Fancy a bwiki?

Social networks and the news: what could that be?

Well, newspapers could begin by opening their stories and analysis to reader comments, right under the story instead of solely on the letters page. They could invite readers to periodically pose questions to journalists directly about how stories get written; politicians, celebrities or newsmakers could respond to reader questions; editors could explain news priorities.

Readers could rate stories, pictures, videos and reader comments, and they could get alerts when particular readers make comments or when particular news items come up for discussion. Readers could make suggestions about stories they believe need coverage. Newspaper discussion groups could chat about movies, automobiles or sports with staff and wire copy providing the fodder.

These are comparatively simple services to deploy. But as yet, little experimentation with even these simple services exists among newspapers. And there is such potential for developing relationships with readers.

Newspapers could support reader blogs about everything and anything, drawing bloggers’ friends and admirers to the site and developing a community around the news. They could encourage blogs from under-represented areas. They could engage and support hyperlocal journalism initiatives.

Newspapers could develop their own blogs, with local volunteers running a community blog, perhaps organised through local libraries. Data streams from weather services and transport companies could provide real time information on the weather and train, bus and airline times, with real-time updating on delays and late arrivals.

Local schools could announce ‘snow days’ through the web. A wiki could allow residents to write the history of their town. Some information could be incorporated directly from the U.S. Census and other sites like Wikipedia.

This bwiki could be a one-stop shop for all local information, from what movies are playing at the local cinema to the service times in the local Unitarian church. Residents could read, write and discuss the news, or any of their interests. Tourists could check the town’s history, its highlights and relevant travel information.

Sound improbable? This combination of all relevant local information, allied with resident participation was the original idea behind UK property website In the U.S., some city officials are opening sites to get important information, not covered by the MSM, to residents.

Most of these services exist in one form or another already, but they are dispersed across multiple websites or technologies. New technologies for disseminating information, like podcasts, for example, are emerging all the time.

Software can automatically import much of this data, like local weather forecasts and transport timetables, and with XML adoption this type of data collection will become easier. Capturing relevant data across many networks and services is the fundamental logic behind RSS and Konfabulator, the widget manager. Add in a local journalism site like Northwest Voice and you have a comprehensive address offering all local information and the opportunity to network.

This is not only about responding to threats; it’s also about providing better service and more relevant information to readers.

Newspapers are already thinking in these terms. In a Wired News piece by Leander Kahney, Ralph Terkowitz, vice president of technology at the Washington Post, outlined different hypothetical scenarios for developing social networks around the news. For example, there could be a discussion group on world politics or a book club in the arts pages.

With new technologies and media channels developing all the time, it won’t be too long before people can easily set up a website that automatically culls relevant information from a wide variety of sources, with volunteers filling in the rest of the details.

It might not work. There are technical issues, and it will require time and money, as well as an active volunteer group to work. There are decency and partisanship issues. The local Catholic Church might object to its news appearing on the same site as Gay Pride, and vice-versa. Defamation, slander and inaccuracy could be problems.

But these are not new problems, and newspapers need to work hard to sustain their relevance in a rapidly changing publishing landscape. This might be one way to do it. But whatever happens, newspapers need to do something to respond to citizens’ desire for relevant, timely information.

So, now, fancy a bwiki?

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