Q&A with the mystery man behind #Quakebook

It’s been more than a month since a 9.0 magnitude earthquake rocked Japan, triggering a massive tsunami, the combination of which have killed thousands. And while the country is slowing putting itself together, under the looming dangers of a potential nuclear disaster, there are many organizations — and individuals — coming together to help in any way they can.

For this week’s post, I chatted with Our Man in Abiko, an international man of mystery behind #Quakebook, a crowdsourced project to help those affected by the devastation.

NOTE: The Q&A was done through e-mail over a course of a couple of weeks.

First, for those who don’t know about it, can you describe what the #Quakebook is, how it came about and your role?

Quakebook coverQuakebook is a Twitter-sourced anthology of first-person accounts of the earthquake and immediate aftermath. It was conceived, written and ready to publish as a fully designed PDF book within a week. It has 89 contributions from “real” people as well as 4 from celebs solicited thru Twitter – William Gibson, Yoko Ono, Barry Eisler and Jake Adelstein.

It is not a collection of tweets, but mostly one-page essays.

I thought of it in the shower Friday morning, March 18th thinking that wouldn’t it be great to do in words what mash-up videos can do on YouTube, especially @fatblueman’s Christmas in Japan video. Check it out, you’ll see what I mean. [The video: http://youtu.be/lmCrIZeob4w]

No-one has received a penny. We got Amazon to waive their fees so ALL revenue goes to the Red Cross. Pinch me, I’m dreaming.

Oh, my role? I’m cheerleader in chief, marshaller of the troops and getter-arounder of problems. Don’t like titles!

NOTE: Our Man recently did a video recently sharing the story of Quakebook: http://youtu.be/cQ_-3-wwLKs

Once you had this idea, how did you go about starting this? Can you talk about the crowdsourcing process?

I had no plan as such. Every time I hit a wall, I asked the good folk of Twitter to give me a leg up 🙂

The original tweets and stuff are all on quakebook.org and www.ourmaninabiko.com

Talk about the “real” people that contributed to the collection. Have you ever met them? What journalism skills did you apply in collecting their stories?

The real people started with whoever sent me email from around the world, supplemented by my neighbours, my wife and mother-in-law, and also I got my wife to chase down eyewitness accounts from devastated areas through blogs.

The celebs we picked up along the way. The highly unscientific approach has somehow created a snapshot of many disparate elements of the disaster.

I kept in anything that was sent and was not a rant or shopping list. (There were only two like this).

What is your ideal goal you hope to achieve with this book?

I want it to raise oodles and noodles of cash for the Red Cross, but beyond that, I want it to serve as a valuable historical record to answer the question: What happened at 2:46 on March 11, much like John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” answers What happened on Aug. 6, 1945.

What has been the best part of this project?

The therapy of writing and sharing what we have written; seeing the whole project becoming stronger than its constituent parts.

What has surprised you about the process? What’s been the highlight?

How the weekend stops dead any progress with the traditional publishing industry, while the reverse is true of us amateurs. The highlight? Seeing a tweet from someone that they had downloaded the book, and cried. I then did the same and got teary eyed too.

What do you think about those reluctant to use crowdsourcing in storytelling, particularly in journalism. Any advice to them?

Trust people to deliver, and they will. If you get sidetracked by someone with their own agenda, or who doesn’t get the point of the project, don’t waste your time, find someone who does. Behave morally and you will quickly attract the right kind to whatever your project is, if it has merit.

Can you tell me what you did prior to this project? What were you doing in Japan? Talk about Our Man In Abiko.

I’m a British self-employed English language teacher, 40. I’m a former local newspaper journalist. My wife is Japanese and we’ve been here since 2007. Got two kids. My favourite colour is red.

Our Man in Abiko began as a satirical blog on Japanese politics, and became a persona to keep me sane.

Since the earthquake, I realised Our Man was needed to perform Churchillian tasks of rallying the dispirited to overcome our woes.

What is the backstory with Our Man in Abiko? What’s your name and what brought you to Japan?

Not saying. It’s not my story that’s interesting, it’s Japan’s.

Clearly the book is the focus, but “Our Man In Abiko” is a man of mystery. People are naturally going to ask, “who is this guy?” What can you tell them?

He likes Earl Grey tea, playing with his kids and world domination, you know, the usual.

[After more prodding]

OK, well, the Our Man persona began just as a joke on my blog, I took on the mantle of a redundant British agent sent to monitor the wilds of Tokyo commuterville… But then with the earthquake, suddenly the time for fun was long gone, but I realised I had a fictional character who could do great things. I could not muster the troops and build a resistance movement to the earthquake, but maybe Our Man in Abiko could.

Well, Our Man, congratulations on the success with this project. How and where can people find it?

All details are on http://www.quakebook.org and you can buy the book now here: http://amzn.to/quakebook for Kindle (you can download a free Kindle player for PC, Mac and Smart phones there too.)

Thanks for chatting with me. And good luck on this and other endeavors.

Thanks a lot.

Robert Hernandez is a Web Journalism professor at USC Annenberg and co-creator of #wjchat, a weekly chat for Web Journalists held on Twitter. You can contact him by e-mail ([email protected]) or through Twitter (@webjournalist). Yes, he’s a tech/journo geek.

If you can't manage comments well, don't offer comments at all

I’ve long advocated that newspapers include comment sections on their online stories, to provide readers with the opportunity to discuss, extend or even correct those news articles. Independent news websites and bloggers have used comment functionality to build large and loyal audiences, who by their participation can help the publisher provide more, and more accurate, information to the larger, non-commenting community.

Unfortunately, even after all these years, too many newspaper comment sections don’t live up to that ideal. The unmoderated comment sections in many of the local newspapers I read remain cesspools where the most bigoted, selfish and crass individuals in a community find a welcoming platform to verbally assault readers.

So I’m taking this opportunity to change my advice: If, after all these years publishing online, you still can’t manage the trolls in your comments, don’t offer comments at all. Shut down that functionality. Leave online community to bloggers and other publishers in the community who can manage them responsibly.

To that end, here are Robert’s Revised Rules for comments on online news story pages:

1. If the author of an article isn’t willing or able to participate in the discussion about that article, no opportunity for discussion should be offered on the site.

Someone must provide leadership in any online community. And that’s what a comments section is, a forum for your publication’s reader community. If you aren’t willing to assume that leadership, someone in the community will, and, unfortunately, that’s often whatever bully who can’t find an open forum anyplace else.

Don’t leave this job to some other staff member, such as a producer in the online department. At this point, people in your town have plenty of places online to discuss your publication’s articles: Facebook, Twitter, Craigslist, community blogs and forums, etc. The one thing – the only thing – a discussion on your site about a specific article or post has that they don’t is the author of that article or post. That individual needs to be one monitoring and participating in the discussion.

Otherwise, you lose the crowd-sourcing benefit that an online community can provide, and lose the opportunity to offer your readers the one benefit no competitor can – the chance to converse with your writers.

It’s like being in high school and throwing a party. If you can get the prom queen and the class president at your party, why wouldn’t you? If you don’t, everyone’s just going to go to the party down the street instead.

2. Once you open an article up to comments, you have a responsibility to manage them.

Newspaper websites fell behind online start-ups in managing communities because newsrooms staffs remained primarily concerned with producing news stories, as they always have. Many online publishers and bloggers, however, lacking news staffs, first concerned themselves with cultivating a discussion with their readers.

In other words, on newspaper websites, when the article goes up, that’s the end of the production process. On community-focused websites, when the article goes up, that’s the beginning.

If a newspaper is going to open articles on its site to comment and discussion, its reporters will have to do both jobs – produce the article and manage the discussion. This required fundamental rethinking of a reporter’s job. If a news publisher is not willing to support that change with training, guidance, evaluation and reward, then it shouldn’t pretend to go there in the first place.

3. Online news publishing systems should allow discussions to be enabled or disabled for individual authors, or even articles.

In every large newsroom I’m worked with, or walked through, over the past decade, there have been some folks eager and able to take on the responsibility of leading a reader community and others who would rather keep doing their jobs the way they’ve always done.

Not enabling comments denies the first group the chance to build a more engaged and loyal audience for the publication. But turning comments on without buy-in form the second group leaves those comments open to unchecked rants from community wackos.

Handle comments on an individual basis, then, allowing leaders within the newsroom to establish models for those in the second group to watch, learn and, ultimately, follow.

Flexibility with comments in the publishing system also allows writers and editors to turn off comments for pieces that they consider inappropriate for discussion, or even ones published at times when the author won’t be available to moderate.

4. Silencing people terminates your relationship with them.

How should a writer manage a discussion of his or her work? The simplest approach is to delete any comments that the writer deems offensive, and let the others remain. But when you delete a comment, you send its author a message that you don’t care to have him or her in your community.

Perhaps that’s appropriate. But don’t forget that you’re trying to build a community here. While that involves kicking out destructive voices now and then, ultimately, you need to model for your community how to engage with people who aren’t posting in a thoughtful and responsible manner. That way, your community can learn how to handle the job of policing itself.

When someone starts to rant, challenge him or her. Ask why. Interview that person, as you would any source. Try to elicit a story. In my experience, often a hostile person is angry over something specific that’s happened to him or her and simply failing to direct that anger. Ask, and often I find I can get those people to calm down, open up and engage in a responsible conversation.

Of course, that doesn’t always happen. Some people are too far gone with their anger to engage in an online community in a responsible manner. Some folks simply are foul-mouthed bigots and unwilling to change. But when you banish those voices, others in the community will see that you tried – and, more importantly, how you tried – to engage them first. That wins loyalty… and models appropriate behavior for all participants.

5. Criticizing your work is not inappropriate behavior. Most sites ban anyone who makes threats or attacks others on the site. As they should. But writing that you, or some other writer on the site did a lousy job isn’t an attack. It’s criticism, and you need to know the difference if you’re going to manage an online community responsibly. (Especially when those critics are correct.) Banning people simply for criticizing staff members is the surest way to force everyone to that other party down the street.

Notice that I’ve written nothing about anonymous comments. Or whether comments should be held for review before publication. That’s not because I don’t care about those issues, or don’t have an opinion. I do. But I’ve also found that an individual publication’s stand on those issues doesn’t determine whether it manages its comment community successfully or not. I’ve seen great discussions with and without anonymous posters. As well as lousy ones. I’ve seen great conversations both with and without prior review. And lousy ones, too.

The determining factor in quality is not anonymity or prior review. It is always leadership, or the lack of it. If publishers will not accept the responsibility of leadership in their communities, they should at least shut down their comments and defer that leadership to other publishers within their community, instead of letting that leadership fall to the cranks, bigots and profane who pollute unmoderated comment sections online.

Lessons for online journalists from #CNNFail and the Iran uprising

As Iranians took to the streets over the weekend to protest the country’s recent election, thousands of users of Twitter were staging a protest of their own: against CNN for not devoting as much attention to the Iranian situation as Twitter users wanted.

The hashtag #CNNFail became one of the top trending topics on Twitter Saturday night, as Twitterers expressed their outrage over CNN airing repeats of feature interviews instead of live coverage of the protests.

On Saturday, I retweeted this comment from @pinoy2com: “#CNNfail is 4th most Tweeted keyword. A turning point for audiences signaling what they wanted covered by mainstream?”

Indeed. The virtual protest provided several valuable lessons for online journalists who wish to retain the respect and loyalty of their audiences in an increasingly interactive world. Here are 10 lessons from #CNNFail:

1) People still want news

Let’s not forget amid the culture of failure that’s consuming our industry that people still crave news about their community, and their world. They care. Don’t buy into the stereotype of modern individuals living in their own high-tech media cocoons.

That said, just because something runs in a newspaper or on a news website doesn’t make it newsworthy to the public. People are turning away from print editions and evening news broadcasts because they have more choices and because the information offered by traditional news outlets too often doesn’t measure up in information quality. Don’t mistake a public rejection of lazy reporting by over-stretched newsrooms that didn’t hire enough reporters with expertise in their fields as a rejection of the news. It is merely a rejection of cheap journalism conventionally packaged as news.

2) People want international news

Community news may be the foundation of traditional news reporting, but with the Internet linking like-minded people from around the globe, and immigration bringing people from many lands into readers’ hometowns, the geography of “community” is expanding for many readers. As immigration and the Internet introduces us to people from around the world, readers are more likely to feel a personal connection with news from those communities.

Again, don’t buy into a stereotype that people, especially Americans, don’t care about the world beyond their nations’ borders. They do… when there is real news to be told. (See point 1.)

3) People will get upset when they don’t find news where they expect it

On one level, #CNNFail speaks to the esteem with which many viewers held the news network. They expected CNN to cover this story, as it developed.

They didn’t expect that from Fox News, a propaganda arm of the Republican party’s right-wing with no track record of providing accurate and credible original reporting. Nor did they expect it, as much, from MSNBC, which is more widely known for its U.S. domestic political commentary (in the mornings from the right and the evenings from the left) than for international reporting.

CNN has delivered sharp international reporting in the past, and people expected the network to deliver it again. Once you’ve established a reputation for high quality, you have a responsibility to continue living up to that or else have your once-loyal consumers turn on you.

4) People will go wherever they need to get news

With CNN delivering reruns and feature interviews during the first night of the protests, people turned to what sources did deliver the news they wanted. And that turned out to be… each other, enabled by social networking tools such as Twitter and Facebook. By using retweets and hashtags, the public became a virtual distribution networks for what information did trickle from Tehran that evening, either from amateur sources on the ground, or traditional news outlets such as the BBC that were feeding substantial coverage to the Web.

The challenge for news organizations, or even for solo publishers online, is to be able to provide that news channel when the public wants it, in a forum where people can find it. Fortunately, for cash-strapped newsrooms, we have lesson 5…

5) People want to participate in the news

People don’t just want news, they want to engage with it. This lesson should be obvious to any writer: Our craft is saturated with advice about “engaging” readers and “drawing them in” to a narrative. The best news doesn’t leave the reader as a passive observer, but brings him or her into the story, so that he or she can relate to it.

The Internet allows journalists to bring reader participation to an explicit level. The lure of Twitter lies in its invitation to the reader to become an actor in its narratives, to use their own status updates, retweets and replies to become one of the story-tellers, rather than remain a passive consumer.

Not everyone engages this option. But the fact that it is there, and one can see others engaging it, empowers even those who never tweet themselves.

So why not take advantage of this, to cover for your news organization’s lack of resources?

6) If you can’t afford to cover the world 24/7, empower your viewers and readers to help cover it for you

Yes, the devil’s in the details here in decided how such a system might be implemented, but too many news organizations today aren’t yet ready to even consider the idea of empowering readers to determine coverage. Let #CNNFail teach them the hazards of failing to do that. Yes, in an ideal newsroom, a robust network of foreign bureaus would stand ready to cover the news whenever it happens, and even small local papers would staff 24/7, but let’s face it, too few news organizations have that anymore.

I’m not suggesting that you merely turn over a section of your homepage to reader tweets. Or simply employ a Digg-like voting system to allow readers to move content toward the top of the page. Potential for spam and abuse is strong, and if there’s a lesson we’ve tried over the years to drive home to you on OJR, it’s that journalists need to cultivate communities before they should expect any meaningful content to spring from them.

So, let’s move to lesson 7.

7) Create and test a system for reader submissions and page editing before a crisis happens

A newsroom’s own employees must be the initial members of its online community. Empower them to post to the site directly, and to vote up others’ posts. Then extend that power to thoughtful commenters and other site visitors as you scale this feature to the point where it can be open to all readers, with the community policing itself.

Find how people try to abuse the system, then adapt the environment to withstand that. It takes time and programming skill – don’t pretend it won’t, and don’t shy away from paying for that. But the power you unleash with a well-designed and carefully cultivated reader community is the power to prevent #CNNFail and to provide the forum that readers want during important news events, no matter when or where they happen.

That brings me to two lessons not directly related to #CNNFail, but very much following the uprising:

8) Plan for rerouting news to the public should a medium fail or be blocked

If you want to be a force in your community, whether that be a single town or the entire world, you must be able to deliver your content. You’ll lose your audience if a government can block your website, or a lightning strike can take our your server.

The beauty of the Internet was its design as a distributed network, one that could route around any single point (or multiple points) of failure. Proxy hosting can help for large sites, but take this opportunity to rethink your approach to services like Facebook and Twitter, as well. These shouldn’t be afterthoughts in a promotional strategy. They can provide alternative distribution networks at times when circumstances force your news off the Web.

9) Plan for rerouting info from the public, as well

Information flows both ways now, especially so once you’ve engaged a reader community to start providing substantial content. In the weeks to come, I expect to see detailed analyses of how Iranians were able (or not) to overcome government efforts to block the flow of information within and out of the country. Someone in your organization should be geek enough to find and understand them, because these will be the additional lessons you must learn.

Another message I retweeted on Saturday, from @TeteSagehen: “Iranian regime tries to shut down Twitter, but API structure allows for endless workarounds by clever ppl. APIs = Freedom”

10) Close the loop by reporting on your efforts

You don’t need to do this on your own. Readers can, and will, help news organizations when those readers feel that their thoughtful input is welcomed, and respected. Tell them that you’re hearing the lessons from #CNNFail and want to learn from them. Report upon your progress in this process to involve your readership and create a distributed 24/7 news source that can’t be lost or blocked, by ill will or by Mother Nature.

There are great stories, and great resources, in any community. Let’s take #CNNFail as a reminder that we need to find them, and embrace them, before circumstances give our once-loyal readers and viewers another excuse to turn away.