theory is that, you know, the reader can only absorb so much and some of their stories are kind of lengthy. Not all of them, but some of them are real lengthy.

OJR: What's the editorial process? Is it very democratic?

JD: Totally democratic. This is prototypical community in the sense that it's a flat organization with no hierarchy to the degree that they have formal meetings every Wednesday that last about three hours. Someone's got to run the meeting, right? The way they do it is alphabetical. Everybody in the group does two weeks in a row, and the next person on the alphabet runs the meeting. In terms of editing, I think that's one of the key elements of this process.

We designed the software to support a process of editing. We set up a system that mirrors an office in a sense that there are baskets where you have an "in" basket, an "out" basket, an "interoffice" basket and a "mail" basket, whatever. And so what we set up was a personal basket. You have your own personal basket that only you can access. And you can write your stories in this basket and you can save stories and photos and notes or whatever you want in your basket. Once you write a story, you then send it to the editor's basket. When the stories go into the editor's basket, their rule of thumb is that each story has to be edited by three different editors. And interestingly, all of our community groups have come to the same conclusion.

OJR: That's pretty rigorous.

JD: They do go through the stories pretty carefully. And so they have a system whereby the editors, one editor will go through it and we have a section at the bottom of the stories where you could put notes. The reporter can put a note in that says, "I don't care what you're doing within my story, but leave the last paragraph." And the editor can put a note in saying, "I've edited the story as of Nov. 6," and then sign in (his or her name).

And then the next editor knows that it's his or her turn to edit it and they put a note when they're finished. When the three editors finish, the third editor sends it to the publishing basket, and at that point it's ready to go.

OJR: Once it's up on the site, is there something that your colleagues at the Globe would check from time to time for story ideas?

JD: They should. I don't know if they do.

OJR: Did you ever hear from people at the Globe saying, "This is fine, but they aren't really journalists?"

JD: No. The Globe, without any prompting from me, has written a couple stories about this group and what they're doing. And the local newspaper, which is a weekly, has developed an arrangement of story sharing, and it works out fairly well. Each one, you know, from time to time will plug a story from the other one and use it.

OJR: So they become real stringers.

JD: Yeah.

OJR: What about Junior Journal programs for junior high and high school students?

JD: In both Italy and Brazil, the newspapers sponsor our programs. So in Italy, we got a pretty good-sized paper in the second or third term. They have a Web site called KataWeb. And if you go to that Web site there's a link at the top (to news produced by junior high students). You can click on the junior high school or you can click on the high school and you will get a page filled with those schools' newspapers. So some of the news gets brought up to the front page of the newspaper.

OJR: How many schools in Italy are involved in this?

JD: Would you believe over 4,000?

OJR: You mentioned you have Junior Journal programs in Brazil, too.

JD: A couple of us went down and met with maybe a couple hundred teachers and sort of explained how this worked and then took a little bit of school bureaucracy to get it to the point where they could put it into practice. They've been going out for about, I would say, a year. They have over a hundred schools in an area called Curtiba and they have plans to move this out to schools in the southern Brazil region. The director of the online site told me that they would like to do it in the whole country if they can do it.

OJR: Do you have a sense from New England, from Italy, from Brazil how community computing starts to change or interact with the community?

JD: It's really hard for me to know at this point. Each one seems a little different. For instance, we had a little project going in Thailand where we went to five villages and some MIT students were invited to these small villages, one of which had only 600 people, to see what they could do to improve the education system. As an illustration, a couple of villages where they had a central building, the kids would work in the fields until 1 p.m. or 2 p.m. and they would do their schooling in this community building.

So we decided to use the Silver Stringer software as a way to help them learn how to research and write. And it was going really well and the kids were very excited. They published the first day they saw the software. That's how easy to use it is, which is one of the big strengths of the system. What was interesting, parents became skeptical because the kids were having such a good time. So the parents pulled the kids out and so we can't do that.

We had set up a satellite, probably used it for transmission, so the kids grumbled so much that the parents -- I'm getting this secondhand of course because I was not there -- the parents decided to go down, since it's a community building, to see what it was all about. So they went down and discovered the Internet and the possibilities that it had and why their kids were so excited. And then they realized that they could sell some of the trinkets they were making miles and miles away using the Internet. So, a commercial application actually grew out of it. This was about four years ago.

So that's how it worked there. We have some small projects going and just starting in Mexico and Costa Rica. Those are going to be interesting. What the impact is going to be, I don't think I know enough to give a good example or good answer to the question.

OJR: Not geographical communities, certainly.

JD: Right, that's what I meant.

OJR: You talked a bit about the impact of computing on communities. What about the effect on journalism? Aside from creating new stringers ... thousands of new stringers, maybe even more than thousands now.

JD: Yeah. I think there's no doubt that at both the junior journalism level and adult level that one thing we want is that those people who are participating have a much better appreciation of traditional media and are much more critical. So we find they are writing letters and doing that kind of thing quite a bit.

There has not been a huge amount of attention paid to some of the stories. That isn't to say that the traditional media or the other side of the equation are not picking up stories that much.

OJR: Is there a bit of advice or lesson that you would offer to professional journalists about community?

JD: Well, you know, one of the most successful historic programs in newspapers are what they call "newspapers in the classroom," where newspapers make bulk deliveries of the product to schools, which use it as a teaching tool. They use the foreign news to help teach history, they use the business page and sports statistics to teach mathematics. Newspapers around the country have developed programs to teach the teachers how to use the newspapers as a vehicle. And that program has been working very well, with a result, I think, that is nurturing future readers.

By the same token, I think that the newspapers should be, particularly among children and teenagers, should be sponsoring programs to develop a bond between themselves and the younger community. We hear all these complaints that young people aren't reading our newspapers, but what are they doing about it?

A perfect way to do it is to sponsor these programs that really don't cost anything. The cost of the software is pennies, and so all the community group has to do is have a place to come together. So with a little bit of imagination, I think the media, whether it's print or broadcast, can really do a lot for these programs.

OJR: And maybe get a lot of terrific stories.

JD: And get a lot of terrific stories and a much better sense of what's going on in sort of the nooks and crannies in communities where we just don't have enough reporters to report everything.

OJR: Is there anything you would like to add?

JD: I guess there is one thing. Sort of an answer to the Buddhist question, "Why do you do it?" On the senior side, there is a lot of research on the effects of socialization on older people, and in fact, there's a book called "Keep Your Brain Young," that is written by Marilyn Albert from Harvard and Guy M. McKhann of Johns Hopkins University.

Albert did a 10-year study in which she found that seniors who are engaged in some sort of social activity actually add years to their lives. So there's no question on my mind that this an extremely healthy exercise for older people. But for younger people, it does a lot to promote their own self-assurance and their own self values because they're doing things together. They have to, they want to be heard on subjects that normally people won't listen to them about in homes and in schools, taking on the most difficult issues.

If you read some of these stories kids write about AIDS, teenage suicides, Bosnian war, you name it and they're on top of it because they want to be heard on these subjects. So it promotes a sense of hope. There's actually a study done by Pepperdine College on junior journalism over a long period of time. They looked at every single story, I think, over a 10-month period, and showed how these stories reflected hope on the part of the youth.

So there're a lot of positive things that flow from this process, because these kids are writing about subjects in which they realize that the problems they have are similar to the problems that kids have in just about every culture.

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Jack Driscoll: "Average citizens had no printing presses in their cellars, no broadcast networks to tap into. Now they do."

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